Bibliotheca: A Bible to Read

Despite the two-toned death knell that has been repeatedly sounded against reading in general and the Bible specifically, both have once again proven their resilience. From technological prophets like Steve Jobs, who said people don’t read anymore, to intellectual belligerents like Voltaire, who claimed in the 1700s that “100 years from today the Bible will be a forgotten book”, naysayers of all types have had to eat their words. And despite any temporary trends, reading, like art, will always remain of fundamental importance to humanity—both in its communicative primacy and its imaginative potency. The Bible too, for even greater reasons of universal significance—meaning, truth, values, salvation.

Over at Kickstarter, an unlikely project that combines the two—a project to produce a Bible designed and crafted around the reading experience—has just garnered over a million dollars of support.

A Bible to read?

A million dollar response?

Is all this a little silly? Over 14,000 people pledging over a million dollars to have the already most read, most published, and most translated book in the world made anew?

BIBLIOTHECA

Adam Lewis Greene, the creator of BIBLIOTHECA, believes that although the Bible may be read, it does not read well in its most common production format. Thin pages crowded with small text and dense blocks of information—a Bible can sometimes feel more like an urban metropolis than an expansive countryside. Too many signs, too much bustling cognitive traffic can stifle the act of exploration and discovery or fragmentize our sense of place as a whole.

And of course, to be balanced in our reading of the Bible we need BOTH. We need to spend time in the city, where others before us have built up magnificent structures of thought and insight. But we also need to spend time in the countryside, where before us there is nothing but open fields and a “dark thicket”[1] waiting to be explored. In the preface to his first edition of The Epistle to the Romans, Barth said that it was “written with a joyful sense of discovery.”[2] Modern American readers must bring that sense with them to the Bible.

We need a Bible with footnotes, cross-references, and outlines. But we also need a Bible with white space, aesthetic value, and uncluttered text.

Watchman Nee advocated this approach of using two Bibles, one for reading and one for studying.

It is best to have two Bibles… In one of them we can put marks and notes. The other should be left unmarked. By reading an unmarked Bible, we will not be affected by our previous readings, and every time we read a passage, it will be like reading it for the first time… For our daily spiritual nourishment, we can use the unmarked Bible. For research, we can use the marked Bible.[3]

A Bible designed for this type of reading may help.

Greene explains:

Book design is something that we don’t often think about. The book is actually doing work to eliminate distractions for the reader. And it’s doing its best to present the content in a way that’s beautiful, inviting, and makes the story the center of the reader’s experience.

Why is it that people love stories so much and yet they view reading the biblical literature as a chore? …Could it be that the encyclopedic nature of our contemporary Bibles is what’s driving this idea that the biblical literature is dry and boring?[4]

A Bible without Chapters or Verses

Greene wants to reconnect readers with the dramatic, moving, and engaging story of the Bible.

To this end he has stripped away even the most rudimentary analytical devices present in modern Bibles—chapters and verses. Although BIBLIOTHECA will be the first version I know of to fully do away with these conventions, it is by no means the pioneer in this approach.

Two notable versions that have minimized their presence are:

  1. Wuest’s The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, 1961
  2. Peterson’s The Message, 2002

Wuest’s version is really the forerunner here (as far as I know). Although he does supply chapter and verse numbers, they don’t punctuate the text at all. Verse numbers are pulled into the margins and chapter numbers are indicated only in the top corners of the page. The text itself is presented in paragraphs designed to “group together the larger units of thought.”[5] The Message, in its current version, adopts a similar approach—verse numbers appear in the margins but chapter divisions break up the text.

Both versions, however, leave room for improvement.

First off, Wuest’s format is not that readable. His paragraphs do not include line breaks or punctuation marks for dialogue, and there is hardly any visual beauty to the page. Second, Wuest only translated the New Testament, leaving out the part that is best read as story. Third, both versions are not standard translations. Wuest’s is an expanded translation, somewhat similar to the Amplified version (although I think Wuest’s is better in that regard), and Peterson’s is a paraphrase.

