Brand New ESV Reader’s Bible

I’ve already said a great deal on this blog, going back to its earliest days, about the unexamined detriments of versified printings of the Bible. As the author of the only Bible Typography Manifesto known to man, I have publicly and for all time stated my discomfort with the existence of those little numbers dotting the Bible text. Well, not just dotting—inundating. I have even been known to preach, “Never read a Bible verse!” (Always read the context.)

Sign the Bible Typography Manifesto

esv reader's bible

Let me hasten to grant, at least initially, that this sounds a little crazy. Manic, maybe. Like that older man in your church who’s always handing you sheafs of typewritten pages detailing the obviously right view on the identity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 (am I the only one who knows this man?). There are many things far more important than how you lay out the Bible text on a printed page.

But there are few things more important than what the Bible means, and the reason I’m slightly manic about Bible typography is that no one—except the esteemed signatories of my manifesto, of course—ever seems to acknowledge that typography means. The placement of paragraph and other divisions within the text conveys meaning to readers, even those who rarely if ever give it a thought.

So there’s no way I’d fail to pick up the new ESV Reader’s Bible. It’s (almost) everything I’ve wanted for coming up on ten years, something I even tried unsuccessfully to create for myself: an ESV with no verse numbers or other in-text intrusions, set in a single column, with beautiful type—type carefully set so as not to “ghost” through to the back side of the page. This is the best Bible you can get today, and you should get it right away.

Just take a look at the beautiful layout:

One Criticism

I do have one criticism. I waffled on it for a while, because I so deeply wanted this Bible to be the perfect Bible Shangri-La which I have long awaited. But I’ve concluded that, though it’s the best Bible edition out there (taking the translation into account), the new Reader’s ESV retains one significant problem: I don’t think the choice to use chapter breaks was a good one. It feels like Crossway made it about five minutes from the summit of Mt. Everest and then decided that was good enough. Why go on?

You go on because chapter divisions do the same thing verse divisions do, just at a wider level of the discourse. They break up the flow of thought where the biblical authors didn’t necessarily intend to do so. Quite often chapter divisions occur at thought breaks. But did the Sermon on the Mount really fall into three portions, Matthew 5, 6, and 7? I prefer the NIV Books of the Bible, which did away with chapter divisions as well and used a beautiful and flexible system of line breaks to indicate breaks in the thought flow (it also rearranged the currently accepted order of Bible books so Luke and Acts, for example, stand together and 1 and 2 Samuel become again one book—I really like that).

The Message of the Medium

Now I want to provide the kind of review of this Bible that only a regular preacher of expository messages can write. I want to ask a Marshall McLuhan question about it: what would this layout do to preaching? Your tools shape you, McLuhan (along with Postman and other media ecologists) argued. So how is a Bible edition like this one likely to affect preachers?

Indeed, what if versification had never been invented? Verses are a mere 463 years old while the complete Bible has been around for nearly 2,000. What would expository preaching be like without verse numbers?

This counterfactual history question is a difficult one to answer, but I have a suggestion to make: I think expository preaching from a non-versified Bible would by necessity include less checking of cross-references.

I preach weekly to people who have never learned how to get around in their Bibles. They’re largely unsaved and largely poor readers (there are exceptions on both counts). If we didn’t all have the same Bible—so I can cite page numbers—I would have to spend about three minutes of page-shuffling every time I asked the small congregation to turn to a different passage. So I end up sticking with one passage most of the time. And I’ve found that I can’t jump around in that passage, either. It’s really best if I just take the text as it comes. Then people can follow. (We also use the NIrV, which has been fantastic for us. I no longer have to explain the Bible translation; I can explain the Bible.)

I already avoid mentioning verse numbers when possible in preaching. Instead, I try to use the few seconds necessary to say “Look at Romans 5:8” to instead orient my listeners to the context. “Turn to the second paragraph of Romans 5, where Paul is arguing that we have peace with God through faith. And look at what he says in the eighth verse…” I also often reference the subject headings in the text as orienting features. Having a non-versified Bible would practically force preachers to reference contextual features rather than “cheating” by going straight to verse numbers. A regular reminder that a given “verse” is no such thing—that it’s part of a paragraph, which is part of a broader discursive argument—would be very salutary for Christ’s body.

