I want to thank Laura Bartlett and Mark Taylor for sending me a review copy of the NLT Study Bible (NLTSB). My review will actually take several posts. This first post will look at the physical aspects of the book, typography, arrangement, layout, etc. Later posts will look in detail at the content in the study notes and reference tools. At this early stage I am impressed with what the NLTSB offers students of the Bible.
1. Physical Characteristics
Overall, I am impressed with the physical setup of NLTSB. The size of NLTSB clearly indicates it is a study Bible, and so it will not be one to carry around. That is to be expected; I compared it to a regular on my shelf, the Concordia Self-Study Bible (CSSB), which is identical in size and weight. The binding seems to be good for this size book, but it will remain to be seen how well it holds up under regular use.
The font choices are pleasing. Sometimes in study Bibles the text size is too small for both the Scripture text and the footnotes because the editors want to cram so much in a limited space. Not so with NLTSB, which appears to use a heavier weight of the fonts (than CSSB) which makes both sets of texts readable even at the smaller size. The negative of such a choice is that there is bleed-through from the other side of the page (note intro page to Joshua, p. 372), but no more so than CSSB. For my use I prefer what NLTSB has done with the font choices. I like that the Scripture text is serif, and the study notes are sans serif which makes both readable but distinguishable. Well done!
Normally I prefer a single-column for Scripture text, but in a study Bible the two column format works well. For the introductory articles (NLT, Old Testament, New testament) NLTSB uses three columns, which I do not like. I think the two-column option is better use of space and for readability.
The placement of the cross-references, on the center binding, left something to be desired. I tend to like them on the outside of the page but then that relegates the Scripture text to an inner portion near the binding. There probably is not an easy usable system for those.
2. Front Matter
The Table of Contents is good, font choice and size. But I found it a little disconcerting that a little is left at the top of the next page. I would have preferred to have the Intro material (10 lines below word Contents) as one line, and then used the extra space to give the entire Old Testament and New Testament items. The introduction to the NLTSB is excellent, but can only be appreciated when actually looking at the portions in the study Bible. How to Study the Bible with the NLT Study Bible provides a quick introduction to study techniques, all very helpful for new students.
The NLTSB Master Timeline is excellent, giving all significant events from 4,000 BC to AD 330. Including the post New Testament era is perhaps the best study help for students, new and old. Too often we lose sight of the connection between the New Testament and the Early Church. This timeline bridges the gap nicely. Well done! The Overview Maps are a good idea, but with only two, they are too selective in time to be good overview maps – what names are to be used? Given the constraints, this is probably as good as can be expected. See my other very favorable comments about Maps in NLTSB.
It was nice to see the Contributors listed right after the Study Bible segments. Then when the NLT is introduced, the translators are listed immediately following. Good approach for both. One surprise, but very welcome feature, was the table noting Ancient Texts and Archaeology (pp. 8-10). It is especially helpful because it includes dates, sources, and Old Testament parallels. This will prove beneficial for longer term study and reference. Certainly the Old Testament has the most to gain by such tools, but it was surprising that a similar table was not included for the New Testament.
3. Study Features
The NLT Study Bible Features Guide (pp. A8-A9) provide a helpful introduction to each of the features mentioned. However, the actual pages in the study Bible are better than this overview shows. I had seen the features online, and in the seminar, but they do not do justice until you actually open the study Bible to a Book Introduction. The physical layout is superb. The map is well placed and is the right size with corresponding caption that gives map references to place names in the current book under study. The Timeline on the far-right column provides the appropriate information to place everything in historical context. The barebones Outline offers another aid in gathering information quick. Setting and Summary round out the typical first glance (two-page spread) of the book, with some books requiring more information in each, which pushes these to the next (i.e. Jeremiah, pp. 1204-5). This two-page introduction for the first encounter with a book is excellent, far better than the samples and demos indicated. For someone new to the book, this provides significant detail in a compact way.
The other book introductory material fills gaps in the first two-page view. Author, Date, and Other Historical Issues and Meaning and Message are typical of all study Bibles, so I would have expected such. They seem well placed and sufficiently abbreviated so as not to overwhelm the student. But the other three features that set this study Bible apart are the Chronology Articles, Epigraphs, and Further Reading. The Chronology Articles (i.e.2 Kings p. 649) are extremely helpful in the lesser known historical books (among many lay students). Even for experienced students of the Word, a simple refresher on the chronology is a welcome treat. When I first learned that there would be epigraphs I almost cringed because unless great care is taken, these often become nothing more than worked over devotional mush. So far in my use of the NLTSB I have found the Epigraphs to be high quality, insightful, and theologically significant. Well done to the editors for choosing appropriate quotes!