Even though Wuest breaks up his text similar to Greene’s, his intention is not readability; it is to “bring out the richness, force, and clarity of the Greek text.”[6] So Wuest really wants to zoom in on the text. Even though Peterson wants readers to be freshly enthralled by the story of the Bible, he rewords that story too liberally. Peterson really wants to zoom out on the grand narrative of Scripture, but he often sacrifices the integrity of the text when telling that drama.

BIBLIOTHECA seems like a good fit to fill this gap. It has all the potential to be visually attractive so that reading is pleasurable and experiencing the story afresh is easy, AND it renders the text in the ASV to preserve the integrity of the story and yet also capture the grand language of classic literature.


 

1. Augustine, Confessions, 12.28.38
2. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 2
3. Watchman Nee, CWWN 54:98
4. http://vimeo.com/99418117
5. Kenneth Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, p. xvi
6. Kenneth Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, p. vii

Related Articles:
  1. The Bible’s a Mess, but a Designer is Fixing It

21 thoughts on “Bibliotheca: A Bible to Read

  1. The NT in Modern English by J.B. Phillips is the earliest in this line I have in my collection. The New Testament by Richmond Lattimorre and The Unvarnished New Testament by Andy Gaus are two others. The translation by Phillips is probably the most palatable but not without problems and controversy. I am not sure that the ASV will be that readable for modern readers regardless of formatting. Updating verb tenses will help in that regard but is a lot of work and may not totally alleviate the readability problems for many. The main benefit of this kickstarter may be to show the level of interest there is in the Bible for reading and not just for study. Perhaps in the future we will be able to get all released Bible translations in a reader friendly format.

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    • Thanks for mentioning the other three versions. Good to know. I had only heard of Phillips NT in Modern English. Yes, I think the main thing this project demonstrates is a love for good Bible design for readability. Besides design, which is Greene’s specialty, I think two other influences are the Bible as literature and narrative theology. Bible as literature would say the Bible stands on its own as a masterpiece of classic literature in style, influence, and subject matter. Narrative theology highlights the Bible as a grand story versus a collection of propositions. You can definitely see those factors shaping the project. As for the ASV, I see where you’re coming from. What version would you have picked?

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      • I suspect the ASV was mainly chosen as being the newest translation available that also avoids licensing trouble and fees. There are many good modern translations but I still feel there is room for a better one. I like my study Bibles, but Mr. Greene does have a point perhaps about ease of reading and the book itself helping one get into the story. I just wonder if he will be able to pull off the project alone. He will have to wear many hats to do so. Of course with the current level of funding, perhaps he can hire some helpers.

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        • It seems that Adam Greene really prefers the ASV translation for more than licensing reasons. Here is a recent interview:

          JMB: Bibliotheca will use the American Standard Version, and you’re planning to update the archaisms and make additional editorial changes based on Young’s Literal Translation. How extensive a revision of the ASV do you have in mind? What will the process look like?

          ALG: While we’re on the topic I would like to touch on the choice of the ASV for this edition. Aside from being my favorite complete translation, to me, its literary character and formal accuracy make it the ideal choice for this project… I won’t be changing the ASV much at all; probably a fraction of one percent.

          JMB at Bible Design Blog makes these further points about the use of the ASV:

          “The appeal of the edition is this: you find a secluded nook and find yourself drawn into the biblical narrative, page after page, in a way you’ve never experienced before. Frankly, choosing the American Standard Version reinforces this goal. I don’t think very many churches or Bible studies use the ASV, and while it certainly has its fans, they don’t quite rise to the level of a following. The ASV isn’t a translation to hitch your wagon to. Using it doesn’t guarantee a loyal fan base like, say, the ESV would. Adam makes a compelling case for his choice, and the fact that he’s sticking by it despite having raised enough money to license whichever version he might prefer suggests the decision is down to much more than the fact that the ASV is in the public domain. He sees the translation contributing to Bibliotheca’s literary experience. For those of us who haven’t read the ASV before, this will contribute to the feeling of discovery when you curl up on the couch with a Bibliotheca volume.”

