Stud bibs

Study Bible Roundup: Ezra

Today I’m introducing a new feature called Study Bible Roundup. In these posts, I will select a challenging story or passage from the Bible, and then survey the commentary in four popular “study Bibles”: The NIV Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible (yes), and The Extreme Teen Bible (yup).

If you grew up in a conservative and/or evangelical church tradition, I don’t need to explain study Bibles to you. For everyone else, these are giant tomes which contain the full text of a popular Bible translation along with commentary from editors, usually pastors and apologists. Study Bibles often claim to be objective and scholarly, but typically cater to specific markets or denominations. These are the only safe and approved educational apparatus available to many Christians.

My goal in this exercise is to see how these commentaries handle the text in question. Do they consider history, language, and politics in their analysis? Do they acknowledge potential issues in the text and, if so, what responses do they offer? I’m not expecting them to reach certain conclusions, I’m just looking for a well-rounded and intellectually curious presentation. For this first installment, we’ll piggy-back on our previous post about the book of Ezra. Will our study Bibles acknowledge and address objections to the content of Ezra, specifically the mass deportation of women and children? Let’s take a look.

NIVNIV Study Bible

While I give the NIV commentary credit for a fair amount of historical detail (mostly geographic trivia), its exposition of Ezra 9 and 10 is basically a covert apologetic. Covert because it never openly acknowledges any potential difficulties in the text, yet it consistently builds a case for the necessity and propriety of Ezra’s edict about “intermarriage” (the word is used pejoratively). 

Two rationalizations are offered for Ezra’s deportation, one scriptural and the other historical. First is an appeal to Malachi 2, in which the prophet condemns Judah for figuratively shacking up with a foreign god/wife. Next is the non-biblical cautionary tale of the Elephantine settlement, a community of Jews in Egypt roughly contemporary to Ezra which was eventually assimilated into the greater population. The sense is that Ezra is right about Judah, that intermarriage is both a sin and a threat to national security, and that the shame and repentance of the people was the only fitting response.

The only crack in the veneer is a comment on chapter 10 verse 15 which acknowledges that Ezra was opposed by four other priests, possibly because they found his measure “too harsh.” However, the commentary also wonders if these men might merely be acting out of self-interest.

ESVESV Study Bible

Like the NIV, the ESV commentary speaks of “intermarriage” as a serious problem and the chief sin of the men of Judah. There is no ambiguity or restraint in this analysis: the foreign women are “wicked” and “idolatrous” by nature, and Ezra’s deportation program was nothing less than faithful obedience to God’s command to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). There is no view to a political battle or any wider historical perspective. There is even an attempt to neuter the meaning of 10:15 (about the opponents of Ezra’s plan).

I would characterize the ESV commentary as intensely unapologetic in its insistence that Ezra represents a god’s-eye-view of an authentic and exemplary revival. Ezra himself is seen as a bold and godly leader, a Phinehas whose zeal for the Lord led him to perform drastic deeds of “righteousness.” There is no room for sympathy for the banished women, who were inherently evil, or for their children, who paid the price for their parents’ sin in accordance with God’s “justice.”

APBThe American Patriot’s Bible

Whereas the NIV represents a covert evangelical apologetic and the ESV an intensely Reformed theological buy-in, the “American Patriot’s Bible” (APB) is an unabashed flag-waving midrash on the entire Bible, reimagining it as a textbook about American greatness. Under that banner, the little book of Ezra is actually a big deal: a tale of restoration, reconstruction, and bold leadership. Hey, just like America!

The APB does not provide verse-by-verse commentary like the NIV and ESV, rather it interjects short inspirational blurbs throughout the text. Between 9 and 10, the chapters detailing the deportation, there is a short profile of the 19th century evangelist Peter Cartwright, who baptized and converted thousands of people in the deep south. The implication is that Ezra has performed a similar function, convicting the men of Judah of their sins and providing the way “back to God.”

