The English Standard Version Study Bible – A Review

By Wayne Jackson

Shortly after its initial appearance, I published an article reviewing The English Standard Version (2001, Crossway Bibles). In that composition I cataloged what I perceived to be some of the strengths and weaknesses of this translation of the Bible. Generally, I commended the ESV, though I remain of the persuasion that the American Standard Version (1901) is still the best word-for-word edition of the Bible in modern English. Nonetheless, I commended the ESV in the following fashion:

Though the ESV is not without some weakness, generally speaking it appears to be an accurate, literal translation, rendered in beautiful English. It is a version, we believe, that will serve the English-speaking world with distinction.

In 2008 a new edition of the ESV was issued by Crossway Bibles. It comes under the expanded title, ESV Study Bible [ESVSB]. This is a massive volume of more than 2,750 pages. In addition to the actual biblical text, there are numerous essays and helps (maps, charts, etc.). Too, there are some twenty thousand commentary notes on various biblical texts. A wide variety of scholars (approximately ninety-five) have contributed their efforts to this ambitious production.

The “study” material in this work falls into several categories. We will divide our survey into the two major segments of Scripture—Old Testament and New Testament.

Old Testament

The introductory essays to the Old Testament section are as follows:

  • The Theology of the Old Testament
  • Old Testament Timeline: An Overview
  • The Date of the Exodus
  • The Hebrew Calendar Compared to the Gregorian Calendar
  • Introduction to the Pentateuch
  • Introduction to the Historical Books
  • Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature
  • Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Following these articles is the text of the thirty-nine Old Testament books, along with copious notes by various scholars on numerous passages in the sacred documents.

The Interbiblical Period

Then follows a series of articles on the “Background to the New Testament.” The interbiblical era covers a period of roughly four hundred years and discusses political, social, and religious developments in the Mediterranean world preliminary to the birth of Jesus Christ. The themes discussed are:

  • The Time between the Testaments
  • Jewish and Roman Rulers
  • Intertestamental Events Timeline
  • The Herodian Dynasty
  • Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman World
  • Jewish Groups at the Time of the New Testament

New Testament

There are four introductory articles preceding the New Testament notes:

  • The Theology of the New Testament
  • New Testament Timeline
  • The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion
  • Reading the Gospels and Acts
  • Reading the Epistles

Then, as with the Old Testament section, there are miscellaneous notes on various passages in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament

Articles and Resources

Concluding this industrious undertaking is a collection of articles. The first is a purported analysis of “God’s Plan of Salvation.” Following this is a series of sixty-two essays that fall under the following categories:

  • Biblical Doctrine: An Overview
  • Biblical Ethics: An Overview
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Reading the Bible
  • The Canon of Scripture
  • The Reliability of Bible Manuscripts
  • Archaeology and the Bible
  • The Original Languages of the Bible
  • The Bible in Christianity
  • The Bible and World Religions
  • The Bible and Religious Cults

The ESV Study Bible embodies about two hundred charts and two hundred smaller maps scattered throughout the text; it concludes with a “Map Supplement” (fifteen entries). There is an index of forty illustrations (e.g. the Tabernacle, Herod’s temple, the Jewish Synagogue, various cities), an abbreviated concordance, a daily Bible-reading schedule, and a weights and measures table.

Analyses of Certain Points

This would not be a fair review if it did not acknowledge that there is an abundance of valuable material in this study bible project. My primary concern, however, is to call attention to a number of seriously erroneous teachings that mar this effort and could lead to the acceptation of false doctrines that could be fatal to sincere souls in search of truth.

Compromising the Creation Account

In the “Introduction to Genesis” there is an inexcusable compromise with evolutionary chronology. It is alleged that “faithful interpreters” have explained the days of the creation week in a variety of ways. For example, there is the “ordinary days” view that sees the creation days as six periods of twenty-four hours. Others argue that the days represent “geological ages.” Then there is the “work week” of so-called “God days” (whatever those are).

Additionally, a possible “gap period” is supposed to exist between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, during which a Satanic rebellion occurred. The gap generally is perceived as possibly lasting millions of years, thus accommodating uniformitarian geology. Amazingly, it is argued: “None of these views requires denying that Genesis 1 is historical.” Supposedly, “each of these readings can be squared with other biblical passages that reflect on creation” (2008, 44). How in the name of common logic can the mutually exclusive views of “literal days” and “non-literal days” be harmonized with a biblical narrative that professes to be the inspired word of God?

