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Review: Grace & Truth Study Bible

Review: Grace & Truth Study Bible

This review is of a Bible I received as a #BibleGatewayPartner.

When I set out to review a Bible, I find it difficult to determine precisely what I should discuss. There is the translation it is based on, the nature and extent of the notes, the theological positions that drive those notes, and elements of the edition such as text size, arrangement, and paper quality.

In approaching the Grace & Truth Study Bible, edited by R. Albert Mohler and published by Zondervan, the question became even more interesting when I added it to my Bible store, and found that my distributor has 17 editions/formats available, ranging in price from $39.99 (unjacketed hardcover) to $279.99 (Premium Goatskin, gilded edges). The edition I’m reviewing is priced at $49.99, and is a jacketed hardcover.

I’ll begin with a few pictures.

Edition / Format

The production is of good quality, as you would expect from a Zondervan product. The layout is quite traditional for a study Bible. You have an introduction to each book, notes at the bottom of each page (allowing me to continue to remind classes to read from the upper part!), and cross-references in the center of the Bible text. In the back you’ll find a concordance and some fairly standard Bible maps.

Other editions have some variations on this, such as different page sizes, binding, and paper.

Overall, there is nothing to criticize about the layout, and in fact, I kind of like the straightforward approach. We don’t have numerous “features” added that really tend to detract from study. There is a text, and there is a commentary, one study Bible! I think few modern readers make great use of cross-references, but it is nice to have them.

The big weakness of this particular edition is the 9 pt font. I found it hard to read extended portions of the text. I’m just five years short of three-score and ten, and thus my eyes may not be quite as good as those of some readers, but I read extensively and rapidly, and reading this Bible feels like work.

It’s important to note, however, that several of the editions do have larger print than the one I’m reading, so one can look at the page and font size and choose a better compromise along those lines.

Content

The translation used is the New International Version. My general comment on this edition is simply that it is a compromise between woodenly literal and freely interpretive dynamic translation work. This means it suffers from the problems of both formal and dynamic equivalence, but it also shares in the benefits. There is no such thing as a perfect translation, and the NIV covers a great deal of ground. It is definitely evangelical in flavor and thus it is not surprising for it to be the basis of this study Bible, considering the general editor. You can find brief comments on the NIV at My Bible Version or in my book What’s in a Version?

First, let me note that I do not intend to criticize this study Bible for differences in theology. Dr. Mohler is a Southern Baptist and I’m United Methodist. The header of this blog proclaims me a “passionate moderate, liberal charismatic,” and while each word of that description brings up issues when applied to my theology, it does not suggest that I’m a conservative evangelical. A book edited by a conservative evangelical is one I expect to be, well, conservative and evangelical. And this book is that.

I strongly recommend that Bible students have on hand study Bibles that disagree with them as well as ones that are from their own theological tradition. I have gotten valuable insights by comparing the comments in various study Bibles.

The commentary is not dedicated to railing against theological opponents. I would describe most comments as gently conservative, but often not putting controversial issues front and center. For example, in the introduction to Genesis there is a comment about treating this not as a scientific or historical account, but understanding it as theology and even as a work of art. I know of people all across the spectrum who would find the literary description of Genesis as quite acceptable. Conservative evangelical interpretations are espoused in the notes as one would expect.

Another example is Romans 1, which is a frequent citation in arguments about homosexuality. The notes do, in fact, express a conservative view, but it correctly (in my view) see the primary point of the passage in idolatry, and it places idolatry at the foundation of human sin.

Book introductions don’t spend a great deal of time on issues of dating and authorship and don’t enter into controversies on these issues, but do assume a relatively conservative chronology regarding the writing of the text. For example, you could read the introductions to each of the gospels and miss any issues of authorship and dependency between the various writers.

The strength of the notes is that they are a nice blend of theological and devotional. Some study Bibles emphasize giving you technical and background details that you might not know. While you will get some of that from this Bible, the devotional value appears to be primary. I would say that this is a sort of theology that is readable by the average Sunday School class. It is not seminary material. It doesn’t give you a list of options for various issues, but basically preaches its way through.

