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Review: The NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Study Bibles: The NIV Zondervan Study Bible

The NIV Zondervan Study Bible. Eds. D. A. Carson, T. Desmond Alexander, Richard Hess, Douglas J. Moo, Andrew David Naselli. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. ISBN: 9780310438335

Summary

The NIV Zondervan Study Bible is Zondervan’s new flagship study Bible, intended to be an up-to-date replacement for the acclaimed and best-selling NIV Study Bible. With contributions from some of the most important conservative biblical scholars in the English-speaking world, an enormous number of annotations, well written articles and book introductions, and a clean, classic design, this study Bible is one of the best on the market.

Complete Review

Just a few months ago, Zondervan released a new study Bible project called the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. The intent of this Bible is to be the new flagship study Bible, taking over for the NIV Study Bible, which is still around but which is lacking a little in retail sales momentum. Additionally, every year the NIV Study Bible becomes more and more dated, so an update of some sort was warranted. Instead of simply updating, however, Zondervan decided to replace it with a completely new project.

And what a project! Under the leadership of general editor D. A. Carson, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible’s editorial and contributing team consists of some of the most important conservative biblical scholars in the world. The verse-by-verse annotations combine the best of historical/archaeological commentary and theological/devotional reflection that encapsulates all the good that high-level biblical scholarship that honors the Bible as the Word of God can bring to the spiritual life of the average Christian believer. Just how conservative the commentary is varies somewhat from section to section. For example, Todd Bolen briefly suggests Isaianic authorship for a portion of 2 Kings – a kind of suggestion which is very much at home among fundamentalists but which is neither verifiable nor necessary. On the other hand, T. D. Alexander argues for a rather more open-ended approach to Pentateuchal authorship, leaving room for Mosaic involvement but not seeing it as vital. Overall, however, this Bible is marked by a kind of open-minded and reserved brand of theological conservatism that really represents evangelical scholarship at its very best.

A Pronounced Focus on Biblical Theology

Its promotional material claims it to be “The first-ever study Bible infused through and through with Biblical theology”. This claim is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. It may be one of the first, or perhaps the first, to have “biblical theology” be a part of its charter of intent. But to say that other study Bibles were not “infused” with biblical theology is at best one of those unverifiable claims that marketing teams and copywriters love.

Be that as it may, it is true that the NIV Zondervan Study Bible does consistently focus on biblical theology. What is “biblical theology”, you ask? Good question. For the present let us just say that biblical theology is the discovery of inherent theological themes in the Bible – rather than the imposition of a foreign theological framework on the Bible – and the analysis of the way the Bible develops those themes from start to finish.

This focus can be clearly seen in the introductions to the sections and individual books of the Bible. A strict common structure was not imposed on the authors of the book introductions. Each introduction deals with some similar concepts, but the contributors were apparently not given a common set of headings and subheadings that they needed to fill in with information. How does this method reflect the concerns of biblical theology? The structures of the various introductions were dictated largely by the content and concerns of the specific books or sections rather than by the concerns of a central editor. Not just the theological content but the structure of that content was derived from the text.

Nevertheless, every introduction does include a significant section dealing with “themes” or “theology and themes”, and this is where you really get the “biblical theology” content. Though these themes derive from the text of the book or section under consideration, what you see as you read through the introductions is that these themes are not unique to a single section but recur over and over.

Another important feature of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible that helps tie these theological themes together à la biblical theology is the collection of 28 articles found at the end of the Bible. These articles, with titles such as “Sin”, “Law”, and “Exile and Exodus”, each attempt to tie together the grander biblical vision of a theme that has occurred throughout the Bible. They are written not only by many of the scholars who contributed to the Bible’s verse-by-verse annotations but also by some prominent Christian ministers, including Timothy Keller and Kevin DeYoung. This shift in authorship reveals the more marked pastoral intent for these articles as well as the editorial conviction that biblical theology is not something of relevance purely or even primarily for the academy. Rather, biblical theology in general – and this study Bible in particular – is really all about how the tremendous variety of theological voices within the Bible remain coherent and dynamically relevant for every age. These articles are an important distinctive feature of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.

Graphic Design

Overall, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible’s graphic design is simple, clean, even minimalist. Yet it is not really modernist. Rather, it strikes me as classic, calm, and conservative. It is not aiming to energize the reader subconsciously like a magazine or like many undergraduates textbooks might but to engage and focus the reader’s attention. What this means is that instead of using lots of different colors and lines and lots of side-panel inserts (design features that may give me the impression that what I am looking at ought to be fun and interesting but which give me a sense of chaos and make it difficult to know where I am supposed to be reading), the NIV Zondervan Study Bible keeps these kinds of things to a bare minimum. White space is jealously guarded rather than filled up with cross references (there are cross references, but these are carefully selected and kept to a minimum). A subtle background color difference effectively demarcates the annotations from the biblical text without distracting me. Full color illustrations, images, maps, and charts appear on the pages with restrained regularity. This Bible shies away from the use of full page or full spread feature articles within the text and rather gathers these all at the end, or else includes that information in the book and section introductions. The overall impression that the various graphic design and typesetting choices make on me is one of trustworthiness, academic integrity, and calm restraint. Honestly, this is one of the most appealing things to me about this Bible.

There's a loooooot of white space here.
There’s a loooooot of white space here.

I do have one complaint, however, that seems very minor at first but which has far reaching effects for this Bible’s usefulness to elderly people, a demographic that makes up a very large proportion of customers in a Christian retail store. The choice of single-column format for the biblical text has a kind of domino effect. Single-column format, while trendy and useful in allowing especially poetic sections to have meaningful line breaks, takes up a great deal more space than the more traditional two-column format, especially in those poetic sections. Looking through the poetic books, so much of the page is just blank. And because there is less biblical text, there is usually less commentary, as well. White space is good, but this gets a little silly, in my opinion.

What this does is inflate the size of the Bible. Having worked for years in Christian retail, I can tell you that without exception a single-column Bible uses more pages than a two-column Bible. This results in bigger, bulkier Bibles that are more expensive to produce and harder for people to carry around, especially elderly women. To accommodate this to a degree, the size of the type in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible has been reduced to what feels like an unusually small size. I am not, however convinced that the reduction in type size actually saves that much space, since it ends up producing yet more white space in the poetic sections, meaning more space wasted. Moreover, the smaller type makes this Bible a lot less appealing to elderly people (again) who more and more are opting for large print Bibles when there is an option. There is a large print version of this Bible, but to be honest its large print is not large enough to really consider it a large print Bible. Instead, all it does it create an absolute monster of a book that nobody, even the big 6’5” construction worker, wants to carry.

Almost certainly the single-column format is not a choice made by the graphic designers. Rather, this decision most likely reflects the editors’ pedagogical concerns, or perhaps even the publishers’ sense of aesthetics. It is not a new design decision. Bible publishers have been experimenting with single-column designs for many years. The NIV Archaeological Study Bible (originally released in 2006 – another monster of a study Bible despite not actually having all that many annotations in comparison with other study Bibles) uses an overall design approach that is very similar to that of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (especially in its single-column format). The Life Application Study Bible, which has been one of the best-selling study Bibles in the world for many years, also uses a single-column format. But somehow the Life Application Study Bible manages to do this while using a larger, more readable font, particularly in its large print variety. Admittedly, the Life Application Study Bible is a great deal more crowded on the page than the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, with smaller margins and a lot less white space (this is a point in the Zondervan’s favor), but when it is a choice between good design and readability, the average customer is going to choose readability every time. I hope maybe we will see a second edition that solves this problem.

Conclusion

Despite some questionable type-setting decisions that limit the usefulness of this Bible for an aging Christian population, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible is one of the best and most comprehensive study Bibles currently on the market. Its focus on biblical theology pays off in a big way. I highly recommend it.

Overview

Features

  • Uses the text of the NIV (New International Version)
  • Tons of verse-by-verse annotations with historical as well as devotional commentary
  • Superb book introductions that introduce the reader not only to the biblical texts but also to the state of biblical scholarship
  • 28 bonus articles in the end matter that focus on biblical theology
  • Lots of full-color photos, illustrations, charts, and maps interspersed throughout the text
  • Carefully selected cross-references
  • An access code to the NIV Zondervan Study Bible digital edition
  • 16 pages of full-color maps in the end matter
  • A reasonably extensive concordance
  • Available in large print, hardcover, a variety of leather or synthetic covers
  • Thumb-indexed editions are available

Pros

  • Contributors consist of some of the most important conservative scholars in the world
  • Graphic design aims for a clean and minimalist yet classic look with subtle touches to aid in visual comprehension
  • An intentional and effective focus on biblical theology makes a substantial contribution to the devotional value of this Bible for the average Christian

Cons

  • Small typeface, even in large print version, makes this Bible virtually unusable for an aging Christian population
  • Graphic design choices lead to uneven amount of content on the page: poetry sections can have pages with an inordinate amount of white space
438335: NIV Zondervan Study Bible, hardcover Buy the NIV Zondervan Study Bible at christianbook.com

NIV Zondervan Study Bible, hardcover
Eds. D. A. Carson, T. Desmond Alexander, Richard Hess, Douglas J. Moo, Andrew David Naselli

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4 thoughts on “Review: The NIV Zondervan Study Bible

  1. This is a great review! It is over all very positive and I know that younger people will have no worries about the small print or size of the Bible. I remember seeing young guys in my youth group in highschool hauling around enormous study Bibles like some sort of badge of their commitment to Christ!

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I intended this to be a very positive review. I like this Bible a lot. And you’re exactly right – younger people aren’t going to have any problems with the print. I’m in my mid-30s and it isn’t even close to a problem for me, even in its “personal size” variety (something I didn’t even talk about in the review). But I’ve spent enough time selling Bibles to people that I know that the number and kind of people who want a legitimate large print is sometimes surprising.

What do you think?