Opening up another front against the “atomization of the Scriptures”: A review of the ESV Reader’s Bible

I’ve just gotten a copy of the new ESV Reader’s Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014).  My overall reaction to this presentation of the English Standard Version without chapter and verse numbers, headings, or footnotes is one of great delight.  Let me elaborate with some comments on specific features of the volume.

First, by way of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I was a member of the team that produced The Books of the Bible, an edition that similarly presents the Scriptures without any additives, first issued in the TNIV in 2007 and then in the latest update to the NIV in 2011.  I have also done some consulting with the NIV translation committee, specifically concerning the visual formatting of the text in that translation.

Given this background, you can see why I am so pleased that Crossway has now issued another major translation of the Bible in a format that represents a design philosophy so similar to the one behind The Books of the Bible.  As the introduction to the ESV Reader’s Bible observes about “modern editions”: “The addition of chapters, verses, and other non-inspired material can hinder us from reading large portions of Scripture without interruption. . . . We miss out on the flow of the argument, the arc of the story, and the broader context.”  To help readers “get drawn into” the Bible instead, the new edition aims at a design that is “ancient in its similarity to the original manuscripts, yet familiar in its resemblance to the modern novel.”

One way the edition nicely achieves this “ancient” feel, beyond removing modern additives from the text itself, is by echoing the older practice known as rubrication, that is, putting all non-textual material in red.  Medieval manuscript illustrators would, for example, put in red the names of books on the top of the page, chapter numbers in the margins (after these had been introduced), and notations within the text column that one book was ending and the next one was beginning.  In a delightful nod to this ancient practice, the ESV Reader’s Bible (as shown in the image below from The Bible Design Blog) puts the book-chapter-and-verse range at the top of each page, the page number at the bottom, chapter numbers in the left margin, and book names at the start of each book all in red.  (The Books of the Bible similarly puts all non-textual material in a different color to show that it is non-canonical and of lesser authority; in this case the color is gray, shaded back from the black of the text.)

In another nod to tradition, the ESV Reader’s Bible also begins biblical books with large red drop caps.  This is reminiscent of the way that the first letters of books were “illuminated” (illustrated) in manuscripts, as shown just below.  In this example, the rubrication (writing in red) signals the end of the book of James and the start of Peter’s first epistle.  The “P” in Peter (Petrus in Latin) is illustrated with an image of the apostle himself, identifiable by the key he is holding.  (Drop caps are also used in The Books of the Bible, in black, to mark the largest literary sections of each biblical book.)

At the same time, this new edition also creates the feel of a “modern novel” by presenting the text in a single column, in an attractive contemporary font, and by removing the translation notes that appear as footnotes at the bottom of the page in standard editions of the ESV, referring readers to a website for them instead.  (Translation notes are turned into endnotes and placed at the end of each book in The Books of the Bible.)  The ESV Reader’s Bible even features two built-in bookmarks, as if to say, “You’re going to be reading through this Bible, not pulling out a verse here and there, so you’ll need to keep your place”—just as you’d have to do when reading through a novel.

I can see some areas for future improvement, though this does not at all diminish my delight in this publishing initiative.  First, some necessary tradeoffs have been made in order to present the entire contents of the biblical canon in a single volume with a relatively small footprint.  (The text box is only 4” x 6.5”.)  The paper is thin, with noticeable bleed-through, and the margins are narrow, so that there are more words per line and per page than would be encountered in that “modern novel.”

I personally feel that electronic Bibles on smart phones and tablets are now filling the niche for take-the-whole-canon-with-you-everywhere Bibles, so that sit-down-and-read Bibles, intended for a different purpose, can be larger and heavier, with thick, opaque paper and wider margins, and even presented in multiple volumes.  I think the remarkable interest now being shown in projects like Bibliotheca by Adam Lewis Greene, for example, illustrates this decisively.  I’m looking forward eagerly to a time when Bibles are once again published in a way that allows them to grace home libraries as objects of beauty and visual elegance, seeing that they will no longer need to be slipped into a purse or a back pocket.

Another way the ESV Reader’s Bible could improve would be by representing the natural literary structure of the biblical books.  Even though it removes chapter and verse numbers from the text, it still presents chapters visually as the basic compositional units of the Bible.  A line space intervenes between chapters; the first word of each one is put in small caps; and that delightfully red chapter number appears in the left margin.  Since the Bible was only divided into chapters around AD 1200, and since these chapters typically do not correspond with the natural divisions of the biblical material, relying on them in this way does not really lead us to “read Scripture precisely as it was originally written,” as the online promotional copy for this edition promises.

How much better it would be to use line spaces, small caps, etc. to highlight the natural structures of the biblical books.  To give one simple example, Haggai consists of four oracles spoken by that prophet, each one beginning with a formula that dates it during the reign of King Darius.  Why not put a line space between these oracles, and put the first words of each one in small caps?  Now you’re really “reading Scripture precisely as it was originally written.”  And why not also recombine divided books such as Luke-Acts and Samuel-Kings, and put collections such as Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order, rather than continuing to arrange them by length, as in traditional Bibles?  (These initiatives are all undertaken in The Books of the Bible.)