Elsewhere in Ezra, comparisons are made with U.S. presidents from Washington to Reagan, and (I kid you not) figures like Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. To give the APB an ounce of credit, they are specifically referring to Ezra leading people out of the slavery of exile. But given the parade of refugees this book leaves in its wake, those might not be the wisest comparisons to draw.

ETBThe Extreme Teen Bible

The Extreme Teen Bible (ETB) is a hip and totally-in-your-face study Bible for young evangelical Christians. I really wanted to make fun of this thing and exploit it for laughs, but I must confess that it completely surprised me. Not only does it go out of its way to explain to kids that the Bible comes from another time and culture, it is the only Bible on this list that anticipates and directly addresses objections to Ezra’s pagan purge. I may not be on board with their answers, but I applaud them for even making the attempt.

In a blurb labeled “Intermarriage,” the ETB says the following: “Intermarriage wasn’t a moral problem. People are people no matter where they are from. But intermarriage was a spiritual problem. All the surrounding cultures worshiped idols. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you will take on all their beliefs and practices, but it does mean that you will be influenced by them.” And a comment later in chapter 10 stresses that the intermarriage crisis was not about “race” but about “worship.”

Wow. While I think this is ultimately a poor response to the objection (racial discrimination is immoral but religious discrimination is not?), I am nonetheless heartened to see an affirmation of basic human dignity in this conservative Bible aimed at young people. Despite its goofy cover and outrageous fonts, the ETB manages to be more thoughtful and open-hearted than any of the other Bibles on this list. Too bad that it ultimately falls back on unsatisfying answers.

What did you think of this feature? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know.


  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    Josh, this was really interesting. I no longer use study Bibles, but I am very familiar with them from the past (especially the NIV). I notice you did not include the granddaddy of evangelical study Bibles–the Scofield KJV. Probably a good call.

    • Josh Way

      When I was young and first became curious about bible scholarship, I excitedly looked to study bibles as they were the only resource available. Over time I became disillusioned because I realized they were not designed to foster curiosity or learning, but only to reinforce doctrinal boundaries.

      I considered including Scofield, and may do so in a future installment! (Gotta keep it fun!)

  • Justin (emergenscenery)

    I really enjoyed this! I would love to see more of these sorts of posts. Thanks, Josh!

    • Josh Way

      Thanks, Justin!

  • Robin Tulley

    Thank you for writing about the problem with study Bibles. I became a Christian 40 years ago as a teen and have actively chosen to read from Bibles which are just text, with cross-references in the margin. Even so, there is a bit of an agenda with the references they chose to mention which is why I add my own as they come to mind. In particular, I’ve noticed that while an Old Testament verse may contain a reference to a New Testament verse it is often not reciprocal back to the Old Testament verse.

    I am currently reading through The Jewish Study Bible for the second time. This version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) is published by The Jewish Publication Society. The individual book introductions and study notes are detailed and scholarly and will mention various interpretations, including Christian views at times. There doesn’t seem to be an agenda to make sure the reader comes to a particular opinion as to “correct” doctrine. The notes will include issues regarding the manuscripts, problems with translation, historical context, etc. I have found the straight-forward honesty of this Bible very refreshing.

    I have a Life Application Study Bible (NIV) and it is interesting to compare its study notes with those in The Jewish Study Bible. The Life Application Study Bible doesn’t seem to ever mention that there are debates as to the authorship of a particular book or problems with its dating and it certainly never hints at any problems regarding the translation of the text. It is meant to support and reinforce the Evangelical party line.

    I also have an Open Study Bible (NASB) and its notes do mention problems concerning authorship, translation issues, etc. However, they chose their words carefully to cloak problematic matters in such a way that an uneducated reader would just gloss over them without picking up on the deeper issues.

    I recently purchased The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV) which has notes written by Jewish scholars to explore the Jewish context of the NT. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

    • Josh Way

      Thanks so much, Robin. I have both the Jewish Study Bible and the Jewish Annotated New Testament! I find them very helpful in expanding my perspective on the text. I also have a JPS book called the “Etz Haim,” the Tree of Life, which is a rabbinical commentary on the Torah. A very fascinating resource.