This review, although published here on the HCSB Study Bible, touches on a broader range because I thought it worthwhile to step back and look at the bigger picture of study Bibles.
A few years ago, I decided it was time to replace several of our family Bibles. My old NIV Study Bible was 20 years old and showed a lot of wear. It was missing a page or two, thanks to the enthusiasm of children some years back. Meanwhile, my wife’s Bible was so worn the pages had fallen out in clumps, making it almost impossible to use. My daughter’s was not in much better shape. My son’s Bible was in the best shape of any of them, mostly because he kept his in a cover; but it was time for an upgrade for him, too.
In addition to my NIV Study Bible, I also had a King James Bible, a New American Standard Open Bible, a copy of The Message, and and a few other translations. I almost never read these other versions, though. I tend to stick mostly with my primary Bible. My goal in this round of searching was to find a new primary Bible for each member of the family rather than additional resources that may do more sitting on the shelf.
When shopping for Bibles, the first issue that confronted me was which translations to consider. But to understand the differences in translations, you have to understand the different translation models. In my view, there are three main models:
- Formal equivalence – This method is the closest to word-for-word, which is why it is generally favored by conservative theologians. Criticisms are that this mode of translation can sound very dry or overly formal. Examples of Bibles that follow this model are the King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and New American Standard Bible.
- Dynamic equivalence – This method is generally characterized as thought-for-thought. The goal is to capture the meaning of the text. Criticisms are that this method omits key words that, while they may not be the center of the verse, add depth or tie in to other Scriptures. Examples of Bibles that follow this model include the New International Version, Today’s New International Version, the New American Bible, and the Modern English Translation.
- Paraphrase – This method is exactly what you’d think. It is an attempt to take the message of the Scripture and recast it, not necessarily translate it, in current language. Perhaps the most widely-read example of this model is The Message.
An argument for a fourth category could be made for Bibles that use a formal equivalence base and then “smooth out” confusing language similarly to the dynamic equivalence models. These Bibles strive for the accuracy of the formal equivalence with the readability of the dynamic equivalence. Perhaps the best example of this group is the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which calls its approach “optimal equivalence.”
My experience is that the more conservative someone’s theology, the more likely they are to prefer the more formal equivalence translations.
I tend to be very conservative in terms of theology. I believe the Bible says what it means and means what it says. So I gravitated toward the word-for-word translations, honing in on the ESV. The ESV is a relatively new translation, although it is based in large part on the older RSV. It is very well done and has been widely praised by noted conservative leaders such as John Piper and Mark Driscoll.
IMO, the ESV is more readable than the NASB or NKJV. However, the sentence structure can still be very clumsy in large portions of the text. The more I read of the ESV, the more I was reminded of translating things in German years ago.
For instance, “Es ist mir warmes” is German for “I am warm.” However, a word-for-word translation would render, “It is to me warm.” This is the way much of the ESV reads. While it is technically accurate, it can be laborious to read, and the language certainly does not flow in many places. However, since I planned to buy a study Bible, I also paid close attention to to study notes. In this arena, the ESV Study Bible truly excels. It has an amazing quantity of very well-done commentaries. I was extremely impressed.
I looked at the NKJV, which I have previously skimmed but not really given serious consideration to. I have to admit, I liked it more than I anticipated. But it still just did not quite do the trick for me. It continues to grow on me, though.
I also considered the NIV, particularly since I am very familiar with it and have used it for years to study and memorize Scripture. However, the the most recent version is really an update of the TNIV. Although it is largely the same, I disagree with the basis for some of the differences in the TNIV vs the NIV. The fact the publisher decided to do away with the NIV concerned me in terms of longevity of use for the kids. The fact they are replacing it with an updated TNIV bothered me from a theological perspective. I believe, though, that the former NIV version is still better than many give it credit for (but it is less precise than the formal equivalence translations), and the study notes are pretty good. The NIV Archeological Study Bible contains a wealth of interesting facts, and I’d encourage you to give it a look.
The other primary translation I looked at is the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The Holman Bible was conceived in the 1990s by the general editor of NKJV. He believed he could take the formal equivalence of the NKJV and make it more readable with modern language and structure. Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention was looking to cut ties with the publisher of the NIV, at least in part due to the publisher’s push for the TNIV.
A deal was soon struck, and the SBC funded the fledgling Holman project. As a result, some people consider the Holman as a “Baptist” Bible. However, the original editor (he died part-way through the project) and the subsequent editor were not Baptists, and the translation team included people from a number of different denominations (in particular, a high number of conservative Presbyterians who did much of the work in the Old Testament). However, they were all committed to generally “conservative theology” and this so-called optimal equivalence.
The result is actually a very good Bible that I think bridges the gaps between the sometimes clumsy language found in the ESV and the lack of precision sometimes seen in the NIV. But no translation is perfect, and the Holman has a few faults, too. For instance, I do not understand why they switched the word order in the Beatitudes when the original order is more precise, well-known, and easily understood. I’ve also found a number of other areas where it appears the HSBC is different just for the sake of being different.
The Holman Study Bible notes are very helpful and offer great insights. The book introductions are well done and highlight Scriptural themes. Another huge plus for the HCBS Study Bible is just how beautiful it is. More than any other I reviewed, the Holman Study Bible makes great use of color print and illustrations. The formatting and style make it a pleasure to read. The language makes it eminently readable. And the depth of study notes makes it very helpful to read. It’s a great combination and has become one of my absolute favorite Bible versions.
There are many good translations on the market now. I felt the ESV was the best of the formal equivalence translations and the Holman was the best of any that used any facet of dynamic equivalence. And I still appreciate the mid-90s version of the NIV. But there are plenty of options for folks, and I encourage you to take some time reading some of the different translations out there.
A note about study Bibles: any time you read study notes in a Bible, you are getting someone else’s theology. I find the study notes very helpful because I don’t tend to carry around tomes of Bible commentary (which, I should note, is also someone else’s interpretation). The study notes are often insightful in terms of original language, custom, or history. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using study notes or commentaries as long as you realize they are interpretation and opinion, not Scripture.
In the end, we decided to split the baby, somewhat. We several HSBC Study Bibles and an ESV Study Bible. I generally look at passages in both HSCB and the ESV and have grown to really enjoy both.
As a result of this journey, I now know a lot more about Bible translations, translation methods, Bible politics, and even binding processes than I ever have before. It is fascinating stuff. I also have read a TON of Scripture while comparing the different translations. As usual, I researched obsessively, often choosing to read different versions online late into the night rather than go to bed. If you’ve bothered to read this review, I hope you find a Bible that helps you better understand God, and I’d be glad to offer my advice, if you’d like.