Podcast: The Making of the ESV Study Bible (Justin Taylor)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

ESV Study Bible Origin Story

This month, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the English Standard Version—first published by Crossway in 2001. To help mark this milestone, this month we're releasing a number of fascinating interviews focused on the ESV and Bible translation.

Today's episode is a conversation with Justin Taylor—Crossway’s book publisher and project manager for the ESV Study Bible when it was being created—on how he first got connected to Crossway, what his day-to-day work on the project looked like in the early 2000s, and how the ESV Study Bible set a new standard for study Bibles when it was first released in 2008.

ESV Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible—created by a diverse team of 95 leading Bible scholars and teachers—features 20,000+ study notes, 80,000 cross–references, 200+ charts, 50+ articles, 240 full–color maps and illustrations, and more.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:52 - The Christian Drudge Report

Matt Tully
Justin, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Justin Taylor
Happy to talk to you, Matt. Thanks.

Matt Tully
It’s good to sit down again in person.

Justin Taylor
In person and in the flesh.

Matt Tully
Many of our listeners would know you in your role as Crossway’s book publisher. You’ve been at Crossway for a number of years now, but you’ve actually been involved with—broadly defined—in Christian publishing a lot longer than your time even at Crossway. I even want to go all the way back to when you first started your blog, Between Two Worlds. Take us back to that. How old were you? What were you doing when you started that blog? What was your original goal for that?

Justin Taylor
You’re testing my memory here and I feel like an old man in being able to remember all the details, but it was in the early 2000s when I was living up in Minneapolis and working at Desiring God for John Piper. That was my day job. Hugh Hewitt, the radio host, wrote a book called Blog. He was one of the early blog fathers, and when I read that book it was kind of like a rush-to-market book on why blogging is important and why blogging is the wave of the future and why everybody should be blogging.

Matt Tully
And you read it and you totally believed it?

Justin Taylor
I read it and thought, Yes, I like words and I want to influence people and I want to serve people. I remember specifically thinking, I’m probably too late for the game. Everybody else has jumped in and I’m this Johnny-come-lately.

Matt Tully
Did you have any writing experience before starting the blog?

Justin Taylor
Actually, Matt Perman and I began a website when we were in college at the University of Northern Iowa together called Contend for the Faith. It’s still on GeoCities.com or something like that. It’s somewhere out there. We would read theology and apologetic stuff and write articles in college and were kind of writing our own html, though I’m a very non-techy sort of person. So we started doing some of that, and I was editing some books with Piper and writing the introductions.

Matt Tully
At some point, it seems like Between Two Worlds became pretty popular and it had a certain type of power and influence in the sub-Christian culture that we all live in here.

Justin Taylor
I think that’s true. I think it’s a small sub-culture, so it’s not like it’s on the national stage. It was pre-Twitter days, so if some listeners only know of social media through Twitter, I was sometimes posting four or five blog posts a day, but they were short. I saw my role as not being a writer per se, but as being a summarizer and a pointer. Like, if you’re going to get online and you don’t know where to go, come to my blog and I’ll give you a good quote, I’ll point you to a good sermon, here’s a new video. I was kind of keeping up on all the latest scuttlebutt of what was happening in evangelical controversies and that sort of thing. Some people jokingly called me “The Christian Drudge Report,” which maybe is a compliment or maybe it’s a put down.

Matt Tully
Did you ever consider trying to make more of that and actually invest full time in some kind of online journalism aggregation?

Justin Taylor
I didn’t. It was interesting because Tim Challies and I—I think Tim started before me and has a different model than me—but he was more invested in it, perhaps, as a business model, and I was more thinking, I just want to post stuff each day and I hope people read it and like it. But I wasn’t checking my metrics all the time and that sort of thing. When Ben Peays, who was the executive director of The Gospel Coalition, came into my office at Crossway and said, Would you consider taking your blog from Blogspot—it was theologica.blogspot.com—and transferring it over to be the first blog at TGC?—that was an interesting thing to think about it. I haven’t always thought super strategically. I’ve always just wanted it to be helpful. I think it’s waned in influence, and I’m okay with that. I just like posting what I find interesting, and if other people happen to find it interesting, then great!

Matt Tully
Even if there was some sense in which you were behind the curve back in the early 2000s, the growth and explosion of noise online today just makes all that seem so quaint.

Justin Taylor
It does. It was a different world, especially without Twitter and the way in which that influences the way we process information and the amount of information. Back in the day, you could kind of maybe have your six or seven blogs and be up on what was going on in the evangelical world. Now, you have your one thousand different Twitter feeds that you could follow.

Matt Tully
Do you think any of the change in your own use of your blog, or even just the way that people could access it, I would have to think some of that would relate to the way that RSS sort of died out, effectively, and was replaced by social media.