The author of the introduction is careful to point out that some of the Bible’s genealogical records do not contain strict father-son relationships, and that is true. But if this is intended to suggest that a human longevity of possibly several million years can be accommodated by an elastic genealogy, then the hint is nefarious. Evolutionary chronology flagrantly contradicts Jesus’ statement that humanity existed “from the beginning of the creation” (Mark 10:6), and Paul’s declaration that God’s magnificent universe has been humanly perceived “since the creation of the world” (Romans 1:20). Scripture must not be twisted to conform to pseudo-science.

The Flood Narrative

The Bible is perfectly clear that the great flood of Noah’s day was universal in its devastation. The Mosaic language could not be plainer concerning the extent of the deluge: “[A]ll the high mountains, that were under the whole heaven were covered. . . . And all flesh died that moved upon the earth” (Genesis 7:19, 21). While it is true that occasionally comprehensive terms are employed in a more limited sense, the context must demand such, and that factor does not obtain in the flood case. For a further discussion of this matter, see Questions About the Genesis Flood.

The ESVSB contends that the biblical text “does not necessarily mean that the flood had to cover the whole earth” (62). The author supposes that it is “questionable” that the flood explains the geological strata, the fossils, etc. (44). This leaves the matter wide open for evolutionary uniformitarianism as opposed to biblical catastrophism.

Date of the Exodus

First Kings 6:1 reads as follows:

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of Jehovah.

These data, combined with other Old Testament references, have led conservative scholars to conclude that the exodus from Egypt took place around 1446 B.C., while more liberal writers contend that the migration of the Israelites from Egypt did not occur until ca. 1260 B.C.

Merrill Unger noted that liberal scholars “are compelled to reject 1 Kings 6:1 as late and completely unreliable, despite the fact that the chronological note it contains bears evidence of authenticity and obviously fits into the whole time scheme underlying the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges” (1954, 141).

The ESVSB adopts a middle-of-the-road position on this chronological issue: “Both the early date and the late date are supported by established evangelical scholars today. In this Study Bible, both the early date (1446 B.C.) and the later date (c. 1260) are included” (33). “Late” and “early” are conflicting terms that are not consistent with a unified approach to the Scriptures. Being objective does not require one to argue a position that is contrary to the explicit testimony of Scripture, no matter how many “evangelicals” may incline toward it. (Note: a similar dualistic view is taken toward Isaiah’s prophecy of the “virgin” birth in 7:14).

Inherited Depravity

The common and erroneous theory that all human beings are born tainted with the guilt of Adam’s sin is unapologetically alleged in this volume: “Inherited guilt and corruption leave every person completely unable to save himself or to please God” (2,530). Thus, numerous texts are exploited to this end (cf. Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3, etc.).

The Plan of Salvation

The discussion of human response to God’s pattern of salvation, argued by Mark Deaver, a Baptist minister, is woefully skewed. In the section titled “God’s Plan of Salvation,” four components are listed in the following order: (a) “Turning to God”; (b) “Turning from Sin”; © “Believing and Trusting”; and (d) “Growing in Holiness.” This prompts several important questions: How can one be motivated to “turn to God” before he even believes in him? Similarly, how is a person moved to repentance prior to his faith in the Lord and his awareness of the condemnation of sin? (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10).

While belief and trust (the two are hardly distinguishable as conditions of salvation) are emphasized as conditions of forgiveness from sin, pardon may be obtained, it is alleged, simply through prayer (2,503). This, of course, leaves inexplicable the case of Saul of Tarsus who prayed for three days (Acts 9:9, 11), yet did not have his sins “washed away” until he was immersed in water in the likeness of Christ’s burial and resurrection (Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4).

Although baptism is associated with the plan of salvation in numerous New Testament passages (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.), not a single reference to this holy ordinance is found in the section on human “Response” to “God’s Plan of Salvation.” This is inexcusable and reveals a denominational bias unworthy of genuine biblical scholarship.

Water baptism specifically is eliminated from the plan of salvation. It is disputed that the “water” of John 3:5 refers to baptism—a position never argued until the time of Calvin, who conceded that the idea was “new” (Wall, 95-96). Water baptism is erroneously depicted as a mere “outward sign of the inward reality of regeneration” (cf. comments at Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21). Is there any error more serious than a perversion of the gospel plan of salvation?