Overall

Overall, I found nothing surprising here. The Bible was very much as I imagined it would be when I first looked over the descriptions involved. I personally wouldn’t recommend it as your sole study Bible. There is a strong possibility of absorbing relatively controversial conclusions without being alerted to the possibility of disagreement. That can be nice for morning devotions, but not as your sole opportunity to study.

I do think it would be valuable as one study Bible out of a set that one uses to study. The other study Bible should be from different tradition streams, and also with a different emphasis. There are a number of evangelical study Bibles that do more analysis of the issues, for example. That may be less devotional, but if you want a balanced perspective, it’s good to know what other views exist.

Note: I received this copy of the Grace & Truth Study Bible as a #BibleGatewayPartner, with the only requirement being an honest review.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Front)A little over a week ago I reviewed the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible using the Olive Tree electronic edition. On Tuesday I received my hardcover copy from the publisher. (Note: I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other strings were attached!) This is not an extraordinarily new experience in Bible editions, but it is a good one.

The Bible is 6″ x 9″, so fits nicely on all my disorderly stacks of books. It’s about 2 1/4″ thick, which makes it substantial, but not the largest Bible I use. The picture at the top shows it in my (not necessarily its) natural environment. That’s my actual desk, and so you can see it in comparison to the other study Bibles I have around it. You can click on the image to see it in high resolution. These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about theimg_20160908_141131 physical size of a study Bible.

These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about the physical size of a study Bible. That said, I can say that I prefer working with the electronic edition of this Bible, even though I am not well-acquainted with Olive Tree software. There is a great deal of information to present, and the size of an edition is always a compromise.

NIV CBSB with 12 point fontIn this case, the text is small (as is common with study Bibles). The image just below shows it by comparison with my own Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, which is printed in a 12 point font. The notes appear slightly smaller, though I’m not good enough to say for certain, and the impression may be created by a different (sans-serif) font for the notes. This note on text size is not intended as criticism, but it is one of the major reasons I prefer to use an electronic edition in which I can set font size. This is a problem for just about every study Bible out there. There is so much information to be included that something has to give. Having done page layout on a large number of books myself, I understand this completely.

The biblical text is printed in two columns with reference notes in the center. This is a classical style of presentation, but not one of my favorites. Again, I should emphasize that nobody can avoid all criticisms for the layout of a text. Doubtless others would complain about a single column with notes on the outer margins, for example. The double-column format is so standard that I have only a couple of Bibles that don’t follow it. An excellent example is The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation), which uses a single column for the text with notes consistently in a narrower column to the right. I find their edition quite friendly.

There are a variety of excurses and notes included directly in the text section, besides the standard notes which are in two columns at the bottom of the page. The notes supplement and follow-up on the introduction, generally providing information that is applicable on a wider basis, i.e. not to just the text in question. For example, just before the text of Isaiah we have an introduction to “The Oracles of the Prophets,” followed by a short introduction to the book of Isaiah itself. But about three pages in we have a nearly three-page section titled “The Historical Background of Isaiah,” which provides a great deal of helpfNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Hebrews)ul information that will also relate to others of the prophets.

But just after these sections, on p. 1122, is an inset titled “Dating Methods.” No, this is not for those of you interested in origins and how rocks and fossils might be dated. Rather, it presents the basics of how one tries to place a particular oracle at a particular date. This is a tightly packed, extremely useful essay. Everyone should read it, no matter what portion of the Bible you’re studying. That’s why I chose Isaiah for this brief tour!

I mentioned that I will comment on some more specifics regarding the book of Hebrews. I will do so, but this past week has been intense, and I didn’t yet get to it. Nonetheless, the picture to the left at this point is the introduction to the book of Hebrews. I will go through that introduction in more detail in a post I hope to publish by Saturday.

Having the physical copy of this Bible in my hands makes me completely comfortable in recommending it. It’s easier to scan the portions I’m not emphasizing. For example, in using an electronic version I rarely “leaf through” the book, and thus might have missed the excellent introductory material for Isaiah. My main concern with study Bibles is that people tend to take the word of the note writer as to the meaning of the text. It’s certainly appropriate and valuable to get the opinions of others, but when one doesn’t find out why the writer believes a certain thing, one is left with either accepting it on authority—surely the author of such a fine volume would have his facts straight!—or having to dig elsewhere for that background information. That’s the value of this type of explanation.