Justin Taylor
Yes. I think that was a big thing, and then the Facebook algorithms, which you know a lot more about than I do. There was a time when you could post something to Facebook and it could kind of explode. Now, it’s like a little pebble in the ocean, sometimes with Facebook and just the way in which that whole business dynamic has changed.

06:30 - The Journey to Crossway

Matt Tully
You mentioned working with John Piper. You served as his executive editor at Desiring God for a number of years, and that was one step along the path toward working at Crossway and with the ESV Study Bible. Explain a little bit more about what your role there was with Piper.

Justin Taylor
I was one of the directors there and I think that my title was something like director of theological education. There would be questions coming into the ministry and to John Piper, and he couldn’t answer all of them personally. I would oversee the correspondence with people in the early days, editing all of his books, editing his sermons—which is providing feedback to him, but he doesn’t do anything remotely close to ghost writing. It was a very support-heavy calling and vocation. I traveled with him—not every traveling engagement, but going with him and supporting him in that way. It was a wonderful learning experience to be able to have a front row seat to his ministry and to see behind the scenes what was going on.

Matt Tully
Did you ever offer ideas or feedback on books that he was writing? Does anything stand out, in regards to any feedback that you offered, that maybe he accepted or said, No, thanks?

Justin Taylor
I’m sure there were a lot of things. He’s very humble and very much wants to have feedback and doesn’t say, Don’t edit me. I’ve written what I’ve written. He wants to go through the ringer and for people to give him critical feedback, especially the people that he’s close to and that he trusts. That work is ongoing at Desiring God with David Mathis and Tony Reinke and the other guys there. So, he would patiently listen to any suggestion that I offered. I do remember sitting at my computer in my office, getting the email from him that said, “Here’s the manuscript for Don’t Waste Your Life. Go through, rip it apart, give me your feedback.” So, I’m sitting there opening this email—

Matt Tully
How old were you at the time?

Justin Taylor
I don’t know—twenty-three or twenty-four?

Matt Tully
Young twenties, or early twenties.

Justin Taylor
Yes, somewhere in there—early twenties. Nobody else in the world has read Don’t Waste Your life other than John Piper at this point, and I’m reading it and I remember thinking, This is all really good, but I think he’s said most of this stuff before. I don’t know if this is really a viable new book. It has surpassed the original, Desiring God, in terms of the number sold, and it has had its own special ministry. I remember one in particular (with another publisher) where I thought, This is just a brilliant idea and is going to go gangbusters, and it didn’t do that well. So, I’m not the guy to come to for predictions.

Matt Tully
That speaks to the broader mysteries of the publishing industry. As you think about that time—the time you spent writing with Piper and working with him on words and in Scripture and all these theological and biblical ideas—do any lessons loom large in your mind, lessons that you have seen benefit you and help you later in your career?

Justin Taylor
I think that one of the biggest things that I learned from Piper, just because he hammers it so much and models it so well, is that your terms must be defined. To just assume that your reader is going to know what you mean—or worse, to couch things in an ambiguous way that can be taken one way or another, kind of appealing to two sides at the same time—he’s just relentlessly definitional and precise. If you read John Piper on, say, coveting, you may disagree, you may agree, you may agree with some things and disagree with some things. But there is no doubt in your mind what he means by that term because he’s going to clearly define it for you. That’s a frustrating thing with other authors. Let’s take a term like social justice. I could 100% agree with it or I could 100% disagree with it, depending on what you mean by it. But if you don’t give me a clear definition, I’m kind of at sea trying to figure that out. So, that would be one thing. I think another thing from Piper, just the sort of thing that he modeled in his writing and thinking, was he would never want to put together a statement of just affirmations. He would also want to put together a statement of corresponding denials. More people could sign onto the affirmations than the corresponding, but I don’t mean this and I disagree with this.

Matt Tully
That feels a little bit counter cultural right now where often there’s this idea of let’s find the things that we agree on and unite around the things that we can commonly affirm. But he would say there’s value in also acknowledging what we don’t agree on?

Justin Taylor
Yes, I think so. Let’s also unite around what we think is out of bounds and is inappropriate and is unfair, or unjust or unclear.

Matt Tully
When did you first learn about the ESV Study Bible project in its early days?

Justin Taylor
I was working for John full time and he was Crossway’s number one author. Crossway, at that time (maybe 2003–2005), they’re not a huge company. They’re not publishing that many books. I’m not sure the exact figure, but maybe 25–35 books a year.

Matt Tully
Compare that to now.

Justin Taylor
Crossway publishes 80–90, maybe five hundred? So, given my proximity to Piper and then given Piper’s role at Crossway as their top author, I had a pretty good access to Lane Dennis and the publishing team. They started pitching me some projects, like side Bible projects. For example, the Truth Bible—a paperback Bible with some supplemental material in the front and the back on truth; come up with a Scripture reading plan—

Matt Tully
They knew you could write and they knew you could do that kind of stuff.