If a non-versified Bible would help some preachers stick to their texts rather than wandering around the Bible, it could be a very good thing. If it kept people from the kind of attention to the whole counsel of God that gives you a well-rounded understanding of a particular doctrine (by discouraging the checking of necessary cross references), it could be not so great.

So here is my personal judgment: if I ever become the pastor of a more or less normal group of American conservative Protestants—an average doctrinally conservative church—then I plan to suggest the use of the ESV Reader’s Bible for one to two years. Then we would all talk. I would want to hear their reflections about personal devotions and preaching, about Bible teaching and study. I have a feeling that the end result might be an amalgam: we use our “verseless” Bibles for regular personal reading and our versified (but still single-column, paragraphed) ones for preaching and careful study.

Conclusion

It’s interesting that the legendary NT commentator Gordon Fee recently revised his top-rated 1 Corinthians commentary in the NICNT in part to eliminate his use of “chapter and verse.” Those little numbers weren’t there in Paul’s mind, he said, so their use might subtly alter a reader’s interpretation of Paul. When the commentary comes out it will be interesting to know what if any interpretations Fee adjusted because of this shift.

That’s what we’re after here: good interpretation, for the health of the body of Christ. Every little bit helps, and the ESV Reader’s Bible is a more than a little bit helpful.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

26 thoughts on “Brand New ESV Reader’s Bible”

  1. The numbers may be recent but the verse structure goes back to the 6th century masoretes for the OT, and they were handing down an oral tradition much older than they. You seem to be describing the ideal seekers’ Bible.

  2. Thanks, I appreciated reading your post (as well as the one on the NIV Books of the Bible). I didn’t know how to search your site, but have you reviewed older attempts to do something similar? The MACMILLAN Company published The Modern Reader’s Bible in 1907 and reissued in 1930. I personally like the way R. Moulton, the editor, placed occasional verse marker on the far margin, outside of the text. Thanks again.

  3. Yes, I saw the 1930 version years ago and then lost track of it. Thank you for reminding me of its origin.

    I have an NEB which puts verse numbers in the margin; I think that’s a great solution to our current typographical predicament.

  4. While it’s true that versification of the text has perhaps not been a net gain to the church, I think it is much easier to argue that chapter breaks are very helpful in providing a global way to divide and locate texts inside of otherwise very large books. We know that the original readers had at least one book with well-defined chapter breaks (Psalms). It is also helpful in a congregation reading from different translations or merely different printings (compact, large print, study, etc.) to be able to at least point to a chapter number as you do in your example. Remember that your “paragraphs” and “discursive arguments” are just as intuitive/subjective as chapter and verse locations…neither are original or inspired.

  5. Some good points. But I’m not sure I’d say that my “paragraphs” and “discursive arguments” are just as intuitive and subjective as chapter and verse locations; verses are so regular in size (although there is variation) that we nearly guarantee odd breaks. The same is true for chapters, though they do tend to fall at good breaking points. The problem is that there are equally good breaking points—worthy of just as much of a visual, typographical break as a chapter division—within chapters themselves. If you haven’t seen a Books of the Bible edition, you’d definitely want to take a look.

    Also, I think we can retain the place-finding value of chapters (and even verses) with discreet numbers in the margins. They don’t have to intrude directly into the text.

    I will say that one of my real concerns, something that leads me to be unsure what to propose, is the point you bring up regarding congregational place-finding. That’s a tough one.

  6. I’ve thought through this for years as well. I was somewhat amazed that there was no translation available without versification. I think retaining the chapter identification is a good move so we won’t be as lost as the preacher in Hebrews (see 2:6 and 4:4). The presence of verses can make things stiffer and illegitimately choppy and give the impression of Scripture being codified legislation, none of which are probably helpful in the context of preaching. Yet on the academic front they are so useful (I imagine that at the end of the day, Fee made his excellent commentary more difficult) even though some are misplaced (e.g., 1 Cor 11:1 is part of ch. 10 and there is a sense in which 1 Jn 2:1 should be split in half.)

  7. A couple little things: there is a 1930 KJV that removed versification, a 1970s(?) NEB that did so, a mid-2000s TNIV, and a fairly recent NIV. This is the first ESV to try it.

