Which reader’s Bible? ESV Reader’s Bible v. NIV Sola Scriptura

When I first touted the creation of reader’s Bibles, a friend of mine—and I use that term sincerely—felt a small helping of cynicism was merited.

He reminded me that their existence is motivated by profit. “Publishers release special editions of the same Bible just to grab as much money from your wallet as possible,” he said. “Never mind what’s trendy. God’s Word is the same no matter how they print it or what cover they put on the outside.”

He’s not altogether wrong, though I wouldn’t presume shameful gain is what drives Bible publishers. It is true that Scripture is Scripture whether it appears in two columns or one, includes verse numbers or not, or is wrapped by goatskin or cardboard. Even so, let’s not ignore the utility of multiple editions.

I own a thin hardcover Bible, for instance, with an elastic band. (Think of the strap on a Moleskin notebook.) I can toss it in a suitcase without damaging its pages, but I would never use it when preaching. The text is too small, and the cover is too stiff to lay flat when open on a lectern. Yet, I was happy to throw a few more dollars at the publisher for its usefulness in what may be an obscure need.

If you want my opinion, reader’s Bibles are serious contenders for the must-have category. Reading the Bible is mandatory for Christians. We can’t survive without the nourishment of those words which God himself breathed into the writers. Ask the average church-goer, and he’ll tell you that he does, in fact, read the Good Book on a daily basis. Ask an honest person the same question, and he’ll admit, “I know I should, but I struggle.”

Bible design matters

As one who has built hundreds of websites over the years, I can tell you that design matters. As one who loves to read, I can also say that book design matters. When I tweak the layout of a blog, I can watch traffic increase or decrease. If I change the font, the results inevitably vary. Every element on the page impacts how people perceive and use the site. Why should books be different than websites, cars, clothes, architecture, or anything else? Your subconscious knows quality whether you do or not.

Open most Bibles, and you’ll see two columns of text, an additional column of cross-references, footnotes, subheadings, chapter breaks, verse numbers, a tiny typeface, and paper so thin you can read the words on the other side of the page. The majority of KJV Bibles divide the text even further by placing each verse on a new line, splitting a single sentence into multiple paragraphs. Meanwhile, your brain is quietly screaming, “Close it! Put it away! Please don’t make me read this sad excuse for a book. The prospect alone gives me a migraine.”

standard bible layout

If you don’t believe me, open any other book (your favorite novel perhaps). You’ll notice the thickness of its pages, its optimal font size, its clean one-column layout, and the absence of any and all other distractions. It will be apparent that someone specifically designed that book to be (surprise, surprise) read. The contrast when compared to your Bible will be drastic enough to hear your brain let out an audible sigh of relief.

Could it be that Christians fail to read God’s Word as much as we should because publishers have not designed our Bibles for reading? Maybe we can share the blame.

Which reader’s Bible?

Personally, I’m thankful to God the tides are turning. I’m thrilled to see an edition of Scripture for every want and need under the sun, especially those which promote the one thing for which God intended the Bible: reading. A reader’s Bible may not be ideal for studying, traveling, or following along with your pastor on Sunday, but it’s perfect for reading, and that alone makes it a priceless asset to any believer.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask anybody who owns one. Better yet, purchase a copy for yourself, brew a cup of coffee (or tea if you’re one of those people; no offense), and spend an evening falling in love in the Word of God all over again. You’ll find yourself immersed in the text, pausing only after you’ve reached the end of a book. With no diversions on the page nor any obstructions along the way such as arbitrary chapter breaks, your brain won’t fight you, looking for an excuse to stop.

The question then becomes, which reader’s Bible will you choose?

At present, I own two of them: The ESV Reader’s Bible and The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project. I’ve either owned or examined several others, but these two editions remain my favorites for one simple, all-important reason: They meet every criterion for a fully-immersive Bible-reading experience. If for no other reason, they stand above the rest because they are multi-volume sets which allows them to have larger typefaces and thicker pages, making them more comfortable to read.