Illumination of the Spirit

The ESVSB teaches the dogma that the Holy Spirit directly operates upon the mind of the Christian, providing special understanding and power.

After the inward renewal that makes someone who has trusted Christ a new creation, the Spirit also brings spiritual understanding, convicts of sin, reveals the truth of the Word, brings assurance of salvation, empowers for holy living, teaches, and comforts (2,521).

The commentators never explain why those “illuminated” are at such terrible odds with one another as to the meaning of Scripture and religious practices.

Perpetuity of Miracles

In Paul’s first Corinthian epistle, the apostle argues that miraculous gifts employed in the revelation of divine truth were given to select recipients “in part,” i.e., some might possess one gift while others had another. The apostle contends, however, that when the “perfect” (teleios, i.e., the complete in contrast to the partial; see Friedrich 1975, 75) comes, i.e., the complete complement of New Testament revelation with the totality of the sacred canon, the gifts would be removed.

The ESVSB disputes this contextual view and contends the supernatural gifts will abide until the return of Christ (2,211; cf. 2,521). This clearly implies that there will be ongoing revelation until the second coming of Christ and suggests that the New Testament is not the final conduit of divine communication. This is a heretical teaching and, in principle, is no different than the “revelations” claimed for Joseph Smith Jr., of Mormon fame, or Ellen White of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

Impossibility of Apostasy

The Calvinistic dogma that it is impossible for the child of God to stray from the truth so as to be lost is unashamedly sprinkled here and there throughout the commentary sections: “[N]o true believer will ever lose his or her salvation” (note on John 6:40; cf. John 10:26-29, etc.). See the amazing manipulation of 2 Peter 2:1 in the vain attempt to defend the “perseverance of the saints” heresy.

Divorce and Remarriage

While there are some useful articles pertaining to certain ethical issues, e.g., abortion, homosexuality, etc., the ESVSB discussion of marriage and divorce strays widely from the teaching of Christ. Jesus taught that the sole cause for a divorce and subsequent remarriage is fornication against an innocent mate whose marriage has been violated by an adulterous spouse. Reaching beyond this, however, this volume also argues for the so-called “Pauline privilege” (1 Corinthians 7:15), which text provides no license for the remarriage of a deserted Christian (cf. v. 11).

Further, the essay contends that if one divorces his/her spouse for a non-biblical reason and subsequently enters an adulterous relationship, the new union is to be considered a valid “marriage.” (Yet, see Mark 6:17-18 where Herod’s marriage is condemned as unlawful.) Supposedly, the adulterer should ask for God’s forgiveness, yet stay in the illicit relationship. Such makes a mockery of the marriage law of God and the biblical significance of repentance (2,546-2,547).

Premillennialism

There is no question but that the thrust of this study Bible is premillennial in its view of end-time events.

While there has been much debate over the nature and timing of the millennial events, what is certainly clear in Scripture is that Christ will return and establish his kingdom and that all mankind will finally acknowledge his lordship over all creation. Once and for all, creation will undeniably submit to Christ the King, and he will reign on earth as already he does in heaven (Matt. 6:10; Phil. 2:10) (2,533).

One may expect, therefore, premillennial promotions in the discussions of many prophetic passages, even when (in the interest of sales) a “balance” of interpretative ideas is offered. A premillennial bias clearly prevails (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6ff; Daniel 9:24-27; Revelation 20).

The contention that the material creation will be restored in a literal “new heavens and new earth,” to become the home of the redeemed for eternity, is quite undisguised (2,534).

Conclusion

While there are many elements of the ESVSB that are commendable, it likewise is plagued with numerous errors of sectarian theology. We cannot, therefore, wholeheartedly recommend this Study Bible edition. It constitutes considerable danger for the novice Christian. Even the mature student would need to be on his constant guard against the numerous doctrinal flaws that lurk throughout the pages of this attractive publication. One constantly must be reminded that not all that glitters is gold.

Sources/Footnotes
  • English Standard Version Study Bible. 2008. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
  • Friedrich, Gerhard, ed. 1975. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Unger, Merrill. 1954. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wall, W. n.d. The History of Infant Baptism. Vol. 1. London, England: Griffith, Farran, Browne & Co.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.