For a few more notes on study Bibles in English, see my aer.io store collection.

 

The Orthodox Study Bible: Wrap-Up (For the Moment)

The Orthodox Study Bible: Wrap-Up (For the Moment)

I received the Orthodox Study Bible free from Thomas Nelson in their blogger book review program, and as I have been using it in my personal devotions and study for my lectionary notes, (which notes have languished during a very busy period), I have already written about it substantially.

But just what does it mean to “read” a study Bible.  Should it mean to read through it from cover to cover, to use it as you normally read a study Bible, or perhaps to read certain relevant portions?  I don’t know how Thomas Nelson will interpret this, and I have no intention to argue with them should they interpret it differently than I do–after all, they sent me a free book!–but I have chosen to take it in the second way.

Now in using it in that fashion it would probably be another year or so before I would have read all of the book introductions and notes, at which point I would simply note that I have previously read the entire NKJV text of the Bible, which covers the New Testament, and I would have seen most of the Old Testament.  But such a long wait hardly serves the purpose of a review program either.

Thus, having gone through a number of weeks worth of lectionary readings, sampled the translation in quite a number of areas and compared it to the text of Rahlf’s LXX (from which it is said to be translated in the case of the Old Testament), checked out the book introductions, and read the major articles, I’m going to write a review, and one which will be substantially longer than 200 words.  I’ll extract 200 words or so to post on Amazon.com, and then let the folks at Thomas Nelson know so they can respond as they will.

Had this book lived up to my hopes, I would likely have been willing to read it through from cover to cover, just like an ordinary book, though presumably spending much longer.  My hopes were that there would be substantial quotations from the eastern church fathers and from Orthodox theologians, and that the translation of the Old Testament (I already was aware that the New Testament was NKJV) would also prove enlightening regarding the use and usefulness of the LXX in the life of the church.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed, so that my use of the volume has become a duty rather than a joy.  I will link to my previous blogging about using this book at the end of my post, and will simply summarize here.  I’m going to start with the negative points, continue with the ordinary (though acceptable) ones, and end with the points I approved.

Negatives:

  1. The translation.  I dislike the NKJV in the first place, but was trying to overcome that in light of the fact that the eastern church uses the Byzantine text.  Unfortunately, that proved to be more difficult than I thought.  In the New Testament, the NKJV is what it is, which is a fairly accurate, but not very engaging or readable translation.  I recall once when reading through Daniel in the NKJV (yes, I know I switched to OT, but it illustrates my point) that I actually consulted the Aramaic to discover just what was meant by an English phrase.  In the Old Testament, the translation itself does not improve, even though there was work to bring it into agreement with the LXX.  The quality is variable and wooden.  It reads approximately like an exercise by 2nd year students of Biblical Greek.  I’m sure there were many much more highly skilled persons involved, but somehow the translation style doesn’t reflect it.  It’s not that they were inaccurate in undestanding the Greek.  Rather, they appear afraid to actually write down the result in English.
  2. The verse-by-verse notes.  These are not entirely bad, but rather so variable, that one does not know what to expect.  One might find an enlightening note from a church father, or an extremely inane summary of the text in question.  I provide examples in one of my prior blog posts, all linked below.

Ordinary things:

  1. The book introductions.  These are not bad, but are not precisely exciting.  I think they are mostly adequate given the space constraints.  At the same time, I am very glad that this is not my only study Bible, because there is simply too much missed.  I would note that while I personally want access to modern critical study, I am not criticizing this volume for a lack of that material.  I can get that elsewhere.  It’s in developing theological themes that I think these introductions could be improved.
  2. The general layout.  This is pretty good, but could well be improved in order to better use space and to make notes more easily related to the content.  I did appreciate the liturgical material in the inset notes.