          Finally on the Kickstarter project website Mr Greene says this about the ASV:

          “It’s formally literal (close to the syntax and idiom of the original languages), and its English is beautiful, sophisticated and literary… The translators of the ASV were committed to as much formal accuracy as possible, and therefore it is superior to most in preserving the idiom, repetition, and syntax of the original languages… The ASV also features many archaic literary words and grammatical structures that are part of the rich heritage of the English language, spanning back through the King James Version to William Tyndale. Although we may not encounter these modes in conversational English, they remain beautiful means of telling a story with gusto (and so they still crop up in contemporary literature and music).”

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          • That’s a great update. I’m reading my copy of Richmond Lattimorre’s New Testament. It is really good so far. I’ve read the book of Mark which he places as the first gospel written. Reading like a book is a different experience. You can get a copy at Amazon of course.

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            • Good to hear. It’s interesting because a number of people have done something like Bibliotheca before, at least as far as removing verses and chapters and going for readability. Even the ESV Reader’s Bible just came out. But it seems that all of them suffer from poorer design choices that ultimately annul that purpose. The ESV Reader’s Bible just has SO much text on the page, since it’s all stuffed into one volume. And it lacks the beautiful proportions of the page layout of Bibliotheca. So it’s interesting that the success of this Bible really comes down to design.

              One another note, I am thinking about reading through the Tyndale NT when I start my NT reading schedule over again at the beginning of September. I have a modern-spelling edition of his 1534 translation done by David Daniell.

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  2. Solid post!

    I appreciate the “city and countryside” picture. I liked the idea of Bibliotheca when I first heard it, but didn’t know how to reconcile the enjoyment I have with my footnote/cross reference-full Bible and this idea. That picture (and the quote from Watchman Nee) is very helpful.

    Looking forward to seeing this in person, and maybe spending some much needed time in the countryside.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think his intention is not to replace the role study Bibles play. To ignore the advancements all around us made by previous Bible teachers would be a major regression in understanding. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and this vantage is most easily achieved through commentary and footnotes. However, I think a text only version is best for directly interacting with the text, “getting lost in the story” especially in the OT, and praying over the word. A text-only version forces us to focus on the text itself—its flow, logic, emotion, and power. The two versions I mentioned and also the Weymouth NT which is similar all have similar disclaimers in their preface:

      “The Message is a reading Bible. It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available… There is much in the Bible that is hard to understand. So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.”

      –Peterson

      “It is intended as a companion to, or commentary on, the standard translations, and as such it complements them in several important aspects.”

      –Wuest

      “One point however can hardly be too emphatically stated. It is not the present Translator’s ambition to supplant the Versions already in general use, to which their intrinsic merit or long familiarity or both have caused all Christian minds so lovingly to cling. His desire has rather been to furnish a succinct and compressed running commentary (not doctrinal) to be used side by side with its elder compeers.”

      –Weymouth

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  3. Let me add a few comments to what I said about the ASV. He has stated he will update the text mainly adjusting verb tenses to make it more readable and incorporating Young’s Literal Translation where necessary. I think he has greatly underestimated the enormity of the task which is easy to do when you go beyond the area of your expertise. Without even considering his qualifications and skills to make such determinations, I offer the following without even looking too hard to illustrate the difficulty of the task before him.

    Rom. 10:20-21 And Isaiah is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I became manifest unto them that asked not of me. 21 But as to Israel he saith, All the day long did I spread out my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.

    Updating the tenses we are left with Rom. 10:20-21 And Isaiah is very bold, and says, I was found of them that sought me not; I became manifest unto them that asked not of me. 21 But as to Israel he says, All the day long did I spread out my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.

    Obviously the word “gainsaying” is going to be a problem to the modern reader. Merely adjusting verb tense does nothing for words that are outdated. Whether verbal phrases like “sought me not,” “became manifest unto them,” “asked not of me,” and “did I spread out my hands” should be updated show how many considerations could come into play over just a few verses not to mention the entire text of the Bible.

    I don’t put this forth to dissuade anyone from a similar project just for information’s sake that people would realize a bit what is involved.

    God speed to him in the endeavor.

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    • Yes. It is a big undertaking, although he says he is not really updating much. So probably only the obvious stuff. He’s also changing Jehovah to YHWH, which I think is around 6,800 instances.

