Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Battle of the Study Bibles: NLT vs ESV, Part 2

This is the next segment in my comparison of the Book of Jonah in the NLT Study Bible (NLTSB) and the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB).  The first segment focused mainly on the NLTSB generally with a few comments about translations.  I ended discussing the way the NLTSB discusses authorship issues.

The ESV Study Bible makes a similar distinction between the main character and the writer for Jonah, but it doesn't comment on what effect anonymity has on the integrity of Scripture as the NLTSB does.  I appreciated that extra comment in the NLTSB and felt it added an important point.

In general, I felt that the study notes for each translation were good but the depth and style of the notes seemed to roughly parallel the translation approach of each.  The NLTSB notes are more dynamic and written in a clear, natural style (giving the sense).  The ESVSB notes are more formal with a more academic tone (essentially literal). 

For the introductions, the NLTSB was more concise but still communicated the essential background clearly.  The introduction in the ESVSB was more formal and read more like a commentary.  By contrast, the NLTSB intro was much more satisfying in its clarity.  The NLTSB has a feature where a short paragraph giving the main theological point of the book leads off the introduction.  The intro felt more unified and flowed better.  The intro in the ESVSB has no lead-in and nothing particular unifies the sections besides a matter-of-fact style.  The reader is met first with "The title of the book is the name of the main character, Jonah" in the ESVSB versus the more engaging "Jonah is well-known and loved for the amazing and ironic events it recounts" in the NLTSB.

On the other hand, the more in-depth notes of the ESVSB would be appropriate for someone interested in formal bible study who wanted a mini-commentary.  The ESVSB includes a discussion of salvation history and neatly lays out the key themes of the book.  The discussions on genre and literary features include many useful things left out of the NLTSB introduction. 

So, I would recommend each study bible depending on your interest as a reader.  If you want clear, easy to understand notes that tell everything the average reader wants to know, the NLTSB gives you that.  If you're interested in more serious study, the ESVSB looks like it will provide more information of interest to you.

However, my primary litmus test for any study bible is whether or not it gives answers to the questions I have when I come to the text ... that's not really fair, I have questions that only occur to commentators and even then ... ok, my primary litmus test is whether or not it gives answers to the questions most serious students or average readers would have. 

So, in the third segment, I will discuss the text notes of NLTSB and ESVSB on Jonah - how thorough they are in answering important questions and how accurate the answers are.

[N.B.  I've noticed that Jeff at Scripture Zealot is maintaining a list of all reviews of the NLT Study Bible that appear on blogs, so you can go there to find many many other perspectives.]


  1. My comment is a question. You state it is speculative as to when Jonah chapter two was written. Some say "in" the belly-while it is possible later after he was spit up. True. Why do we think Jonah wrote the psalm? Could he not have been quoting it as he was drowning just before he died? Something to think about. Does the study bible actually discuss the possibility that Jonah died? Dr. Alan Mangum

  2. Your comment is referring to something I said in Part 3 about NLTSB offering speculation at times. I admit that it is a legitimate question to wonder how or when he composed the psalm, but a lot of the issue goes away when we grant that he might not have written it at all. I'm not familiar with the argument that it was quoted. If it was, it's a psalm that's not in our corpus of Psalms. The study bibles both describe him as having a near-death experience. I'm not familiar with the scholarship on Jonah overall enough to know if some argue he actually died. It would be an interesting interpretation (inspired no doubt by Jesus's use of Jonah as a sign) but the text does not say that Jonah died. The poem's mention of Sheol and the pit come close to implying it, but these study bibles don't discuss that. Their approach is that he was saved from almost dying or thought he was as good as dead.