Further Reading is another fine addition for a study Bible. Because of its abbreviated nature, however, Further Reading is very selective. This can lead in several directions, the most recent commentaries/studies, only ancient commentaries, or obscure authors. NLTSB settled for the most recent commentaries, and of those, the editors chose solid works. Nevertheless it would have been nice to see solid works that have stood the test of time (i.e. Luther’s 8-vol. Work on Genesis, Chrysostom, etc.). Alas, NLTSB cannot contain everything. But at least those referenced works can point the student to even further reading beyond Further Reading.
Theme Notes, Person Profiles, and Cross-reference Systems are standard fair for study Bibles. NLTSB does a workable job, except I was disappointed in the number of cross-references. I expected to see many more. The CSSB offers significantly more references. For a student, cross-references can be the most valuable tool for long term, in depth study; granted, a complete/exhaustive concordance will fill that need. But the NLTSB seems to be inadequate at this point. Note: I am not referring to whether the actual cross-references are good choices, only on the lack of extensive cross-references.
4. After Matters
The NLTSB Reading Plan follows many study Bibles, but with one welcome twist. The introductory matter for each book is included as a separate reading item. This helps in reading in an informed way, and as a refresher for the next time through the reading plan. The only caution is for everyone to realize that the introductory material is not Bible Reading Plan, but a Study Bible Reading Plan, subtle, but important distinction.
Dictionary and Index of Hebrew and Greek Word Studies (pp. 2215-2226) offers a good starting point for investigating the original language texts. There are approximately 200 words that are annotated in this section. Again, I am not commenting on the content, but the presence of this tool. Especially helpful for new students are the guidelines and cautions about fallacies when studying the Bible (pp. 2215-2216). These words are then linked to Strong’s Numbers for reference to more advanced study. Also, in the cross-references in the Biblical text, each of these is noted and then linked to the next (major) occurrence of the word in the chain. A fine tool that could lead to further in depth study.
The Subject Index is helpful because it includes the reference tools in the lists with a two level division (sub divisions of each major word). The reference provides both the Biblical text and the page number. It is very helpful to have the PROFILE identified in the lists, for easy refreshing of memory on a person. Likewise, map references are included that avoids another index, the Map Index, found in many study Bibles.
The NLT Dictionary/Concordance blends two tools into a serviceable reference for someone wanting a summary view of the word. Again, the references are not extensive, but sufficient to get a sense of how it used in various contexts. After each word (non-people, non-place names) the words are identified according to English usage, noun, verb, adjective, adverb. For more advanced students this should not be necessary, although I found seminary students 25 years ago who couldn’t identify parts of speech, but for new students, this is another minor, but helpful aid in studying the Bible.
5. Maps and Timelines
For my use and preparation for classes, maps and timelines are critical. Maps can make or break a study Bible. I was pleasantly surprised by the maps in NLTSB, both the color maps at the end and the black and white maps throughout the text. I realize that the maps were made for the NLT1 and revised for NLTse, but it still impacts how they are used in this study Bible.
Color maps present some unique challenges that few Bible publishers get right. NLTSB offers the best color maps I have seen. The color combinations are not so overwhelming to the eye, and they do not overpower the text. The font choices for the maps is ideal because they are clear and readable even at a quick glance. The only minor exception is the blue font against a green or dark brown background (i.e. Jabbok River on map 1). The “direction of View” inset at the top of most maps is very helpful especially when the map itself shows only a portion of a larger area of interest. These are some of the most readable and usable maps I have encountered. Well-done.
The black and white maps maintain a readable format, thus being useful for glances in reference. I think it is very positive to have a map at the beginning of every book with a historical background. Another positive feature of these book maps is the references to places in the text. Again, well-done!
The timelines throughout the NLTSB make this another strong feature in a study Bible. I particularly like that the timeline ultimately extends to the Council of Nicea (p. 2203). This gives an excellent framework to put the New Testament authors and events as well as the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers. Most study Bibles ignore the importance of this feature; I am happy to see what NLTSB provides in this.
6. Conclusion – so far
Overall, this is the best study Bible I have used in terms of layout, design, and usefulness. From the standpoint of these features alone, this study Bible ranks as one of the best study Bibles I have ever used. Even the paucity of cross-references, while regrettable, does not detract from this conclusion. Granted, I have not yet begun an evaluation of the content of these tools, but first impressions have me recommending the study Bible as a valuable tool for learning and growing in the understanding of the Word of God. Thus, while I highly recommend the NLTSB from a design/layout perspective, this does not reflect any final evaluation and recommendation of the Study Bible.
If I have misunderstood some feature or characteristic or overlooked something, I would appreciate any feedback so I can update this.
The approach and features of the NLTSB reflect careful thought and planning on the part of the Study Bible team. They demonstrate concern for the average Bible reader who wants to know more, but does not know how to do that. They definitely have improved many features from previous study Bibles. Well done!
President, American Lutheran Theological Seminary (AALC)