      If he still comes through on signing each copy, at 14,886 copies (assuming he only signs one volume of each set) if he can maintain signing at a pace of 1 signature every 4 seconds it would take him 99, 10-hour days of straight signing! A number of people are telling him it’s not needed. I worry for his wrist!

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    • An excellent and thorough chapter on the ASV’s strengths and weaknesses is ch 4 in The English Bible from KJV to NIV by Jack P Lewis. He cites TONS of examples in the ASV showing how and where it improved upon the KJV and where it lacked as far as a modern translation. Well worth the read for anyone interested in an educated opinion and analysis of the ASV.

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  4. Every couple of years I worked on my own similar Bible design, was very excited to order this instead!

    Biblica’s ‘The Books of the Bible’ from 2007 (updated in 2012) is another version of the Bible without chapters and verses. It went further and introduced spacing that followed the natural literary structure, it recombined books that had been split, and provided a new order for the books. It retained translation notes, but only as endnotes for each book. Where it fails is in layout and binding – it clearly was designed for economy. The measure was too long, the margins too small, the typeface uninspired and I don’t think it was ever released in anything other than a glued paperback.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Books_of_the_Bible
    http://www.bibledesignblog.com/2007/10/the-books-of-th.html

    One of the members of its design team, Christopher R Smith, wrote a book called ‘After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations’ about the design decisions, how it affects reading, the history of Bible design, and how to use a Bible without chapters and verses. He discusses how our current Bible designs are very much a relic of the modernist era, we built structures around everything, and that those born in the postmodern era find it increasingly hard to engage the Bible because of it.

    http://www.amazon.com/After-Chapters-Verses-Engaging-Generations/dp/0830856005

    One reason why a multi-volume reader’s Bible did so well NOW would be because nearly everyone has a full-featured study Bible in their pockets, on tablets and online. We don’t need to carry around a complete paper Bible anymore as we always have one with us, that has far more features than a paper Bible could ever contain. Where electronic devices struggle is a pure reading environment, and that is where publishers should focus.

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    • I just heard about “The Books of the Bible” version as I was digging around for other versions without verses and chapter divisions. One difference is that Bibliotheca has absolutely none indicated, not even in margins. Even still, I really agree with you that the design and construction really is what sets Bibliotheca apart from similar “literary” or reader versions. From the pictures I’ve seen, while the format is designed for readability I can’t see how they would actually achieve a good reading experience. Too much text, too small margins. Bibliotheca looks beautiful and I’m sure it will feel like quality construction. I think the left justification will be a nice touch too. I think this project really shows how design conscious consumers are these days.

      Here’s a comparison of Bibliotheca, ESV Reader’s Bible, and The Books of the Bible.

      http://understandingbooksbible.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/feature-by-feature-comparison-of-the-esv-readers-bible-bibliotheca-and-the-books-of-the-bible/

      I wonder why “The Books of the Bible” couldn’t achieve a better visual experience even though they broke the text up into 3 volumes?

      Thanks for the heads up on the book! Sounds very interesting.

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  5. I love this project. To design a Bible in view of the reader being captivated, caught up in the story of Scripture—that is a great thing.

    Every culture (whether national, familial, or business) communicates its most important principles and values through narrative. Meaning, the stories we tell as a culture pass on what we hold most dearly. And not only that, but the story itself imparts those values in an effective way. Reading the story of Christ’s passion and reading a systematic theology on redemption is a great example. Obviously systematic theologies are useful and needed, but it’s the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that has continued to win the hearts of men 2,000 years later.

    I’m a backer! And I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what impact it has on millennials in our post-modern culture.

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    • Agreed. Roger Olson opens his book The Story of Christian Theology with the line: “People live from the stories that shape their identities.”

      The Bible as God’s story in union with man shapes our identities. It is a supremely moving and profound story. It requires us to read broadly, to read deeply, and to read prayerfully, but above all it requires us to READ. I think BIBLIOTHECA is going to nail it on the reading experience.

      Great comparison on systematic theology vs narrative. Certainly we think of the OT as largely narrative. But if you inspect the NT, it too is largely narrative. The Gospels and Acts taken together make up almost two-thirds of the entire NT. Luke, the author of a gospel and the first history of the church, is the largest contributor to the NT with 500 words more than Paul!

