Monday, September 1, 2008

Battle of the Study Bibles: NLT vs ESV, Part 1

Back on August 8th, the ESV Study Bible Blog posted a preview of the entire Book of Jonah with study notes from their forthcoming study bible.  Esteban expressed interest in a comparative review of Jonah in both the ESV Study Bible and the new NLT Study Bible.  Since I recently acquired an NLT Study Bible (many thanks to Laura Bartlett at Tyndale), I decided to compare the two.  Since then, I see that the NLT Study Bible Blog has posted a long list of others who have done reviews and TC Robinson has done a good comparison placing some of the notes from both side by side and commenting on them.  My remarks will be more general.

First, let me say that both of these study bibles appear to be excellent choices if you're looking for a new study bible.  In this review, I plan to focus mainly on the study notes of each bible since you can find discussions of the relative merits of each translation elsewhere.  (For the NLT, I recommend Rick Mansfield's lengthy post.  For the ESV, they link to many testimonials at the ESV Bible Blog.) 

The argument over which translation is "better" often comes down to personal preference.  No translation is perfect (except for the KJV 1611), so we can all find individual verses where each gave a rendering that was less readable or slightly inaccurate.  I personally prefer formally equivalent versions like the KJV, ESV, and NASB for my own reading.  Part of that is because I was raised speaking "Biblish" and I like the retained KJV-like phrasings of the ESV.  I also read the biblical languages, so I like the transparency back to my critical Hebrew and Greek texts.

The claim that the ESV is more "readable" depends on the reader.  Yes, it's more readable than the NASB usually, but the NLT uses more natural contemporary language that people who didn't grow up learning Biblical idioms like me find easier to understand.  The NLT also removes the need for some study notes because they already updated things like time and date (i.e., Ezek 1:1 in NLT).  If you're looking for a new translation, check out the ESV or the NLT for yourself.

In comparing the ESV and NLT Study Bibles, I looked over the NLT first.  I have the finished product to examine instead of just a printout of Jonah.  I agree with Jeff's comments at Scripture Zealot about the book itself.  The bleed-thru can be significant and distracting because the pages are very very thin.  However, it has 12 pages of full color maps, a timeline, and a diagram of the Second Temple at the back.  It also has an extensive 118 page Dictionary/Concordance, a 142 page subject index, and an 11 page Hebrew/Greek word study dictionary and index.  The comments about the common mistakes committed with word studies are very helpful, and I may post a longer discussion of that section in the future.

The introduction is thorough, but (like any Study Bible for the masses) they make some uncertain, messy decisions that scholars have made about the text sound like they're clean, clear, and concrete (see "Outline", p. A9).  I liked the Master Timeline (pp. A20-A25) and the Introduction to the Old Testament.  I also liked the fact that the issue of authorship in the Pentateuch is discussed, rather than just dismissed or ignored.  I appreciate that they at least mention the work of critical scholarship, even if they disagree.  A lot of study bibles simply list a book's traditional author (like Proverbs and Solomon) and then move on (i.e., my ESV Scofield III). 

For Jonah, they make the distinction that Jonah is the main character, but he may not have been the author.  "Jonah may have written the book, though whether he wrote it or not does not affect its integrity as Scripture" (p. 1475).  Too often the issue of authorship becomes a controversial issue because people believe that a book's status as Scripture is dependent on having an absolutely correct identification of the author (almost always, we must defend the traditional author against all attacks).  For the most part, biblical books were anonymous.  The Pentateuch may have started with Moses but others had a hand in its composition and transmission.  The same goes for much of the Hebrew Bible.  Many hands make light work.  While tending to support traditional conclusions (such as Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), the NLT Study Bible at least acknowledges the fact that the OT was written down over a period of at least 1000 years and that we don't know many of the contributors (p. 4).

To be continued...

HT:  The Voice of Stefan


  1. Excellent, Doug! Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Yeah, what Esteban said! Although I won't be commenting on it (I'm violating my conscience by leaving this one). ;-)

  3. I appreciated what you had to say about the discussions of authorship. Many of the comments like the one about Jonah on p. 1475 were designed precisely to address the issue you raise, which is that many people think the Bible stands and falls on traditional authorship. It doesn't, but we needed to provide some pastoral guidance for folks so that they could process what we're saying in places like this.

  4. Sean,

    Thanks for the comment. I think the kind of pastoral guidance you mention coupled with a real engagement with issues raised by biblical scholarship makes the NLT Study Bible a great resource for lay people. Authorship is a touchy subject but it's better to educate people about the arguments and give them answers than just ignore the issue.

  5. Douglas, great post, and thanks for the link.

  6. Interesting! How do these compare to the Catholic Study Bible. It suggests that the text is post-exilic possibly 5 B.C.E.

  7. Andrew,
    I'm not familiar with the Catholic Study Bible. Dating Jonah to the post-exilic period wouldn't be unusual though for those who take it as a parable/fable type story. When we separate Jonah the prophet from Jonah the character in the story, it's easy to see how a story could be written down much later about an earlier figure. It happens all the time in the Second Temple Period. I'd never heard the date specifically to 5 BCE though. It would be interesting to know their reasoning for that. Too late of a date I would think.

  8. No translation is perfect (except for the KJV 1611)

    I really don't get that comment! The KJV of 1611 was an "English" translation itself.

  9. Paul,

    I tend to make offhand remarks that are meant to be taken facetiously. I'll usually put them in parentheses like that comment about the KJV.

    Basically, there's a small but vocal minority in fundamentalist Christianity that believes those who don't use the "Authorized Version" do not have the accurate words of God because the other translations have been corrupted and polluted by the devil himself. Just enter "av1611" into Google and you'll have plenty of reading material.

    Oh, and the Authorized Version isn't just any old KJV. It has to be the 1611 version. Most of our KJV's are the 1769 revision with modernized spelling.

    So my aside comment was a smart remark about the fact that some people think the KJV 1611 is, in fact, perfect. God re-inspired the translation because Scripture had been corrupted in transmission.

    One final note - I refer you to my post on detecting irony in my posts.