Justin Taylor
Yes, they knew the editorial stuff, the interest, and that I was on the same page with them theologically. So, there were these little side gig projects that I would be happy to do here and there. Then, I remember them coming to me one time and saying, We’ve got a big project that we would like for you to be involved with as the managing editor. I think the original pitch was that I could stay working for Piper at Desiring God, but I could do this as a side gig for an intensive longer term thing. I was interested in that, but I was also kind of getting the vocational itch at that time to move on. I never envisioned myself retiring at Desiring God. I loved it there and I valued it and thank God for it; I just never saw myself as a lifer. So I was having that vocational itch to begin with and ended up flying down here and having conversations about what a possible position would look like.

Matt Tully
Did it become pretty clear to everybody that this would be bigger than a part-time gig?

Justin Taylor
Yes. I don’t think it took very long to realize that this is going to be a very full-time job. They did hire me eventually, and the study Bible was one project of—my title was something like Bible project manager—they had me doing these other Bible projects, but very quickly it became evident that this is going to have to be what you’re doing all day long. Part of that was because of Lane’s direction in terms of the timeline, that this was not going to be a five year, seven year, or ten year project. There was another publisher doing a study Bible that started way before the ESV Study Bible and published way after we were completed. So we had this very accelerated timeline involving a lot of people in different countries and a lot of cooks in the kitchen.

Matt Tully
What was behind that impulse from Crossway to keep the fire burning?

Justin Taylor
I think at that time the translation had been in existence for five years. It came out in 2001, so this was maybe in the beginning of 2006, but there weren’t a lot of supplemental resources to go along with it. We didn’t have a study Bible. I think that it’s hard for a translation to gain traction without having commentaries and concordances and—

Matt Tully
Tools to help you read it.

Justin Taylor
Exactly. Some things were being done here and there, but you’ve kind of got this translation floating along without any superstructure around it. So I think that was part of the impetus of, Let’s get this study Bible out there and let’s try to do it better than it’s ever been done. Let’s try to introduce features that would be uniquely helpful to readers. The sooner we can get this out there, the sooner we can accelerate the place of the ESV in evangelicalism, if they’ll have it. But it’s a key resource that—I don’t want to say that the ESV was limping along—but it didn’t have that structure around it to support it. The thought was that if somebody comes out with another big study Bible and that makes the huge splash—it wasn’t all just about competition or anything like that—but let’s do this sooner rather than later, and let’s work as hard as we can and do as good of a job as we can.

Matt Tully
It’s easy to look back from our vantage point today and see the growth of the ESV as a translation in the US and even abroad, and the success of the ESV Study Bible, and kind of assume that everyone back in that day sort of understood that was the trajectory that you were on.

Justin Taylor
There are a lot more translations that have failed than have succeeded, and even the ones that remain can kind of just be there. It’s difficult to transition an entire church over to purchasing new pew Bibles and going to wording that they’re not used to having. I think the ESV had an advantage there with it being part of the King James lineage so that there’s familiarity with the rhythms and the terminology. It’s one of the few translations—really the only one around—that’s kind of liturgically based. It can be an international translation that picks up on the cadences and the rhythm and the vocabulary that has been used for centuries. When you do a brand new translation, that’s harder. People haven’t heard that wording and that rhythm and that syntax before.

17:41 - A New Standard for Study Bibles

Matt Tully
You mentioned that there was this desire to do something special, to do something different, with this study Bible that had not really been done before. In what ways were you guys seeking to set a new standard?

Justin Taylor
We really wanted to walk somewhat of a tightrope in that we wanted the study Bible to have a theological identity and to have some coherence to it, and yet not be only a Presbyterian Bible or only an Anglican Bible or only a Baptist Bible. So, some flexibility, but also some robust identity.

Matt Tully
Was that a hard balance to figure out?

Justin Taylor
I think at times. I don’t think it was on paper. In practice, you get ten Bible scholars in a room and you’ll have ten different opinions not just on a particular verse, but how to approach things. A lot of times there are shades of nuance. If you get a hundred and twenty people working on a project, mainly by email, and lots of people are going to see things in lots of different little ways. Lane Dennis will probably have a specific reward in heaven for peacemaking and peacekeeping and Solomonic wisdom and decision-making and sorting through those sorts of things. I think that was one thing, that we wanted it to be a robust, theological, exegetical, biblical-theological, meaty study Bible that’s accessible, but based on the best research. We also wanted it to have design elements that would be uniquely attractive and usable. That influenced the way in which we thought about the typography. That influenced the way in which we thought about the drawings that went into it—the sort of research that went into that, whom we hired to do the drawings, how we did the maps.

