ESV Literary Study Bible (Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Thursday, February 28, 2008

ESV Literary Study Bible (Review)

Reviewing a Bible is a new thing for me, and initially the concept is a little weird, so let me clarify that I'm assessing the strengths of this particular edition and not assigning a point value to the scriptures. Special revelation: I'm completely in. Consider me a Bible guy through and through. With that out of the way, let's consider the merits of the English Standard Version Literary Study Bible.

First, and briefly: I'm a fan of the ESV translation, which "seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original" (ESV Translation Philosophy). I'm convinced there's a place for more dynamic "thought for thought" translations and paraphrases as well (Eugene Peterson's The Message), but the precise, "word-for-word" approach represented by the ESV is foundational--a wise place to start reading, and a good place to return for clarification.

Second, let me address an issue that is not, strictly speaking, a very deep one, but is somewhat high on my list of "biblical concerns." Call me shallow, but I have low tolerance for BIG! THICK! Bibles that could potentially break your foot if you dropped them. I have especially low tolerance for BIG! THICK! FLOPPY! Bibles. You know the ones I'm talking about, with the weak spines and tissue-thin pages that constantly seem to be throwing up notes, bulletins, bookmarks and long-forgotten family photos.

The emphasis is on helping the reader to recapture the essence of the Bible in a very fundamental sense--as literature, as a long story arc, as a composite of letters and history and poetry and wisdom sayings, all the genres working together.

Typically, these Bibles reach their ultra-thick, floppy status via a combination of poor construction and extensive footnotes, boxes and sidebars that break up the text every few paragraphs. This adds a lot of width to the book, but it also makes it hard to read a page without having your attention diverted a half dozen times to scan devotional insights, translation notes, or details about Egyptian archeology. What you're holding at this point is a pseudo commentary/pseudo Bible, without the full benefits of either.

And now the good news. The Literary Study Bible does not fall in this category. As size goes, it's not a small book, but it's hardcover, well-bound, and solid. I enjoy the tactile feel. I don't have to prop up the spine when opening it. I don't wince when I look at it. This is all helpful.

But the heart of this edition's usefulness is the editorial approach that Leland and Philip Graham Ryken have taken. As the title suggests, their emphasis is on helping the reader to recapture the essence of the Bible in a very fundamental sense--as literature, as a long story arc, as a composite of letters and history and poetry and wisdom sayings, all the genres working together, all with an intended trajectory: forward-moving, written with deliberate intent. The Bible as something you read. The Bible as divinely inspired, Spirit-breathed literature. Something you can understand as an epic, multi-layered account of God's activity. Literature with a discernible plot, inherent to every page. I got kind of carried away there, but you get the idea.

In my experience, this basic sense of the Bible as clear, intentional writing is often lost. Yet it's perhaps the sense most essential to our understanding of God's message TO US--and thus the most crucial to our spiritual health.

The Literary Study Bible attempts to answer basic "plot" questions at regular intervals (typically at the beginning of chapters). Basic but enlightening questions like, Why is Paul saying this here? Why is this story fragment inserted now? What is Matthew trying to communicate about Jesus with this chunk of parables? Where is Isaiah headed with this? How does this passage connect to what's immediately before and after it? What themes and motifs are present and why?

Surprisingly, it's some of these obvious questions that we fail to consider when we read the Bible--or am I the only one who fails to dig in with this kind of rationality? A lot of us have been taught to digest the Bible in discrete particles, without considering the Whats? and Whys? and Hows? that can pull back the curtain and reveal the dramatic continuity in these initially mysterious passages.

The editorial input is succinct, lucid, and well-informed. It's also non-invasive, in that it doesn't attempt to insert apologetic, devotional, archaeological or theological material, except when it's directly tied to the main gist of the author's intent. Consistently, it points the reader directly back to the text in question, but with added understanding. Here's a sample from the introduction to Matthew 4:1-11: The Temptation of Jesus:
It is a convention of storytelling that the hero and other characters along the way are put into situations that test them. In this *temptation story, standing at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, Satan tries to lure Jesus from his innocence. Stories from time immemorial have featured the element of single combat, and that is what we find here. After responding to the literal details of the conflict between Jesus and Satan, we can profitably reflect on the larger symbolic meanings of the respective temptations... At every point as we read the Gospels, we need to remember that they are *hero stories that exist to exalt the protagonist of the story. The temptation story belongs to an esteemed literary and theological tradition known as Christus Victor--Christ the victor over Satan and evil. [Asterisks denote terms that are further explained elsewhere.]

I've been using the Literary Study Bible for several months, and it has heightened my enjoyment and appreciation of what I read. Like any edition, it's only a tool to point us toward the heart of scripture--beautiful truths that God's Spirit inculcates in our hearts. But all ends require means, and as tools go, it's a very good one.

*** The Literary Study Bible gets three of three stars--Don't miss it. And yeah, it's also featured on the Master Book List.



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3 comments:

R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the review. I'm in the market for a new Bible and I'll need to check this out.

"The Bible As Literature." Now there's something I can get behind. I once had a professor, an agnostic, inform a grad school class in German Literature of the 16th-17th Centuries that, "Dollar for dollar, the Bible is the greatest work of literature the world has ever seen. If you do not understand it, you have no business studying any Western literature."

As for we Christians, I think we often wind up trapped in the minutia of scripture, much like some one pondering one square inch of a Seurat painting. That is, we don't see the big picture, preferring instead to attempt to discern God's meaning from an individual verse or passage. This is not to imply that such an approach is never worthwhile, but the Bible is more than a book of magic spells. The whole thing is a revelation, and we need to study it as such.

Cheers.

(BTW, my daughter got a solicitation from KU yesterday. She held it before me and promptly tore it into very tiny pieces. "Train up a child in the way she should go" and all that. -- RDS)

Andy said...

Thanks for this Ariel - my personal Bible right now is a pocket-sized ESV, and I'm really enjoying this translation. Like Randall, I appreciate the need for that "quick hit" on a particular verse, but I'm, even more so, a firm believer in reading the Bible cover to cover, straight through - because in doing so, you see the story God is telling us, and begin to understand the context of His Message.

Will Robison said...

I shall definitely have to remember this the next time I'm in a position to buy a new Bible. The current one I have has this annoying problem - its BIG! THICK! FLOPPY! with a weak spine and tissue-thin pages that has reached its ultra-thick, floppy status via a combination of poor construction, extensive footnotes, boxes and sidebars that break up the text every few paragraphs and adds a lot of width to the book but also makes it hard to read a page without having your attention diverted a half dozen times to scan devotional insights, translation notes, or details about Egyptian archeology and constantly seem to be throwing up notes, bulletins, bookmarks and long-forgotten family photos as well as potentially breaking your foot if you dropped it. Which is why this Bible sounds really good to me right now.

However, I am determined to get at least two readings out of current Bible before giving up on it as a bad egg with good words.

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife