Six Weeks with the 6-Volume ESV Reader’s Bible

A couple thing up front, just to help you understand where I’m coming from with this review. One, I love to read. I know some people just don’t enjoy curling up with a good book, but I find it relaxing and enjoyable. At any given moment, no matter what I’m doing, I’d rather be in my recliner chair with a cup of coffee and a new novel. Two, I love the Bible. I believe that the Scriptures are the greatest earthly treasure that God has given his people. Everything necessary for life and godliness, great and precious promises, and unspeakable glory are found within its pages. My life’s mission is to know and love the Word of God and the God of the Word, and help other people love him too.

I love reading and I love the Bible. Which is why what I’m about to say next may strike you as strange: I have always found reading the Bible difficult. I’ve often marveled at this discrepancy. After all, I love laying on the couch with a new novel and can stay there for hours at a time. And yet opening up my Bible for ten minutes seems like a task of Herculean mental effort. By God’s grace, regular devotional and study reading has been a part of my Christian life as long as I’ve been following Jesus, but that regular discipline has been difficult to motivate and sustain. Part of that struggle certainly is my heart’s sinful bent against God’s Word; every day is a war to love the Bible and prioritize time with God over the ten thousand distractions that seek to crowd him out.

But beyond the spiritual warfare of Bible reading, there’s a practical difficulty as well. The act of reading the Bible itself is hard. When you open up the Bible, the task set before you is daunting. Multiple columns of tiny type, see-through pages, chapter and verse numbers cluttering up the text, and cross references and footnotes filling up the bottom and sides of the page. It takes several minutes of diligent, focused reading to just be able to turn the page. The layout of the text, chopped up by verses and chapters and headings, lends itself itself to distraction. It’s hard to sit for five minutes wading through a thousand words and hundreds of verses and cross references just to be able to turn the page and do it all again. Think about it: a page from your Bible looks more like something out of a reference manual or encyclopedia than a novel. When’s the last time you curled with the Encyclopedia Britannica for some light bedtime reading? Do you look forward to a weekend of laying on the couch reading your car’s owner’s manual? Of course not; those kinds of books, while helpfully arranged for quickly looking something up, are not designed or intended for extended, immersive engagement.

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I’ve always tended to spiritualize my and others’ difficulty reading the Bible— if you aren’t regularly reading the Bible, you just need to repent and love God’s Word more! But what if the practical difficulties posed by the design and layout of our Bibles contribute just as much to our struggle to love the Bible? What if the encyclopedic nature of our Bibles is what’s driving our experience of the Bible as dry and boring?

You may not be aware of this, but most of what clutters our modern Bibles is a relatively modern invention. When Paul wrote Romans, he didn’t annotate it with little verse numbers; he just wrote a letter. Verse and chapter numbers weren’t added until the Middle Ages. Cross references and footnotes came even later, not appearing until less than a hundred years ago. In fact, it wasn’t until relatively recently— the past few hundred years— that the Bible was even printed as one combined volume. After all, the sixty-six books of the Bible are a whole lot of text; it wasn’t possible to cram it into one volume until advancements in book binding and paper production allowed thinner paper to be used. (To put this in perspective, the number of words in the Bible is roughly equivalent to the entire Harry Potter series; imagine cramming the entire series into one book).

Don’t get me wrong; all of these things were helpful innovations. It’s super convenient to be able to say, “Turn to John 3:16,” and have everyone arrive at the same sentence. Footnotes and cross references can be a useful study tool. And it’s certainly nice to have the entire biblical library in one portable volume that I can carry around with me.

But as we’ve added all these tools and improvements to our Bibles, somewhere along the way we lost something valuable: the experience of reading the Bible as it was actually written, as a book. If you’re like me, this was probably something you didn’t even realize you had lost. Every Bible I’ve ever seen follows more or less the same design cues, so it never occurred to me that I was missing something. This is just the way the Bible is, or so I thought. And so I— and most Christians I know— have been regularly confounded by our struggles to read and enjoy the Bible.

Enter Crossway’s most recent publication, the 6-volume ESV Reader’s Bible. This new Bible starts with a premise so simple that I’m astounded I never thought of it: what if we just take out all the clutter we’ve added in over the centuries, and return the Bible to its original design? And what if instead of starting with the premise that we have to cram a million words into one volume— which of necessity yields a book with tiny type and incredibly thin paper— we instead just admit that this is a lot of text and it would be far easier to read if it were in multiple volumes? Put those two design decisions together, and what you get is a Bible unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

 

Open up one of the six beautifully-bound volumes and what you’ll see doesn’t look or feel like any Bible you’ve ever seen. It looks and feels… well, like a book. When you start reading, there are no verses or chapters or frequent headings to break up the flow of the narrative. You just… read. The type is large enough to read comfortably, and you move from page to page at a brisk and encouraging clip.

You might be thinking, “This is all well and good, but could typography and design really make that much of a difference in my reading experience?” That’s what I wondered too. So, on the first day the books arrived in the mail, I lay down on the couch and started reading the gospel of John. Even that simple position— laying down instead of sitting in a chair or at a desk— was something that would have been difficult with my usual Bible. The floppy cover, the thin pages, the tiny type, all make it difficult to read laying down. That’s a small observation, but it’s potentially significant, and it points to how much easier these books are to read than a “normal” Bible.

