Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: ESV Archaeology Study Bible

I received a (disclosure: free) review copy of the new ESV Archaeology Study Bible from Crossway, and then had to ask myself how I'm going to evaluate this thing. Ultimately I decided the only question I really wanted to ask is whether the notes actually illuminate the text in question. Trivia can be fun, apologetics are useful, but a study Bible should make a meaningful contribution to your understanding of the text. I didn't want "Oh, that's cool" but "Oh, that's what that means." While I was at it, I also compared the notes to the ESV Study Bible (Crossway) and NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan) because it'd be good know if this thing didn't contain anything new. (Yes, I am in possession of far too many study Bibles.)

First, the details as listed by the publisher:

The ESV Archaeology Study Bible roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context .... The Archaeology Study Bible assembles a range of modern scholarship—pairing the biblical text with over 2,000 study notes, 400 full-color photographs, 200 maps and diagrams, 200 sidebars, 15 articles, and 4 timelines.
It also contains the usual kind of cross-references and textual footnotes. It's stuffed pretty full, and frankly it's a back-breaking monster that you aren't going to wag to church. But that's not what it's for. It's for study — whether you're just doing it for your own edification, or you're preparing a lesson or sermon.

So is it any good at that?

To answer that question I looked at sections of Genesis, Exodus, Nehemiah, 2 Kings, Malachi, and Matthew. One thing I appreciated is the editors largely resisted the urge to add non-archaeology comments (something that Zondervan failed to do). If archaeology didn't add much to a passage, there wasn't much in the way of notes. Now the notes themselves are not always golden. Malachi in particular had largely trivial notes — things that really didn't affect your understanding of the message of the text. I should add that each book has a brief introduction that includes a general summary of how archaeology has contributed to the understanding of that book. It says for Song of Songs, "Given the subject matter and poetic style ..., there is little archaeology can do to illumine the central message of the text." (Yet it still has some interesting bits about fruits and perfumes and locations mentioned in the text.) So I feel like they're trying to be honest and not waste your time.

In most of the sections I looked at, however, the notes really did add to the passage. I expected Genesis and Exodus to be full of useful information, and they were. Matthew as well. 2 Kings I didn't quite know what to expect. Every passage didn't have great notes, but many did. The simple truth is archaeology just doesn't have something to offer about every passage. The editors obviously had to flesh out the notes, but they were cautious about doing so with non-archaeology material.

So how does this study Bible compare to the ESV Study Bible? I saw very little of the note material from one in the other. Diagrams, pictures, and charts, though, were frequently re-used. Both have a number of articles and essays, and there wasn't a lot of overlap there, either. So already having the ESV Study Bible shouldn't make you rule this one out.

So how does this study Bible compare to the NIV Archaeological Study Bible? It shouldn't be surprising that there's more overlap here, but I found the notes to be more applicable and the essays to be (a little) more useful. Also, the ESV notes are theologically more conservative than the NIV notes (which frankly surprised me). If you have the NIV, I'm not sure you need a new one, but I do like Crossway's version better.

A quick note about the essays: They give you a thumbnail sketch in a few pages on topics about which whole books have been written. You can't take them as the end-all on the topic, but you can use them to make you aware of issues in archaeology that you may want to investigate further — perhaps in something like Hoerth's Archaeology and the Old Testament.

Now, study Bibles are not devotionals. They don't do the heavy lifting for you. They tell you about the text and leave it up to you to see how that should affect your life. So simply reading the notes in the ESV Archaeology Study Bible is not going to make you love Jesus more or live more like him. But it can help you see the text more clearly, and that can.

Rating: 4/5 — Recommended