Matt Tully
So those were created originally for the study Bible?

Justin Taylor
Right. It took a long time to figure out how we were going to do those drawings. I walked into Lane’s office one day and he had a bunch of these National Geographic travel brochures where if you went to Rome you could see this cutout illustration of the Colosseum. We were looking on the copyright page and wondering, Who does these things? Who draws architectural drawings? We found Maltings Partnership over in the UK—their specialty is drawing buildings. We contacted them—they’re not a Christian company—and we asked if they had ever done biblical reconstructions. They never had, but they said, You tell us what to draw, and we’ll draw it. So we hired the best. There’s an architect archaeologist who’s done more work in Jerusalem on the temple than anybody else in the world. He advised us very specifically along the way. It was an extensive process, but they did these just stunning images that, I think, achieved a new standard in terms of accuracy, but also just in terms of accessibility. They don’t look cartoonish; they look like the sort of things that you’re going to see in a National Geographic cutout of the Roman Colosseum.

Matt Tully
Getting modern-day Christians that much closer to actually understanding what these structures looked like.

Justin Taylor
Right. I’ve seen a lot of things on the Holy Land where you look at them but they’re contemporary pictures, which is great. You can kind of see what the sand or the hills or the trees look like, but there’s telephone wires in the background and all sorts of things. Our idea was not to do contemporary photography of the actual land, but to try to reconstruct what it would have looked like then so that, as best as we can tell, this is what Jerusalem looked like in the time of Solomon. This is what it looked like under Hezekiah. This is what it looked like in Jesus’s time. We were just constantly thinking about how to portray for modern readers what the ancient world looked like back then, and just to give as much help as we could. Another thing that we did that accelerated the timeline is that we typeset the book in-house—the whole thing. As you know, we have brilliant IT guys who can run scripts. The way that it was traditionally done before the ESV Study Bible was that it went to an outside firm who did it in a very tedious, laborious way. If any listener at home opens up their study Bible randomly, there are a lot of different elements on that page. There’s the biblical text, there’s the cross-references, there’s the notes, there might be a chart, there might be a map, there might be a drawing. So, if you change one sentence—in the old days before 2005—you had to manually shift all those things. When you have a book that’s thousands of pages—

Matt Tully
All of those ancillary elements that go alongside the biblical text, they can’t just be bumped to the next page. They have to be stuck to the relevant verse.

Justin Taylor
Exactly.

Matt Tully
It almost feels like an impossible task.

Justin Taylor
It’s very, very complicated, but Ray Elliot and others at Crossway wrote these scripts where it would automatically adjust everything. It probably saved us at least a year of time from getting it finished to actually getting it published.

23:14 - Robust Theological Articles

Matt Tully
When it comes to any study Bible, I think the core feature that people are probably most often buying that resource for are the study notes—the notes that accompany maybe every passage, if not every verse on every page. One of the things that the ESV Study Bible did that was really unique and robust—perhaps more robust than most people realize—are the theological articles in the back of the edition. Is there anything you can share about the genesis of those? Where did the idea come from for including so many robust articles, and then how did that decision-making process happen?

Justin Taylor
You’re right. I think that was something unique that really had not been done. I don’t know if it had ever been done before, or if it had, not very often. One of the reasons that I really loved coming to Crossway and working under Lane Dennis, Wayne Grudem as the general editor, and others is that there’s such a ministry heart behind this Bible. It wasn’t just, We need to get a certain market share or be the number one study Bible. We really want to serve God’s people. For most of us involved in it, we’ve been to seminary and we were blessed with being able to take classes on theology, ethics, New Testament and Old Testament, church history and the like. But recognizing the vast majority of people don’t have that opportunity—that especially is true in the majority world. For the English-speaking majority world could, if the Lord wills, this study Bible can be something like a mini seminary in a box. So, thinking about the pastor in Africa who might not have what most of us have—even if we don’t have huge libraries, most of us have a number of books on our shelves. Consider pastors in India who might have two or three books. To think about putting between two covers not only commentary on the whole Bible, but an overview of theology and an overview of ethics. If someone asks them, How does the canon work? How do you know that you have the right books in the canon? Well, let’s do an article on that. How do biblical languages work? What does archaeology teach us about Scripture? How do we know Scripture is accurate? What do we think about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons? You’re just an average Christian at home and you’re not seminary-led and you’re not a pastor. You probably don’t have a book on Mormon theology sitting in your home, but there’s an article—three pages in the back of your study Bible—that just very objectively lays out what Mormons believe. Here’s what the Bible teaches. So, there it is in your Bible, tucked in the back. We just want to serve God’s people and give them as much help as we possibly can. It’s robust, and I think it’s probably one of the more neglected parts of the study Bible. We’ve taken the theology articles, pulled them out, and just published them as a standalone book. We’ve taken articles on how to read Scripture—how to read it theologically, how to read it for personal application—those constitute their own paperback book. So, basically, you have a study Bible, and then you have like four or five books in the back of the Bible.