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      • I didn’t pick up this tidbit previously concerning the Twentieth Century Version. F.F. Bruce in History of the Bible in English notes that

        In I89I W. T. Stead, editor of The Review of Reviews, received two letters from writers who had no idea of each other’s existence. One was the wife of a Congregational minister in Oldham, Mrs Mary Higgs; the other was a signal and telegraph engineer of Hull, Ernest de Merindol Malan, grandson of an eminent Swiss divine, Cesar Malan. Both these writers were concerned about the inadequacy of the existing versions (even the R.V.) to make the meaning of the Bible plain to young people, and both wanted to do something to repair this deficiency. Stead introduced them to each other,…

        So the passionate fire for the scriptures for the younger generation is not something recently kindled.

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  6. This takes the discussion in a different direction but I find Christopher Smith’s reasoning behind why people don’t read the Bible as questionable. He seems to feel and perhaps Mr. Greene agrees, that if the Bible was available in a different format people would read it and connect with it. I would posit that the problem is quite a bit deeper. Perhaps the success of the Kickstarter project serves to highiight the problems in that regard instead of providing a beacon of hope that more people will connect with the Bible. Allow me to post something from S. Ridout, How To Study the Bible, published in 1947, pp. 261-263.

    In one sense it can be said that we are living in a book reading age, and yet perhaps never have books and their readers been so superficial as at present. A vast mass of periodic literature of the emptiest kind is absorbed by the reading public. In our large cities nearly every one, even children, reads the daily newspaper, gorged with its disgusting recitals of crime and scandal.

    Weekly periodicals of trashy fiction, with numberless magazines of the same character, tinctured with an occasional article on some sensible topic, form the staple of mental food for the vast majority. In addition “to these novels by the hundred are turned out and greedily devoured. Of all this we have little to say, except to remind our readers that it indicates the course of this world according to which we no longer walk.

    We would seriously lay it upon our own heart and that of God’s people, that such reading is not only in many cases positively injurious, implanting infidel notions and a worldly habit of thought, but creates a distaste for solid, mental food, and particularly for that which has to do with our eternal interests. If there were no other reason why the young Christian should abstain from literature of this character, this would be sufficient. Anything that makes the Bible distasteful, or makes it a task to read helpful books that explain it, can surely not be a friend to our souls’ growth. It cannot be from God, and therefore must be from an opposite direction. We cannot as to these apply the Scripture: “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.” We do not wish to be narrow or legal, but that is not the special danger of the times in which we are living. If refusing to be turned away from Christ to enjoy this sinful world going on to destruction be narrowness, then with all our soul, let us be narrow!

    With the desire to avoid misunderstanding, we add a word: what we have said is not meant to put God’s people under bondage; for instance, as to reading the news. The Christian can acquaint himself with what is taking place in the world, especially as showing its tendencies and the progress of events. However, a glance at the paper will suffice for this, and we must be on our guard, for many strong men have been ensnared in this direction.

    There are a few books in which great epochs in the Church’s history have been described in the form of a narrative, in which there are fictitious individuals. Some of these books may be profitable for the young in giving them a clear view of historical events. Some of them we would hesitate to condemn absolutely. We cannot say without qualification that fiction of every kind is evil, without including such books as these; but we do say most distinctly that fiction as a whole is evil and demoralizing, for the reasons just given above.
    But enough of this distasteful subject. We must leave it with every one’s conscience, asking them only, if given to reading of this character, to glance back over a year and recall all such books and literature they have read, to estimate how many pages it would make, how many hours it has taken, and then do the same with their Bible and helpful Christian literature, and compare the two. For those who might object that we had given too long a list of notes and comments on the Bible, it might be a surprise to learn that many a young man and woman reads thirty five novels and more in the course of a year.

    Anyway consider his concern with what people are reading, and then fast forward through the radio, TV, video, and now Internet age, and tell me the problem is how the book is formatted. We don’t realize how much we’ve been damaged. May the Lord for His own sake save us from every stratagem of the enemy.

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  7. Pingback: The Christian Story | conversant faith

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