Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Battle of the Study Bibles: NLT vs ESV, Part 3

Part 1  Part 2

Now, I'm ready to compare the study notes in the NLTSB with the ESVSB for the Book of Jonah.  I'm not going to give you a side-by-side look at some of the notes since that's already been done well.  This final post on these fine study bibles will focus on how thorough and accurate their notes are.  Notes related to interpretation of the Hebrew text will get more attention.

Many so-called study bibles are pretty stingy when it comes to study notes.  For Jonah ch. 1 (17 verses), ESVSB has 14 notes including 3 summary sections and a chart about the key word "evil, disaster."  NLTSB has 12 notes for the same section.  I compared this to my ESV Scofield III Study Bible - only 5 very brief notes and a barebones introduction.  So on the count of thoroughness, I think both ESVSB and NLTSB have done quite well.  I didn't count, but it looks like the majority of verses are covered by both study bibles.  It's annoying to have a question on a verse only to look down and find nothing in the notes.  That happens to me a lot using the ESV Scofield III, but it looks like I won't need to worry about that with these new study bibles.

The question of the accuracy of the notes is somewhat subjective.  Generally, I think both provide good information and nothing jumped out at me as unforgivably inaccurate.  However, both have tendencies that I felt detracted from the overall interpretation.  The NLTSB (at least for the notes on Jonah) has a tendency to offer irrelevant speculation about the text.  For example, the note on 1:5-6 reads:

"Jonah's ongoing sleep was perhaps induced by God to advance the crisis to a point where it was clear that the sailors' gods could not help (1:6)."

Objection! Irrelevant and speculative. Granted they couched it with "perhaps," but there's nothing in the text to suggest God induced Jonah's sleep.  They do something similar on 2:1-9 trying to explain how a well-structured literary poem such as ch. 2 could have been composed ad hoc by a man inside a fish: "it may have been composed after the event, as Jonah recalled his emotions and concerns."

The NLTSB for Jonah offers little in the way of notes based on an interpretation of the Hebrew.  The only notes I found discussing Hebrew words were "arranged for" in 1:17 and "the pit" in 2:6.  I find that it's always best to hang as little of your interpretation as possible on the grammar or lexicon of the original language.  This is where the ESVSB has gone wrong for Jonah. 

After stressing in the intro that Jonah was a historical narrative, not a parable or allegory, the note on 1:1 says that "Jonah will be true to his name. Son of Amittai means 'son of my faithfulness'; Jonah will remain the object of God's faithful love."  The historical main character has a thematically relevant surname.  You may as well call him "Pilgrim." (see Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, an allegory).

I get annoyed with attempts to overly theologize the grammar of the original languages.  For myriad examples of this in practice, see Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek.  The ESVSB does this a lot in Jonah.  For 1:2, the Hebrew word ra'ah which can mean "evil" OR "calamity, disaster" leads to the statement that the "Ninevites were evil, and they were in line for disaster." This is technically true, but we learn it from context in the book of Jonah, not from knowing that ra'ah can mean both "evil" and "disaster." 

Then for 1:3, the repetition of "Tarshish" is used "to underscore that Jonah is not going to Nineveh."  Repetition doesn't necessarily indicate "emphasis."  Emphasis is kind of a catch-all category that has become meaningless because it's used too often to explain things that don't need to be explained.  It's possible the note was intended simply to indicate that Tarshish was explicitly identified in each clause to avoid ambiguity and confusion over where he was going.  However, it's not clear that was what was intended.

In 3:3b, the ESVSB note takes "an exceedingly great city" (which literally is "a great city to/for God/gods") and concludes that "Nineveh is important to God and will be the recipient of his great compassion."  Again, that's technically true looking at the story from the perspective of the end, but the implication of italicizing great in that statement is that the Heb word used for "great city" is also used in Jonah for the "great compassion" that God will have.  But out of the 14 times it is used, it never refers to God as having great mercy or great compassion.  It's not used related to God at all.  (For more on the size of Nineveh based on Jonah 3:3, go here.)

What I found to be the worst misuse of Hebrew in ESVSB Jonah was in the note for 3:5 - "Believed is the first word of the Hebrew text of the sentence, and the grammar underscores the immediacy of Nineveh's repentance."  Believed is the first word because the verb form is waw-consecutive, the usual narrative past.  I was unaware that the use of waw-consecutive implied any sort of immediacy.  It is simply the verb form that carries the story along from one action to the next.  It always leads off the sentence and while the waw-consecutive can imply sequence, I think it's too much to read in immediacy.

The NLTSB got off easy on this point by simply not basing interpretations on issues of language and grammar.  I'm sure those of you sympathetic to the approach of the ESVSB who think theology is encoded in grammar will disagree with me, but I think the ESVSB has overdone it on Jonah.

I look forward to the release of the complete ESV Study Bible so that I can get a better feel for the entire project, but what I've seen so far leads me to think it will be a worthwhile addition to the study bible market. 

I'm very pleased with the quality and style of the study notes from the NLT Study Bible. I think it would be a great choice for anyone looking to buy a new study bible right now based on one of the newer translations.


  1. Great series! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It's been fascinating to see so many different responses to the SB materials.

    The author of the ESVSB Jonah notes contacted me a few weeks ago and mentioned several things about the process, perhaps most notably was the word limits imposed on them. I wonder if the "lexicon theology" as you've noted here was perhaps a result of trying to get as much information in as possible.

    Also, I'd be interested to get your thoughts on the relative strength of the inline notes vs. the introductory materials. As word counts limit the scope of what can be presented inline, the preface essay(s) carry more weight, even though the casual user may never flip beyond the scripture passage they have in mind.

  2. Excellent post! The problem of the maximalism and minimalism about the original languages is popular. Thank you

  3. Elshaddai,

    I don't find word count to be a good explanation, though I hadn't considered the challenges it could offer. If anything, save space and don't appeal to the Hebrew at all.

    The problem is similar with ESVSB and NLTSB. The text is never completely clear, so we have to fill in the blanks ourselves. NLTSB does it by speculating about a possible answer. ESVSB (for Jonah) could have done the same thing, but instead felt the need to hang the interpretation on the "hard evidence" of the Hebrew language. It's tricky because the ESVSB didn't say anything that wasn't a valid interpretation of Jonah. The notes just gave a misleading impression of how Hebrew language can be used in interpretation.

    Concerning the inline notes vs. the introductions, I discussed that a bit in part 1 of my review. I felt the NLTSB was more consistent overall with giving a unified feel and interpretation to the introduction and the inline notes. The ESVSB introduction was more detailed, but that's only a strength if you're looking for that kind of detail. The inline notes were still pretty thorough, but a lot was crammed into the intro.