The ESV Archaeology Study Bible opens with an introduction emphasizing the goal of understanding the context of the Bible, in addition to expressing the “earthiness” of the Bible—that it is “rooted in space and time” (p. vii). However, the viewpoint that archaeology demonstrates the historical reliability of the Bible, often found in similar publications, was not included in the introduction nor is it an idea overtly stated throughout the volume. This viewpoint may have been omitted so that readers would draw their own conclusions on this topic. Following the introduction, biographical sketches of the contributors verify the commitment to scholarship for the project and show that those involved represent a wide range of expertise and experience.
The main text of the ESV Archaeology Study Bible is divided into Old Testament and New Testament sections, each of which begins with short background introductory material including “daily life” and a timeline. Features also include notes related to archaeology, geography, and history, photos, maps, charts, a glossary, and diagrams, book introductions, and 15 articles specifically written for the project (p. viii). Within the OT and NT, each book or collection of books, such as the Pentateuch or the Synoptic Gospels, is addressed by a particular scholar based on individual expertise. The editors frequently display a neutral stance and avoid disputes, or instead choose to balance both sides on issues of academic debate. Some of these include the date of the Exodus and Conquest, the authorship of several books, the time period of Job, or the composition year of Revelation. In contrast, the articles and commentary by the individual scholars generally take definitive positions, even if these are not blatantly stated. For example, the Exodus and Conquest are effectively placed in the “late date” 13th century BC category derived from a figurative numerical interpretation, while the introduction and notes for Revelation sympathetically suggest AD 69 as the date for its composition (pp. 85, 98, 283, 285, 301, 308, 1883, 1887, 1905–06). Consequently, those who prefer a historical 15th century BC Exodus and Conquest model might be disappointed with the sections addressing these periods. The articles and notes promote a 13th century BC position, and other than general context no archaeological evidence is presented which indicates that the Exodus and Conquest were historical events substantiated by archaeology. Rather, the commentary could be understood as the current archaeological finds and interpretation either contribute no definitive answers to these periods, or even disagree with a literal historical reading of the text of the Bible. Further, in the cases of the disputed sites of Jericho and Ai, positions of critical scholarship or etiological myth on these sites seem to be suggested as possibilities (pp. 292–95).
The notes and articles for the different book sections (Genesis–Deuteronomy, Joshua–Ruth, 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles, etc.) vary in depth of information, significance to the biblical text, and awareness of new discoveries. Study notes under the main text, throughout the study Bible, are copious and contain many useful nuggets of background information. However, major articles are few and explanations of the direct relevance of archaeology to the historical reliability of the text are scarce. There are also many omissions of important discoveries such as the Ebla Creation Hymn, details of the Atra-Hasis flood story, discussion of Sodom site candidates, Dialogue Between a Man and His God, Papyrus Brooklyn (except in reference to the “over the house” title of Joseph), Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, the nomads of Yahweh inscriptions (a cursory reference but incorrectly interpreted), Exodus Pharaoh candidates, excavations at Jericho relating to Joshua and Judges, the Gath/Goliath ostracon, discovery of David’s palace, Khirbet Qeiyafa and its ostracon, the Temple Mount Sifting Project, Jerusalem temple references such as the Jehoash tablet or Arad ostracon, inscriptions and bullae attesting to numerous kings and officials in Isaiah, the Nebo Sarsekim tablet, the Nazareth Inscription, the Pergamon “unknown gods” altar, and many others. A few minor factual errors might also be noticed, such as the hanging gardens erroneously attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II instead of Sennacherib at Nineveh, a confusion of the number and content of the different Sergius Paulus inscriptions, and the incorrect attribution of the Patmos Vera inscription to the 4th century AD (pp. 1201, 1623–24, 1887).
Overall, the New Testament material is proportionally more extensive, as may be expected, but the New Testament articles and notes also draw more direct connections between text and archaeology. The Synoptic Gospels section is particularly strong, with substantial geographical, archaeological, historical, and cultural information, and very few significant content omissions. Some readers may object to the modern academic position stated in the introductions that Mark was the first Gospel written, which contradicts the claims of ancient sources, but in contrast to other major sections, very little in the Synoptics commentary will be disputed.
The price of the study Bible is economical, and the overall production quality is high. Many readers will surely appreciate the ESV translation along with the contextual notes. The articles near the end of the text are helpful and informative, but hopefully readers will not miss these due to their placement away from the main content. Page limitations are understandable, but extensive space was dedicated to several commentary and article sections with strained connections or tangential information far in time and location from the texts they are linked to. For example, article sections appear on the Egyptian Hymn to the Inundation with a photograph of nilometer and paragraph long study note (p. 88), “Branch” (p. 976), Azotus (p. 1611), Assos (p. 1646), Earthquakes (p. 1902), plus many instances of historical summaries of biblical text. At the same time, explanations of important locations or artifacts were often omitted or cursory. The sidebar informational sections could have been more numerous and more specific so that their contributions to the study Bible would be more significant, and many topics seem to have been chosen which related only to general context rather than specific attestation of events and people—perhaps as a result of attempting to avoid controversy. Yet, in an age of unprecedented information accessibility, generalized sources face difficult competition, and with so many other exhaustive or specialist books and articles available, the ESV Archaeology Study Bible fits only a particular niche.
Overall, the volume could have benefited from more photographs, additional details on major artifacts and sites, the inclusion of important content which was omitted, and a more thorough engagement of historical debates and issues. The only other recent comparable product, the slightly older NIV Archaeology Study Bible, is not rendered obsolete by this new publication, and the two might even be used in tandem by many readers wanting to consult an “archaeology study Bible.”