Still, even with room to explore future refinements, the ESV Reader’s Bible is already a very welcome presentation of an important modern translation in an appealing, readable format.  I believe it will fulfill its intended purpose of helping readers “get drawn into the stories, characters, and events that comprise . . . the Story of God’s redemption of humanity and all of creation.”  That being the case, it has opened up another front against the “atomization of the Scriptures” (to quote its introduction one last time) that occurred in modernity.  Well done.

For a feature-by-feature comparison of the ESV Reader’s Bible with the two other Bibles without chapters and verses that I mention here, The Books of the Bible and Biblotheca, see this post.

Can a graphic novel presentation of Scripture still be the Bible? (In this case, yes.)

In this panel from the Word For Word Bible Comic, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.
In this panel from Word For Word Bible Comics, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.

In a recent post, taking up an example offered by Christianity Today, I asked, “If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?”  I argued that the particular flow chart in question, which presented the biblical laws about oxen, was not the Bible because:
(1) It was not just the Bible—it added explanation and interpretation;
(2) It changed the literary form of the Bible into another form; and
(3) It isolated the laws from their original surroundings, so that the broader principles they taught were lost.

Based on these same criteria, I have to conclude that the remarkable presentation of the Scriptures now taking shape in graphic novel form as The Word for Word Bible Comic is indeed still the Bible.  Let me explain, with the help of some material that the artist behind this project, Simon Amadeus Pillario, sent me after we connected through the Bible Gateway Bloggers Grid

(1) As Pillario explains here on his site, W4W (as I will abbreviate the name) presents the entire verbal text of the Bible, with nothing omitted.  Even narrative explanations that are not essential when the story is presented visually are still included, though in gray at the bottom of the panel.  The only added “words” are sound effects, such as a lion’s roar.

By contrast, other illustrated presentations of the Bible typically add imagined events and dialogue.  For example, midway through the story of Samson (the story that W4W is starting with), one previous presentation reads this way:

Narrator: News of Samson’s escape from Gaza spreads through the country. Rulers of Philistine cities are worried and call a meeting.
First Ruler: Samson must be captured. Let’s put all our armies together.
Second Ruler: I’m not risking my army on Samson. We’ve got to find another way.
Third Ruler: I have an idea!

None of this, of course, is found anywhere in Scripture.  One great strength of W4W is that it will be “just the Bible,” but still the whole Bible, in terms of the words and events depicted.  (Because in places the Bible can present scenes that are violent and “adult-themed,” W4W comes with a parental advisory, explaining that “parents and guardians should be aware of the strong content of the Bible” and that “this comic will only be suitable for readers over the age of 15.”)

(2)  But what about not changing the literary form of the Bible?  How can a historical narrative reworked into a comic book still be the same thing?

We need to recognize that the original form of the Bible was not written, but oral.  And oral storytellers would inevitably add their own “illustrations” to the material they were reciting, in the form of gestures, facial expressions, changes in intonation, etc. W4W is, in effect, a recitation of the story of the Bible with corresponding “illustrations” that just happen to be drawn pictures instead of gestures.

I realize there’s a fine line here.  But I would argue that W4W is not really a “comic book” in genre, which would be the case if it portrayed Samson like a superhero (more about this below) and if it adopted conventional comic-book stereotypes when it came to characterization, dialogue, and even things like coloration.  What I see as I read it is an attempt to represent the Scriptures accurately and faithfully, so that they provide the governing conventions.

Indeed, one might argue that W4W is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic “Bible world” where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. W4W instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.

For example, as Pillario demonstrates on this page, the Samson story depicts the specific pottery, clothing, footwear, headgear, etc. of that story’s place and time.  Other material the artist has sent me shows how he has authentically reproduced the armor of the Philistines in this period, right down to documented colors, instead of dressing them like Roman soldiers, as other illustrated Bibles have done.  He even follows the shift from four-spoked wagon wheels to six-spoked wheels when that occurs historically!

(3)  Finally, what about not isolating biblical material from the larger themes it would teach if encountered in context?  For me, one of the greatest strengths of W4W is that it carefully brings out these themes.

For example, in other illustrated presentations, Samson is typically drawn as if he had the physique of a bodybuilder, as in this depiction in an older book of his fight with the lion:

But as Pillario observes, if this is what Samson really looked like, there would have been no need for the Philistine lords to try to discover the “secret of his great strength.”  That would have been obvious: he had great strength because he had huge muscles.  W4W instead depicts Samson as the ordinary looking man he was (compare his physique in the panel at the top of this post), showing that he had great strength only because the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.  This  is an essential theological theme of the book of Judges: ordinary, weak, even flawed people become instruments of God through the power of the Spirit.  In cases like this the artistic depiction in W4W supports, rather than undermines, the larger theological themes of the Bible.

