Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Review of the R.L. Allan ESV Personal Study Bible: A Technical Analysis of One of the World's Finest Bibles

R.L. Allan ESV Personal Study Bible. Review by Rev. Matthew Everhard.

What would happen if the most accurate, literal, contemporary English translation of the Holy Bible was surrounded with some of the most excellent evangelical scholarship and study notes, and then bound together by hand in Europe's premiere book bindery--all with the highest quality of materials possible?

You would have in your possession the R.L. Allan ESV Personal Study Bible.

Recently I received my own review copy of the Allan ESV Personal Study Bible courtesy of R.L. Allan and Son Publishers Ltd. in Tolworth, Surrey, England. What follows will be a technical review of this hand-crafted masterpiece.

The classical Greeks considered three aspects of ontology or being: the good, the beautiful, and the true. If the truth of this Bible corresponds to the accuracy of the English Standard Version (ESV), and the goodness corresponds to the edifying study notes that Crossway has put together, then the beauty of this Bible corresponds to its physical materials and composition by R.L. Allan.

Since many others have written at length on the ESV translation, and others still have commented on the outstanding collection of scholarship and commentary in Crossway's stellar ESV Study Bible, I will focus this article on what R.L. Allan has contributed to make this book into a veritable piece of art.

The Allan ESV Study Bible is unlike anything I have held in my own hands before. The cover is made of black highland goatskin. (It also comes in a rich, deep brown). If you have never owned a goatskin Bible before, there is really nothing to which it can be compared.
The R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible in black highland goatskin. 

Not only is goatskin durable and flexible, but it almost tends to mold into the reader's hand as it is held aright. The goatskin itself is textured uniquely; it is not pressed or molded by machine but contains the very natural grain of the animal itself.

Though some wonder about unusual markings on highland goatskin, rest assured that these are not scuff marks. They are the idiosyncratic attributes of the animal's hide itself. For this reason, no two Allan Bibles are ever alike.

R.L. Allan's binding is incomparable.
As for the binding, the Allan Study Bible opens flat right out of the box. Machine-manufactured binding can never replace the handiwork of human skill crafting. This Bible is Smyth sewn, meaning that the page signatures (groups of pages stitched together) are sewn together in a symmetrical design holding the whole together as a single unit. Thus, the ESVSB will never fall apart in chunks as glue-bound books inevitably do as they harden and dry.

There is no breaking in process necessary for an Allan goatskin binding. Unlike most leather covers that need to be worked quite a bit (remember that stout, new baseball glove you had as a kid?) the Allan goatskin cover comes out of the box both limp and limber. I was able to open the ESVSB to Genesis 1:1 and have it lie nearly flat on the table without much coaxing at all. Open the Bible to the middle, and it practically melts in the palm of your hand or sprawls out on the table.

R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible: 0.5 inch semi-yapp and ribbons.
If you have only owned a Bible with a cover made from lesser materials, a goatskin Bible will feel sophisticated, even luxurious. Bonded leather (essentially the "particleboard" of faux-leathers, made from leather dust and glue) can last for only a few years at best. Genuine leather (usually pigskin) tends to be more stout, stubborn, and often even unfriendly for its life span. Tru-tone or other synthetic covers featured on many Crossway Bibles are good: inexpensive and comfortably functional in my opinion, but lacking aesthetic beauty.

But highland goatskin is in another category altogether.

A semi-yapp of about 1/2 inch allows the cover to extend over the book block on three sides. (Obviously, not the spine). This antique look actually has an important function. Not only does it provide the Bible with a classy, timeless look, but it also protects the pages from damage while being held, while in use, or during transport.
R.L. Allan Binding with gild-lined cover.

Upon opening the cover, one can notice a subtle but pretty gilding line around the inside of the cover. This little extra has the affect of framing the pages of the Bible against the black cover when opened. You may not notice it at first, but it's the kind of special touch a hand-crafted binding would contain that a machine-born Bible would skip to save a few bucks.

Art Gilding
The next feature that is pure beauty to the eye of the beholder is the art gilding of the pages (variously spelled as "art gilting"). Art gilding is the process of dying the pages red (or another color) with a metallic gold or silver overlain on top. You've probably seen some older Bibles with red pages. Many others, even quite cheap Bibles, have golden or silver edges. But you may not have seen many with true art gilding. Here, the pages appear golden-toned and shimmery from the profile view, but when opened, the red comes alive underneath the gold.

R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible. Art gilded page edges. 
When opened to any place in the Bible, the Allan Study Bible page edges appear a beautiful light red, or salmon color. This will make the pages stand out demonstrably, as well as function to protect the edges of the paper from moisture and age-related staining. The art gilding is both functional and protective as well as gorgeous to look at.

Book Block: A Mystery to Solve
The book block contained in the Allan bound book is the same as the ESV Study Bible, Personal Size by Crossway. As far as I can tell, there is no difference here. Allan regularly sources their book blocks from other publishers. They don't actually create any new formats themselves, in house.

But wait, there's a mystery here.

The colophon on page 2543 of the Allan Study Bible states that the paper is Primalux paper, rated at 30 GSM's, produced by Papeteries du Leman, Thonon-les-Bains Cedex, in France. But I have to be honest, I don't think that is true. I think that editors forgot to change the colophon materials in the back (right before the maps) when they reduced the size to print Crossway's Personal Size Bible.