Positive:

  1. The christological focus.  Some might quibble that this could occur in a much better volume, and so it could.  But the western churches, especially protestant churches, often tend to see Christ in the Old Testament primarily as a chain of fulfilled prophecies.  I really appreciate the distinctively Christological understanding of scripture, even where I actually disagree with it.  This emphasis is quite clear in the essay “HOW TO READ THE BIBLE”, which starts on page 1757 and particularly in the section subheaded “Christ, the Heart of the Bible” that starts on page 1763.  This also shows in the notes from time to time.
  2. The liturgical references in articles and notes.  Where these are present, they are very helpful to me.
  3. The organization of the books.  It’s hard to get a picture of the Bible of the eastern church from western study Bibles that include the apocrypha, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible, because the material is scattered.  The book order does have an impact on how the Bible is read.  The organization here is a genuine product of church history and the eastern communion.

I think I have made enough specific points, and if you want particular examples, you will find them in my linked posts below.  There is much promise in the idea behind this Bible, and part of my negative reaction is due to excessively high expectations which were not met.  At the same time, I cannot honestly recommend this Bible, unless one looks at the negatives and decides that those are worth enduring for the positives.

Here are my previous posts regarding the Orthodox Study Bible, one of which is on a different blog:

Received: The Orthodox Study Bible

Received: The Orthodox Study Bible

. . . and it’s even more interesting than I anticipated.  This is obviously not the intended review, but I do find the idea of a Bible with a strong flavor of the Orthodox doctrine quite interesting, and the Bible looks fascinating.  The New Testament is NKJV, but the Old Testament uses the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, with which I am not too familiar.  I’ll probably have my Septuagint beside me as I study!

I did write up a few descriptive notes on my Energion.com Book site.  They are just a description, not an evaluation.

I expect I will be referencing this Bible quite a bit as I work my way through it.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible

I have my stable of study Bibles that I regularly consult and recommend to students. Three key ones are The Learning Bible (CEV) [TLB], the Oxford Study Bible (REB), and the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Though I don’t use it regularly (there have to be some books I don’t read!), the HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV) is also excellent.

Recently, however, I used a Christmas gift card at Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of the New Interpreter’s Study Bible [NISB]. It has been around for some time (2003 copyright), but I’ve only glanced briefly at it in libraries. Now that I have a copy of my own, I’d like to comment on it.

It is 2298 pages, not including maps. The majority of that is a combined Bible text with notes. The notes are more extensive than either the Oxford Study Bible or the New Oxford Annotated Bible. In general they are a little bit more readable, so this Bible will be useful for people with less Biblical background. It is still not a “simple” study Bible, and doesn’t encroach on the audience of TLB. That is due both to the notes themselves, in which the NISB uses a heavier vocabulary and style, and the translation on which it is based (NRSV for the NISB). It does not take space with illustrations as does TLB either. The information is much more densely packed on the page.

There are some major positive points, however. If you find something like TLB a bit basic for you, these notes dig deeper into scholarly and critical issues. I am extremely impressed with the introductions to Biblical books, which seem balanced and complete. The notes themselves are extensive and clear, and yet manage to avoid simply telling you what the text means. They give an overview of why as well. The excurses are also excellent and provide valuable information. For example, one excursus in Isaiah 42 provides an introduction to the servant passages.

In terms of total size, I think the fairest comparison would be to the Oxford Study Bible [OSB], which is 1597 pages, also excluding maps. Its print also appears slightly larger. It has a total of 199 pages of general articles, compared to NISB’s 36 pages. The OSB also spends a greater amount of time on critical theories in the passages I have studied thus far. That point should not be overemphasized. Both discuss the issue, and I have not read all of the book introductions.

Another advantage of NISB is incorporating fairly recent scholarship. That is, of course, the hazard of aging books–new research is done, new commentaries are published, and theories fade and are replaced by new ones. On that, the NISB is nice just because it’s newer.

This is not a devotional study Bible. I think that many preacher’s will find it valuable. It will provide you with background and with suggestions for understanding and interpretation. In fact, much of that 36 page section of general articles deals not with technical stuff (Hebrew poetry, literary forms, ancient near eastern cultures), but rather with inspiration and authority, and the ways in which we interpret. This all suggests a practical intention for the book.

For me, NISB is not going to replace my trusty and severely word OSB, but I have added it to my primary shelf where I keep those materials I consult regularly in Bible study.