However, in the end, the most important question here may not be, “Is this graphic novel still ‘the Bible’?”  That question could admittedly be answered in different ways, depending on the criteria chosen. Instead, the right question is simply, “Is this an approach worth checking out?”  And I’d say it definitely is.  I think it will set a new standard for accuracy and fidelity in illustrated presentations of the Bible.

Have a look for yourself and see.  The artist has just launched a campaign through Kickstarter to raise money for the next phase of the project, a full graphic novel of the book of Judges.  On this page you will find a video version of the Samson story along with detailed information about each of the design principles behind W4W, which I have described only briefly here. You may find that you want to help him along with a pledge, as I have.  But even if you don’t, what he’s doing is definitely worth seeing.  Check it out.


If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?

Q.  If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?

That’s one of the intriguing questions posed in the cover story of the current issue of Christianity Today, which explores how people are using the concept of “big data” to organize and present data about the Bible as well as the data in the Bible.

The question applies specifically to a flow chart that Vincent Stetterholm of Logos Bible Software created to present systematically all of the laws in the Bible relating to oxen.  I’d like to respond to the question in light of that chart.

Flow chart excerpt
Detail from Stotterholm’s flow chart, which is far more extensive.

First, some appropriate disclaimers.  Stetterholm explains that he created the chart simply as a “proof of concept” and that it was “never really intended for publication.”  Fair enough.  We will approach it with that in mind and not consider that Stetterholm himself ever advanced this chart as “the Bible.” Rather, we are addressing a question raised by the Christianity Today article in the course of its discussion of how Scriptural data can be presented.

Beyond this, it must be said that the flow chart itself is simply marvelous.  Creative, clever, but at the same time concise, informative, and accurate.  Not to mention a lot of fun.  So I have no objections to the chart itself, as a flow chart.  It’s beautiful.  But the question remains:  Is it still the Bible?

I want to offer three reasons why I think this particular chart is not the Bible.  But I also want to offer a suggestion at the end for how another kind of flow chart might be the Bible.

(1)  This flow chart is not the Bible because it is not just the Bible.  Stetterholm adds witty and informative but nevertheless additional commentary to the biblical text.  (Example:  If an oxen falls into a pit that you own, “Now you know why you’re supposed to cover your pits, fool.”)  So we need to recognize that this is biblical content plus some added interpretation.  (Admittedly what we know as the Bible these days typically does include commentary in the form of subject headings, notes, etc., so it’s important to distinguish between that and the biblical text itself when we think about the Bible “is.”)

(2)  This flow chart is not the Bible because it changes the literary form in which the biblical content was delivered.  Just as God used human languages in creating the Bible, God also used existing human literary forms.  And when we change those into other forms, we’re making at least as much difference, but arguably much more difference, than when we translate the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into other languages.  Think about the psalm that begins “The Lord is my shepherd” rewritten as a thank-you note to God for taking as good care of us as a shepherd would if we were sheep and you’ll get the idea of the difference that changing literary form makes.  The content is the same but the expression is not, and I believe that the form of expression is an intrinsic aspect of each of the literary creations that together make up the Scriptures.

(3)  Most importantly, this flow chart is not the Bible because all of the biblical laws regarding oxen occur in collections of laws where they are offered, together with similar laws that have other subjects, as examples of more general principles that readers are supposed to recognize, internalize, and apply to other situations.  For example, the law that says not to plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together appears with other laws that say not to plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard and not to wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.  All of these laws are intended to prevent the kind of magical “mixing” that the Canaanites thought generated procreative power.

Similarly, the law that says to care for a stray ox until its owner comes to recover it goes on to say, more generally,  “Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost.”  The real point in this law, and several of the surrounding ones, is what it looks like to do right by your neighbor.

We might well ask, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians when he applied the law about not muzzling an ox while it was treading out grain to his own right to receive support as an apostle, “Is it about oxen that God is concerned?” The answer is, “Not only about oxen.”  God does care about them, but about much wider things as well, and the danger of producing a flow chart specifically about oxen and considering it the Bible is that it leaves out this wider dimension.

But so much for possibly too-serious thoughts about a delightful and playful proof-of-concept.  Let me conclude by suggesting that in some cases the plain biblical text might helpfully be presented as a flow chart.  For example, the laws about offerings at the beginning of Leviticus could very meaningfully be presented, verbatim, that way.  The first branches would distinguish between the types of offerings:  burnt, grain, fellowship, etc.  Subsidiary branches of each would then distinguish occasions within these types of offerings:  “If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd . . . from the flock . . . of birds”; “If you bring a grain offering baked in an oven . . . cooked in a pan . . . of first fruits”; etc.  There is a real “decision tree” embedded in this collection of laws and a flow chart might show that very nicely.  And still be the Bible.