Bibliotheca

Of course, one cannot talk about Bibles intentionally designed for reading without mentioning Bibliotheca. Although Zondervan’s Books of the Bible existed before Adam Lewis Greene came on the scene, the success of his Kickstarter project deserves most of the credit for the release of every reader-friendly Bible since. Thank you, Adam, and I’m sorry for what I’ll say next.

bibliotheca

I love everything about Bibliotheca except the text itself. I don’t mean the typeface, which is a gorgeous original font. I’m referring to its translation, the American Literary Version, an update of the ASV. The language is just archaic enough to disrupt my flow when reading at times. That may sound strange coming from someone who grew up using the KJV, but I’m trying to explain why this aspiring minimalist with limited shelf space would rank Bibliotheca below its ESV and NIV counterparts, giving it away rather than keeping it. Two is my limit, and Bibliotheca falls third in line. You, however, may love everything about it including the translation.

One-volume options

As for single-volume editions, I can recommend a couple, but only if you want a reader’s Bible to carry with you when you leave the house or you have a tight budget. Otherwise, purchase one of the multi-volume sets. You’ll be happy you did.

My favorites include The ESV Reader’s Bible (single-volume) and The CSB Reader’s Bible. Frankly, every feature of these Bibles (i.e., cover, page count, font size, overall quality, etc.) is so similar that I can’t choose. The final decision comes down to a choice between translations. I’ll let you research their differences on your own.

ESV Reader’s Bible v. NIV Sola Scriptura

That just leaves us with a battle between the best of the best: The ESV Reader’s Bible and The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project. It is my firm opinion that you cannot go wrong here. Unless you have a strong preference for one translation over the other—I know some people who despise the NIV; I could tell you why, but I’d rather you ask them yourself—all distinctions we can make will border on nitpicking. (Cover designs might be the exception. Why yellow, Zondervan? Is that supposed to be wheat on the spine?)

I’ll briefly evaluate and compare their various features one at a time.

Cover design

While Crossway offers a cowhide-covered ESV, I’m one of those strange people who enjoy the look and feel of cloth more than leather. Plus, my frugal wife might have shot me for spending hundreds more on the premium version. So, I can comment only on the cloth-bound edition of the ESV.

The appearances of the ESV and NIV are undeniably different, though their textures are nearly identical. As I mentioned, the NIV’s cover is yellowish—Zondervan calls it caramel—while the ESV is a brown-tinted gray.

readers bibles

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m tempted to objectively declare the ESV’s aesthetics superior to the NIV. It looks like a timeless set of books.

Size and dimensions

The NIV is four volumes: The Torah and Former Prophets, The Latter Prophets, The Writings, and The New Testament. The ESV is six volumes: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetry, Prophets, Gospels and Acts, and Epistles and Revelation.

Since the ESV groups books of the Bible in their traditional order, the size of each volume varies more than those of the NIV. To keep all of the prophets’ writings together, for instance, that book has to be much thicker than the rest. The NIV, on the other hand, rearranges the books into a coherent order, allowing each volume to be the same size. For example, Paul’s letters are now in historical order rather than in order of length.

readers bible sets

I give this round to the NIV. Its arrangement of the books is unique, not to mention helpful, and each volume is a pleasure to hold in my hand. The ESV loses points with its thick and weighty Historical Books and Prophets.

Page opacity

The NIV’s paper is white, coated, and opaque. You cannot see through the pages unless you are trying much harder than anyone ever should. The ESV’s paper is cream, uncoated, and slightly less opaque. You will see words through the page, but not enough to be distracting.

I’m torn between the two. My eyes are drawn to the uncoated cream pages of the ESV, yet I have to give the NIV credit for its remarkable opacity. You can be the final judge.

Typography

The ESV’s typeface is a gorgeous 12-point Trinité No.2 Roman font. Like all ESV Bibles, though, its paragraph breaks do not follow conventional standards. They are too long, and I think Crossway should be fined for committing vulgar crimes against modern elements of style.

esv typography

The NIV’s typeface is an attractive 10.3-point Karmina font. I would name the ESV the immediate winner here—12-point font is the quintessential size—but at least Zondervan knows that lines of dialogue should begin new paragraphs.

niv typography

Both aspects considered, the NIV squeaks out another victory over the ESV. In this case, I’m willing to trade more font for more paragraphs.

Conclusion

Ask me which reader’s Bible I’d save if my home office caught on fire and, after a moment of painful deliberation, I’d probably say The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project. The translation is smoother and the formatting, preferable. Despite my distaste for its blue and gold exterior, every volume is comfortable to hold. I can live with a slightly smaller font on coated paper.

Then again, I suspect The ESV Reader’s Bible will endure the abuse of daily reading longer than the NIV. Its construction is of higher quality. If I see smoke, maybe I’ll grab the ESV instead. It’s a tough call.

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