26:53 - The Practical Work of Publishing a Study Bible

Matt Tully
That’s so amazing. I do think it’s true that if someone were to read through all of those articles, and read through the whole Bible along with the notes that go along with each passage, it really would constitute a robust introduction to the whole scope of Christian theology. It’s pretty remarkable. Describe a little bit more in detail your day-to-day role with the project. What did your work actually look like?

Justin Taylor
There was a lot of work on the front end of conceptualizing what we were actually going to do. We needed to come up with a prototype for the notes. If you just write to a scholar and say, We want you to write 10,000 words on this particular book, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You need to give them a sample that shows we want it at this level, and here’s the style in which to do it.

Matt Tully
Do you remember some of those guidelines that you were offering?

Justin Taylor
I remember, just in broad strokes, the sort of things that we came up with because it’s a different genre. With a typical Bible commentary, you’re just writing about the text. But this is a very compact, concise way in commenting so that certain words are bolded in mid-sentence. So there’s a stylistic thing that’s actually complicated to think through how best to do this.

Matt Tully
You do that as a way to indicate to the reader this is an actual word from the text that I’m commenting on and explaining. But you’re sometimes just incorporating those into the sentences themselves.

Justin Taylor
Exactly. So you’re reading along and you see the word firstfruits and you’re kind of wondering what that means or what the theological significance is. Your eye glances down and you see that word bolded and you can kind of jump right to it visually. So, there was some of that. Figuring out who would actually contribute—not everybody said yes, so you’re thinking through your first ask, your second ask.

Matt Tully
It ended up being ninety-five different evangelical scholars.

Justin Taylor
Yes. From Australia to Japan to New Zealand to Canada to the US. I can’t imagine doing this project in the 80s or 90s even, but it was very nice to be able to do the vast majority of it by email. Once we got everything prototyped and everybody in place, then a scholar would say, Here are my notes on 1–2 Chronicles, for example.

Matt Tully
Would that just be a Word document?

Justin Taylor
Yes, a Word document. It would be one file, and you would have the introduction and the notes included. There was no ESV text, just notes—1 Chronicles 1:1, and then off and running. I would read through that and edit it. Shera Baumgarten, who got married and became Shera Grose, she was our project assistant. She would go through and conform things to our style guide, but I would do the first editorial pass conceptually. For example, Don’t we want to make sure we comment on this? or Are we sure we want to say that?

Matt Tully
You did that for every note?

Justin Taylor
Every note, yes.

Matt Tully
How did you actually do that? It feels like it would require such a level of knowledge of all of these biblical passages to be able to think, You didn’t really hit on this theme that I actually think is really important here.

Justin Taylor
I think it’s the sort of thing you could probably spend a year on every book going in depth, but I was reading through them quickly, and one of the goals that we had with it was—and this is something that Wayne Grudem stressed—let’s produce a study Bible that tries to answer all the major objections that people have. If there’s an objection about how Judas died—These two accounts are contradictory, and so that’s a Bible contradiction. The Bible can’t be true—we want your average evangelical reader to be able to pick up their study Bible and say, Let me look at a resource. Oh, the ‘ESV Study Bible’ addresses that.

Matt Tully
So it has an apologetic angle to it.

Justin Taylor
Yes. That wasn’t hard and fast; that wasn’t a dominant emphasis, but it was just quietly there. So I would have resources like Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. I just wanted to see if our author picked up that people allege that there’s a contradiction in the parallel account. So, that might be something that I would flag. There might be something theologically where it might be a little bit different than where we were at, maybe to the right or to the left or whatever.

31:43 - How Were Key Doctrines Handled?

Matt Tully
That’s another question: Were there key doctrines that you wanted to be represented robustly in the notes in some way?

Justin Taylor
The one thing that we wanted to do was to be ruthlessly fair with every position. So, not to denigrate other positions or to be unfair, but represent any position accurately. In general, it has a Reformed ethos to it—the broadly Reformed stream—that would encompass Presbyterianism, Baptists, and Anglicans in that broad Reformed big-God theology stream. We wanted it to be complementarian in terms of that conviction that this is what the Bible teaches. Again, to be fair to the other side; to explain that this is how other people read it. There’s a personal angle there for me because when I was in high school, somebody had just raised the issue of men and women in the church. In picking up one of the leading study Bibles, it just gave both views like, Some people say this, some people say that and moved on. I just thought, Well, I guess you can kind of just pick and choose either one of these. They’re both equally legitimate. So we wanted to have a confessional orientation on that issue in particular. But then when it came to things like dispensationalism and covenant theology—this especially applies to books like Daniel and the book of Revelation—we just wanted to be fair to both sides and lay that out, and not just push a specific view on that. So, a little bit broader stream on some of those eschatological issues, a little bit narrower on soteriological issues, but never trying to overtly push an agenda that didn’t arise from the text. We wanted to be in accord with what Scripture teaches.