So what was it like to read the Bible in this new (or should I say, old?) format? Let me put it this way: forty-five minutes after laying down on the couch, I was shocked to discover that I had just read the entire gospel of John. Without meaning to, without trying, I had just accomplished something I would never have hoped to attain before: reading an entire (long) book of the Bible in a single sitting. And I wasn’t speed-reading or skimming, either. In fact, I saw more new things in John— more glimpses of the heart of Jesus, more insight into the structure of the narrative, more understanding of what Jesus says and does— than I had ever seen before, in all my years of Bible reading. It was as if in all my years and years of Bible reading, I had only ever seen the movie version of the gospel of John, and now I had just read the book for the first time.

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“This is crazy!” I thought. But maybe this new format lends itself particularly to narratives like the gospels? What about the other forms of literature in the Bible? So I pulled out the “Prophets” volume and opened to Isaiah.

And it blew my mind. I had always known—intellectually, at least— that much of the Bible, including Isaiah, was written as poetry. (That’s why the lines are broken up in your Bible). But crammed into two columns with verses and chapters and footnotes and cross references, it had never actually felt like poetry. Instead, biblical poetry had always felt sort of scattered and choppy and difficult to understand and interpret.

But in this new format, my experience of biblical poetry was completely different. It actually felt like poetry. The imagery and beauty and flow of the poetic language staggered me. In all my years of Bible reading I had never noticed or felt the impact of the poetic language. I had been reading these same words, but it was like I hadn’t actually seen them. Again, I felt like I was reading Isaiah for the first time.

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You need to understand, when I say that I felt like I was reading these biblical books for the first time, that’s no small claim. I’ve been a Christian for 16 years, and most years I read the Bible cover to cover as part of my regular devotions. My undergraduate studies were in biblical theology. I’m in full-time ministry and preparing to be ordained as a pastor. I’ve written four books unpacking biblical truth. I don’t say those things to brag, but rather to heighten my claim: I’m practically a professional Bible reader, and I’ve never experienced the Bible like this.

The weeks since that initial encounter with the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible have only confirmed and deepened my conviction that reading the Bible like this is a life-transforming experience. I mentioned that my daily devotional is a through-the-Bible reading plan; reading through the Bible in a year has always been a manageable but difficult task for me. But since getting the reader’s Bible six weeks ago, I’ve blown through about three-quarters of the Bible. I’m on track to read the whole Bible in less than two months. Two months! That would have been absolutely unthinkable with my old Bible. And I feel like I have seen more in Scripture, mined more gold from the depths of God’s Word, than I have in years of laborious Bible reading. And yet it hasn’t been laborious; it’s been me in my recliner chair at home, or chilling at Starbucks, or, yes, laying on the couch, devouring the Bible with unprecedented speed and ease and clarity.

That speed of Bible reading shouldn’t be surprising; after all, I once read the entire Harry Potter series in a single summer (I wasn’t working that summer, so I had more free time on my hands, but still). Reading a similar amount of text in a whole year shouldn’t feel daunting or impossible. And yet it does— which, I’ve now discovered, is in large part owing to the design of contemporary Bibles. But just think of the difference a readable Bible could make in your Christian life: God’s Word is the food our regenerated souls were designed to feed on; it is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to renews our minds and gives us wisdom and strengthen our faith. All this time we’ve been struggling for five or ten minutes of Bible time, hampered by our cluttered modern Bibles. Imagine what reading through the Bible every year, or every six months, or every three months, could do for your walk with God. That’s the kind of impact I’m finding this Bible is having in my life.

I know what you’re thinking: yes, having the Bible in six volumes is kind of a pain. I still carry around my old Bible, in addition to the volume I’m currently reading through, because it’s helpful to be able to quickly look up a verse. In class and in church, my old reference-style Bible is still most useful. The Readers’ Bible isn’t intended to replace your other Bible, but rather to supplement it. Reference-style Bibles are good for what encyclopedias and owner’s manuals are good for: quickly finding information you’re looking for. What the Readers’ Bible excels at is devotional life and enjoyable reading. And that, I now realize, is something has been missing in my walk with God.

I’m not usually one for recommending products, especially in a context like this, but I’m making an exception here. Get this Bible. Unfortunately, any hardback six-volume set of books is going to be expensive, especially for one so lovingly crafted as this. The 6-Volume Reader’s Bible normally retails for $199. As of this writing, Westminster Books has it on sale for $100. If that’s too steep, Crossway sells a Reader’s Gospels, which is just Matthew-Mark-Luke-John in this format. It’s $20 on Amazon, but again Westminster Books has it for only $10. If you’re curious about this new format but unwilling to drop a hundred bucks on it, the Readers Gospels is a good place to start. Crossway also launched a website for the Reader’s Bible, which has a cool video explaining the love and care that went into crafting such a beautiful product, as well as reading plans for each volume.

Some more pictures:

 

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