My clue is that the copyright page on the smaller Allan version and the smaller Crossway version state that the Bible was printed in China. Ouch. A careful comparison between this Bible and the ESV regular size by Crossway shows me that they are definitely not the same paper. In fact, this is a disappointment in the Allan Bible.

The slightest amount of hand perspiration or moisture on the Allan leaves the page with a wrinkly affect that the ESV Study Bible by Crossway does not sustain. The regular size ESV Study Bible by Crossway has paper that feels, better. Feels stronger. It seems to have a very light wax to prevent moisture from seeping in. The Allan soaks it up. Not great for preachers.

I also tested to see if I can see through more pages in the Allan by holding it up to the light. It turns out that I can. I conclude that it is not 30 GSM and that the colophon retained an error uncorrected by Crossway's editors. I believe Allan used the same paper as the reduced size Personal Size Study Bible by Crossway, printed in China. Certainly not the better paper used in the Crossway full size Study Bible.

Remember--there is no perfect Bible paper.  Some show-through or "ghosting" is a reality in all Bibles with the technology that we have available today. If you want to jam 2.2 million words (20,000 study notes) into 2,500 pages, at a trim size of 5.35 X 8.0 inches, the pages will have to be thin.

R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible: book block and print clarity.
As for the printing quality itself, the Allan Bible is gorgeous. Maps, charts, and graphs are all set in full color and are easy on the eyes. I have seen some Crossway products that have uneven printing before. For instance, my regular size ESV Study Bible contains several pages that appear as though the printer got stuck on bold mode, or was slightly misaligned. I am not sure if that error carried through on many other editions or not. It could have just been my particular copy. Having said that, I can see no errors whatever in text printing (neither too dark or too light) anywhere on the Allan Study Bible.

R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible: ribbons and page layout. 
The Allan Study Bible comes with three deep-blue ribbons glued onto the spine. (The deep brown goatskin has golden ribbons). While most Bibles contain only one ribbon for cost savings reasons, the Allan allows the reader to mark three separate spots in the Scriptures. Those who read through the Bible using multiple reading locations will appreciate this featurette. Those who use their Bibles for ministry or church leadership will likely also enjoy being able to mark an OT passage, a NT passage and a third passage as well if desired.

Some may wonder if this is the best Bible for their own personal needs. I can't really answer that question. While we each have our own preferences in terms of a Bible's translation, size, font, notes, and references, I can recommend this Bible as the best overall on the market that I have owned.

If you want a Bible to take on a mission trip deep into an Amazon rain forest, get yourself a much less expensive Bible. If you want an edition that your child can take to Vacation Bible School this summer, go another route. This isn't the one. If you are going backpacking through the Appalachian mountains this summer, move on to more economical options. There are dozens of cheap Bibles on the market.

But if you want a Bible that you can use for years with supreme confidence--not only in terms of translation and study notes but also its material quality--a Bible that you want to pass down to your children's children, then this is the one you have been looking for.

I believe that this Bible will be well-suited for use in one's personal study, devotions, preaching, and teaching ministry. For my part, I intend to use this Allan ESV Study Bible myself for decades to come.

A Few Small Concerns
R.L. Allan ESV Study Bible: Review by Rev. Matthew Everhard.
I love this Bible, but I do have a few concerns. The 7.7 point font of the main text will be difficult for some to read. How much more the 6.3 font of the study notes!

Fortunately, this Bible is printed so well that it may not matter much. The modern Lexicon typeface stands off of the nearly white pages with crisp clarity. I happen to be nearsighted (praise God!) but for those with aging eyes, it may be harder to read.

This edition unfortunately does not use line-matching, the technique that matches precisely the text on both sides of the page in order to minimize ghosting. Some lines do not match due to the half-space return between sections with sub-headings. Other pages do not match from the very top line. I'm not sure why that would be.

As for the font size, Crossway makes a larger and even an extra large print ESV Study Bible, but alas, R.L. Allan has not committed to producing either of those versions. This means you will have to settle for the Crossway bindings. Not too shabby there either, though. Crossway products are almost always well made.

The price tag, too, on the Allan under consideration is steep. Invest wisely. The Allan Study Bible retails in the neighborhood of $225. (You can buy it here). Some may wonder why one ought to spend that much on a Bible when other versions are available for $30.

That is a good question.

I, for one, wanted to own at least one Bible that (A) will last for my own lifetime and not fall apart as glued binding and bonded leather or synthetic covers inevitably do and, (B) a Bible that can be passed down through my family line as an heirloom for generations to come.

I am a pastor, author, and scholar. The Bible is the tool of my trade. I read it relentlessly, multiple times everyday. Why not own a few superior tools for my trade?

Many people will not want to spend more than a few bucks on a good study Bible. I get that. I understand.

I however would rather invest my money here than in fancy rims for my car, "bling" jewelry around my neck, or fancy watches. I suppose we all have a few particulars in which we insist on having "the best." For me, I am an admitted Bibliophile. I think owning a quality Bible says more about a man than a quality wristwatch.

For all of these reasons, the Allan ESV Personal Study Bible makes an incomparable possession to own and to behold.

This is the Bible I have been waiting for my entire life.

--Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of several books, and a doctoral student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. 


  1. Thank you Matthew for reviewing this bible so excellently. I have my taste for Catholic Goods. I occasionally buy some of them from online church supply stores. My recent purchase was Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. I've been reading it from quite a few days. I wish I had known this blog before. Thanks again!!!

  2. Great post! What do you use to write in your Bible? I just received one of these as a gift.