Matt Tully
That is something that is notable about the notes. If anyone has spent a good amount of time reading them, I think they will notice that there are many occasions when there’s a little bit of, Here are these three different options and ways that people will often interpret this passage . . . Here’s what we think is the right way to think of it for these reasons. There does seem to be a pretty intentional attempt to present the mainstream options pretty fairly.

Justin Taylor
I think somebody who has more time on their hands could actually try to research this, but I think proportionately, 1 Peter may have more notes per actual biblical text than any other book in the ESV Study Bible. Tom Schreiner, our New Testament editor, wrote a commentary on 1 Peter, and years ago Wayne Grudem wrote the Tyndale commentary on 1 Peter, and they disagree on a key passage. It’s a lengthy note where they each give the best arguments. Here’s point A, and here are the reasons for it. Here’s view B, and here are the reasons for it. Ultimately, let the reader decide which of those sets of arguments are stronger.

35:13 - Spinning Plates

Matt Tully
Was there ever a point in the project—as you were juggling thousands of emails with all these people all over the world and trying to edit all this stuff and keep things moving—did you ever stop and think, I don’t know if I can do this or I don’t know if this is going to work? Did that sense ever strike you?

Justin Taylor
Well, those are two different questions: Can I do it? and Will this work? I don’t think I ever doubted that it would materialize, and I don’t think I ever doubted that it would really serve God’s people and be really helpful. It was stressful. If you interviewed Lane Dennis, I think he would say the same thing. It was an all-encompassing, long season. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but this is in the ballpark of one of the very first things I thought of when I opened my eyes in the morning and one of the last things I thought of before I went to bed each night. It was like, I’m going to go into work, open up my email, and there may be the first submission on 1 and 2 Chronicles. There may be the author to Galatians not happy with some of the edits. There may be the guy writing this Old Testament book that needs to delay his submission another several months. So, the spinning plates analogy comes to mind with a project of this size. I think I had some doubts that we could actually pull off Lane’s timeline, especially when contributors weren’t coming through, when there were some disagreements on the best way to handle certain things, but I don’t think I ever doubted that it would happen and that I could kind of stick through it, just putting one foot in front of the other. But there was so much excitement because I was basically reading this thing on my computer everyday, and nobody else in the world got to see it. I was looking at pictures of Jerusalem like I had never seen before, of ancient synagogues that had never been drawn. One day I said to the guys from Maltings Partnership and Leen Ritmeyer, our archaeological architect consultant, What would it look like if you actually looked at the temple from where the cross was (from Calvary)? Like, if you turn the whole thing around and you looked at the back of the temple? They realized, according to the reconstruction, Jesus could actually have looked over his left shoulder and seen the temple off in the distance. Nobody has ever shown that angle before. They’re like, Yeah, we can do it. We’ve never done it before, but we can do it. So, I’m looking at that on my computer and nobody else in the world has seen this, and so there was just so much excitement to think, I can’t wait for people to benefit from this and learn from this and be helped by it.

Matt Tully
Do you remember the moment, or was there a moment, when the significance of this project kind of hit you and you thought, This is going to be a big deal.

Justin Taylor
I think from the beginning we just had that sense that we were coming up with ideas and features that people had not done before. I think it would have been harder if we were just going to do notes, because people had done notes. The NIV Study Bible is a legacy and a contribution to evangelicalism. We could have just done that and I think I would have thought, This is good. We’re doing updated scholarship, and maybe it’s got a little bit more of a Reformed flavor. But being a part of that team that was saying, Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we add this in there? What if we had archaeologists go through all the notes and add different discoveries? Yeah, we can do that. So, that was the exciting part. It’s not like working for some gigantic corporation where you might have ideas and well, who are you to say it. It was a lean organization that if your idea was good and it was feasible and the others agreed with it, we could do it.

Matt Tully
Was there a specific idea or contribution that you had that got through the approval process and that you’re most proud of?

Justin Taylor
I think all the good ideas were mine, so it’s hard to choose. Just kidding. No, I can’t think of anything specifically. I think each person had their own suggestions and ideas. The one that was maybe the most interesting—this was maybe Wayne Grudem’s idea—and in a sense it didn’t work, but in a sense I think it did. We had archaeologists—one for the Old Testament and one for the New Testament—and we said, Come up with all the major discoveries—everything interesting—that has been discovered that historically confirms what happened, and just add those into the notes. We kind of melded them together. So you’re reading the note, and then you realize, Oh! They actually found this thing that mentions this person. Wow! That’s cool. Wayne’s idea was let’s have Vern Poythress do that and point to every way in which this is fulfilled in Christ and points to Jesus. Vern Poythress did it—and did it brilliantly and beautifully—but there was no good way to meld that with the Old Testament notes as they were written. It just kind of stood out like a sore thumb, not because they weren’t good, but it just interrupted the flow.

