Review of the Oxford Study Bible

The Oxford Study Bible, Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha.  Suggs, Mueller, and Sakenfeld, eds. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Well, it took me an entire year, but I finally did it.  I read The Oxford Study Bible, Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha (OSB), in its entirety, and I would like to give a broad, general review.

This was my first experience with the Revised English Bible (REB) translation as well as the Oxford study apparatus, so I will comment on translation and edition separately.

The REB

The REB is probably under-appreciated on this side of the pond; it isn’t available online, and finding a hardcover edition (at least an affordable one) of the OSB is rather difficult.

I could try to compare the REB to an American translation, but it resists being boxed up.  As for equivalence in translation, it is occasionally rather literal and often more dynamic–sort of like the New International Version (NIV), but distinctly British.  In fact, I often found myself reading it, silently, with a bit of a British accent.  It probably reads much like average Brits would talk, which I guess is to its credit.  A bit more formal and dignified than, say, the New Living Translation (NLT), but not nearly as stuffy as our more literal translations (English Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New King James, etc.).  The REB does have some quirky wording now and then,* but I understand that the REB is much less innovative (read heterodox) than its predecessor, the New English Bible (NEB).

The REB occasionally takes great liberties in rearranging the biblical text, “correcting” what it assumes to be corruptions in the transmission of the text (see Job); and although this sounds questionable, it is actually very helpful.

To its credit, the REB deletes nearly every vocative “O,” giving it a more contemporary sound.  However, the REB persists in the pesky habit of translating the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” (with a lowercase “s”) when referring to God’s Spirit (with an uppercase “S”).  Does this betray a non-Christian approach by the translators?

I also had never read all the deuterocanonical books of the Bible before I read this edition (I know: shame on me), which sandwiches them between the Old and New Testaments.  Very clear and understandable.

Overall, I enjoyed the REB.  It was fresh, different, and challenged my too-familiar reading of the Bible.  I would probably stick with an American translation when recommending Bibles to those I know, but it’s definitely worth the read.

The Oxford Apparatus

The OSB is basically a compendium of Modernist biblical interpretation from the Enlightenment era–like you would get in a secular college class on the Bible.  The articles and notes are not written for spiritual edification, and they aren’t even necessarily written in a Christian (or really any kind of religious) voice.  Unfortunately, the scholarly perspective is written from a dry, skeptical, outsider’s viewpoint–a dissection of the text like so many frogs in biology class (I lament that academy and church have been largely separated, but that’s another post for another day).

Introductory Articles

The OSB provides 199 pages of articles titled “Understanding the Bible and Its Communities.”  Truly, it’s about as exciting as it sounds.  Mostly, these articles are historical-critical boilerplate: they assume the source theory for the OT (the elohist, jahwist, and priestly sources), minimalist archaeology, late dating for nearly everything, and have a generally non-religious, “scientific” approach to the Scriptures.  There are some very helpful articles on historical context and archaeology, but I would not recommend this edition to my church family.  Alas, it is more suited to a secular college atmosphere.

Introductions and Annotations

The introductory articles to each book could be more extensive (and the same could be said about the annotations), but they are concise statements of Modernist scholarly consensus.

Occasionally the annotations give excellent historical, archaeological, and grammatical insights into the text.  Word plays, ancient customs, other religious myths, and modern archaeological findings are often pointed out, which shed further light on the biblical documents.  There is no cross-reference system in this edition (only verses cited in the annotations), which is a minus.  As I mentioned, the annotations and introductory remarks are written from a neutral, non-religious perspective, approaching the text in an anthropocentric (rather than theo- or christocentric) way.

Conclusion

On the whole, the OSB was a useful read–refreshing and enlightening.  It is scholarly complete and hits all the high points.  It would be useful for an academic introduction to the Bible.  But spiritually speaking, the OSB did little to feed my faith.  I would not recommend it as a Bible text for most Christians, and certainly not as a beginner’s Bible.

* A couple of examples of strange words and phrases:

  • “On that day I shall break Israel’s bow in the vale of Jezreel.” (Hosea 1:5) 
  • “Like someone who seizes a stray cur by the ears is he who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (Proverbs 26:17)
  • “Every morning you will say, ‘Would God it were morning!'” (Deuteronomy 28:67a)
  • “David was living in the fastness of the wilderness of Ziph.” (1 Samuel 23:14a)
  • “You strain off a midge, yet gulp down a camel!” (Matthew 23:24b)
  • “The people were all agog, wondering about John.” (Luke 3:15a)
  • “They put him to death, hanging him on a gibbet.” (Acts 10:39)
  • “This has been no hole-and-corner business.” (Acts 26:26)
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4 thoughts on “Review of the Oxford Study Bible

  1. I was forced to use this bible in “the bible as literature” class at university. I can’t tell you how much I hated the text. My professor wasn’t any help either, taking a very secular approach to the text, focusing almost exclusively on the points that make the bible look questionable like the Nephlin (sp) (Gen 6) “Those that find me will kill me” when there are no other people on the earth at this point. The documentary hypothesis. The smiting of Ananias and his wife. And so on. Maybe this is just a rant, but because of this teacher, I received only a 2.7 in the class when clearly I new the bible better than anyone in the class. Probably even the teacher. I argued over many points with her and she always said that every other bible was biased in its translation by some certain denomination. I’m in the process of making sure my final paper is reevaluated by someone else in the literature department. But until then, the oxford study bible will forever be one of those translations that I never touch again because of the terrable experience.

  2. So she was saying that every OTHER translation (that is, other than the REB) is denominationally biased? Ha. That’s cute. I would agree that every translation–including the REB–is influenced by the translators and their philosophies, beliefs, etc. Sorry, there is no perfect translation. The question is, then, are the influences positive or negative? Is the translation Christian or secularized? Is the translation shaped by modernism (like the REB and NRSV), evangelicalism (T/NIV), or Reformed Christianity (ESV)?

    This is something I lament: an unfortunate byproduct of the Protestant movement has been to sever the Bible from the community of faith and allow scholars–rather than Christian leaders–to be the ultimate authorities on the Bible. Now we have people like Bart Ehrman–who is not a Christian–speaking on behalf of what the Bible is and is not. We Christians need to reclaim the Bible for ourselves: It’s the church’s book, not the secular academy’s!

  3. This book is a decent edition, but I favor the Oxford Annotated Bible (RSV or NRSV) for academic analysis of the Bible. The REB’s main strength is that it’s a delightful read (arguably unmatched amongst modern translations), and the last thing I want to be doing while enjoying its lovely prose is pausing to read an abundance of footnotes, scholarly or seminarial. For me, at least, the OSB is only slightly more justifiable than a Living Bible with study notes (sorry, Harold Lindsell). I know that publishers would hate to hear this, but not all translations need special editions.

  4. M.A., I agree about the abundance of study notes. Sometimes they can throw off the enjoyment of the text. I’ve had that experience reading the NJB: too many notes, and too small of print.

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