Matt Tully
It was a different kind of content.

Justin Taylor
Yes. Two legitimate ways of thinking, but trying to meld them together into one note just felt odd. So we ended up collecting all of those into the back and I think anybody who owns an ESV Study Bible might not know those are in there, but it’s just an incredibly enriching read to go through every book of the Old Testament and see all of the ways in which it points forward to fulfillment in Christ Jesus.

Matt Tully
The study Bible was published in the fall of 2008, and before it was even released, I believe the first print run of 100,000 copies was already sold out. Were you, and others at Crossway, expecting that kind of sales potential for this Bible early on?

Justin Taylor
I think we knew that it would do well. I think that it kind of fell in a gap where you had the old, venerable NIV Study Bible, which had not been updated like it is now, and then there were other study Bibles in the works. So, we knew that we were coming into an area where there wasn’t an overabundance of competing study Bibles that were just being released at the same time. We thought that it would get quite a bit of attention, but how much attention or what sort of sales figures they were predicting, I really don’t know. I know that with my own blog, I just asked permission: Can we just put up the whole introduction to Jonah?

Matt Tully
Why Jonah?

Justin Taylor
It’s a shorter book, it’s an Old Testament book, but it gives somebody a sample. I think some publishers were reticent like, We don’t want to give away too much material. But our philosophy was let’s post it. If you don’t buy the study Bible, at least you maybe got help just reading through this. But I think people were starting to see this content and wanting to see more from what we were doing. I can’t remember specifically. I think there was an expectation it would do well, but I think World magazine named it Book of the Year, so it was really gratifying and encouraging to see the sort of reception that it did have.

Matt Tully
The actual day that the study Bible was published was October 15, 2008—almost exactly thirteen years ago to the day. Do you remember what you were feeling on that day—the official release date? What were the emotions that were in your mind then?

Justin Taylor
That is a great question. It would be great if I remembered exactly. I do remember that we went to the printing press in Indiana and viewed it in advance and saw it coming off of the printing press. I had never actually seen a printing press before, and if somebody has never seen one—I suppose they’re on YouTube somewhere—

Matt Tully
A Bible printing press in particular.

Justin Taylor
Yes. The printers are the size of a football field. I had just never seen anything like it. That was moving. I had felt like I had been sitting in my office for years just looking at this thing on a screen, and then to see the color print being dropped on these rolling things going at warp speed, it was just mind-blowing.

Matt Tully
Do you remember when you first held a finished Bible in your hand?

Justin Taylor
I do, but it’s a little bit vague, so I’m not able to give you a great answer there. It was wonderful just to be able to open it and to see it in print. It was really the culmination of several years of work. One of the thoughts I had was—how old was I then?—I was in my early thirties and thinking, No matter what I do, this is probably going to be one of the most significant things I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of in my life. That’s a gratifying feeling.

45:14 - Groundbreaking Digital Access

Matt Tully
I think it was a pretty unprecedented move at the time: when Crossway released the study Bible, Crossway also released—I think concurrently with that—a robust digital edition of the study Bible that readers could receive for free with their purchase of the print edition. At the time, that was pretty groundbreaking. This was 2008. Just one year before, 2007, was when the iPhone was first released, which again, for most of us today that feels like eons ago. What was behind that? What were the conversations that led to the decision to release this digital edition?

Justin Taylor
One of the impressive things to me was that Crossway was always thinking about digital things—how to be responsive to the changing dynamics of what we’re experiencing in terms of this digital revolution. So there was always a forward thinking aspect at Crossway. Crossway’s got a classical, traditional ethos in some ways, and an innovative, nimble desire to react and adapt. So, that was one of the big things. You’ve got the NIV Study Bible, which is this brilliant, beautiful thing that’s been around forever; but what can we do, entering into this new space? We can not only put together the most beautiful and robust print edition, but uniquely make it accessible online for people. We knew where things were going, and we also had somewhat of a conviction that the prophets of digital-only were probably overstating things, that print would always remain with us until the end of the age; but if we didn’t have any digital access, we could get caught sleeping behind the wheel. That was sort of a two-prong strategy: put together something beautiful in terms of its binding and it’s color, but also make it accessible so that if you’re doing your sermon prep or your Bible study, you could have something right there. You can copy/paste and highlight. I think that was another reason that it was attractive to people in terms of using it.

Matt Tully
As you were working on editing stuff and you would then pass them off to maybe the Bible typesetters or some other print Bible team, were you also then working with the digital team to get this stuff ready to go online?

Justin Taylor
I didn’t have much to do with that. It was basically just turning it over to them in terms of typesetting, and then they were trying to figure out how to do this. How do you actually do it online? Now, it’s somewhat intuitive: Oh, of course, you do it like this. But do you have the Bible text on top on a split screen with the notes on the bottom? Or do you have two windows side by side, vertically aligned? How do you do charts and maps? Are those embedded, or do they open up into their own window? There were a lot of things like that that I gave occasional feedback of, I’m not sure that works or How are we doing that? One of the things the study Bible does, and I don’t think we were the first to do it, but if you go to 1 Chronicles, for example, we don’t just start with chapter 1, verse 1. It would start with 1 Chronicles 1:1–3:25 or something.

Matt Tully
A whole section.

Justin Taylor
Right. That first note would actually be summarizing the first three chapters, or a major unit. Then, in the print Bible, we would highlight that with a screen color behind it. How do you do that digitally? What does that look like? Do you use different fonts? So, a lot of decision making went on behind the scenes. Most of it I was mostly unaware of.

49:13 - Favorite Feature of the ESV Study Bible

Matt Tully
What would you say is your favorite feature of the study Bible?

Justin Taylor
I think one of the most important features—I don’t know if it’s the most neglected or not because I don’t know how people use the study Bible—but the introductions to the book (and this is a little bit of a broad answer to your question). When I’m going to study a book, that is such an important part of getting an orientation. It’s easy to just say, I want to dive in. What does this passage mean? But to go back and to have an expert really help you understand here’s what was happening in redemptive history at the time, here’s the theological message, here’s the outline.

Matt Tully
These are more than one or two paragraphs.

Justin Taylor
Right. They’re robust essays. With each one we’re trying to provide a map, talk about literary genre, outline the whole book, talk about purpose and background and occasion. At a higher level than that, there are section introductions. There’s an essay introducing the Pentateuch—the first five books. There’s an essay on how to think about and read the historical books. I think those are really some of the most valuable things in the study Bible. There are a lot of different things I like, but it’s really a road map before you begin the journey. You’re getting an overview of where you’re going and how to read it. If you don’t know the rules of the road with driving, you’re going to get messed up. If you don’t know the rules, hermeneutically, of how to read this and how to understand what’s going on, I think we can get off course pretty easily. I have a special spot in my heart for the section introductions and the actual introductions, but there are other things that I appreciate. I’m a chart guy.

Matt Tully
You post a lot of charts on your blog.

Justin Taylor
Yes, that’s true. I like seeing the maps, trying to reconstruct. I like pictures of temples and synagogues and the Galilean fishing boat that was discovered.

51:22 - Thinking Ahead

Matt Tully
It’s been thirteen years since this Bible was published. As you think ahead to the future—knowing what has come and knowing the impact that the study Bible has had on evangelicalism, broadly, and maybe even beyond that—what do you hope is true thirteen years from now, what would be twenty-six years of the ESV Study Bible?

Justin Taylor
I hope it has an enduring quality. I hope that when we look back at it at the quarter century mark, it doesn’t feel like, Oh, that was written for that particular time and space. That has these quirks to it. That was a 2008ish version. I hope that people would just benefit from it and say, This work helps me understand the work. I’ve sometimes said a little tongue-in-cheek that the most important feature in the whole study Bible is the grey line that separates the biblical text and the notes below.

Matt Tully
Unpack that. What do you mean?

Justin Taylor
Everything above is infallible. It’s true. It is life-giving. Everything below is an attempt to help you understand those life-giving words of the living God. But they’re fallible; they’re not perfect. They might not make every judgement correctly. But I hope that it would just continue to be a means of helping people go back up to the text. One thing that I think would be a failure is if people got really excited just reading the notes and they don’t use that as a springboard to be in the word—to be reading the word, to be shaped by the word, to be learning the word, to be letting the word shape us. It’s not a good thing to fall in love with the commentary and not to fall in love with the author and perfecter of our faith. So, that would be my hope, that people would continue to see this as a resource to help them meet God and to understand his word better. To read it better, to maybe be prevented from some of those missteps that are easy to make, that if you’re just trying to read the Bible—just you, by yourself, apart from the community of faith, apart from the rule of faith, apart from the creeds and the history of the church—I think you can be in a lot of error and enter into a lot of pitfalls. But this is, ultimately, a community project. It’s not the work of just one man, but it’s a community of scholars seeking the Lord, seeking to walk in the Spirit, and to unfold what God said. Not what we want it to say and not what we think it should say, but what he has said. So, that would make me very happy if people used it to understand the word better.

Matt Tully
Justin, thanks so much for helping us understand a little bit better the history of the ESV Study Bible and giving us a little insight into that story.

Justin Taylor
Thanks, Matt.


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