    Also, I don’t oppose the marking of chapters; a marginal numeral seems like a reasonable accommodation to tradition. My (mild) objection is to the visual break introduced at every chapter break. I like the TNIV/NIV “Books of the Bible” editions and the system of breaks they used. The main progenitor of that project even wrote a book or two about the issue. “After Chapters and Verses” was the one I read.

  8. I agree with you on the whole, Mark. (Hence why I signed the Bible Typography Manifesto!) However, there is one aspect I’d like to critique. That aspect is preaching. I want to agree with you—I really do—but I’m not yet fully convinced that a lack of verse numbers is truly helpful when preaching the Word of God.

    For a reader’s Bible, yes, get rid of the verse numbers, for sure. But in preaching, it’s so much easier and helpful to reference the verse rather than the page, paragraph, and/or sentence.

    You know me well enough to know that I’m going to preach the thought of the pericope or paragraph, without neglecting the context. But sometimes it’s just plain hard to do that without citing the verse number!

    Case in point: When recently preaching through James, I tried your approach. The problem is that I am preaching through *themes* of James, rather than verse by verse. What if I need to reference, in this case, James 3:15? How do I point them to that verse if I haven’t previously referenced the sentences or paragraphs ahead of time? I could say, “Look at the 4th sentence in the 3rd paragraph of the 3rd chapter,” but it’s much easier to say “look at verse 15.” I had the same problem when I was speaking on trials from James chapter 1.

    Then what really sealed the deal for me is sheet music. I recently led our choir in Dan Forrest’s arrangement of “There Is a Fountain.” Such a lovely piece. Often times I will say, “Let’s start at ‘Wash all my sins away,'” but sometimes I don’t realize that the lyrics are repeated on that page, and the people (or sometimes, my wife the accompanist!) are confused as to which place I’m talking about! It’s much easier, I argue, to say, “Let’s start at page 7, measure 55.”

    I’m not saying “no, never” to using page/chapter/paragraph/sentence markers, but verse numbers are certainly easier to reference as a preacher. I’m going to trumpet reader’s Bibles for laypeople to use at home, and perhaps preachers who are used to cherry-picking or pick-and-run preaching philosophies, but for expository preachers, referencing verses numbers may still be the best method.

    Then again, maybe my critique isn’t that far off from you, since you said…

    “I have a feeling that the end result might be an amalgam: we use our “verseless” Bibles for regular personal reading and our versified ones for preaching and careful study.”

    Oh, in case you can’t find that quote, it’s in the post “Brand New ESV Reader’s Bible,” Heading 2 (“The Message of the Medium”), paragraph 7, last sentence :-).

  9. I’m weird and probably the only one who would buy this, but what I’d really like to see is a reader’s Bible SET. Give me 4 or 5 individually bound books (e.g. Law, History, Wisdom, Prophets, NT), each of them in paragraphed format, no verses or chapters (preferably without the forced chapter breaks, only visually broken when conceptually valuable [and no major disagreements among scholars that there really is a conceptual break at that point]). Give me the highest quality binding on great paper and beautifully transparent typography. With such a set, there is no need for a single behemoth 50 pound book which is not at all reader-friendly. I simply pick up whatever “book” I am currently reading and carry it just like any other regular ol’ book I am reading–same size, weight, paper thickness, text size, etc. I’d be willing to pay a couple hundred bucks for this. Does anyone else find this super-appealing for their bible READING time?

  10. Interesting—you’re taking one of the principles of my Bible Typography Manifesto to something of a logical end: if we’re really trying to facilitate reading, then we’re not going to worry so much about how much of the Bible we can cram between two covers. The ability to look up cross-references within one volume is for another kind of Bible study, not pure reading. And if we really want to facilitate good reading, we also will have paper thick enough to be truly opaque (though ESV editions do seem to be doing the line-matching that helps with see-through text).

    Hmm… I’ll have to think about this. Good thoughts.

  11. Since you are desirous of a reader’s Bible with no chapter numbers, I wanted to make you aware of a crowd-funded campaign going on right now for the development of an elegant four-volume set of the Bible with no chapter or verse numbers printed on standard book paper, available by limited pre-order only (and may not be available for purchase after late July) by following this link: http://bit.ly/projectbibliotheca

  12. For great examples of how to preach from Scripture texts which have not been chapterized, versified, paragraphed, or otherwise artificially segmented by technological, linguistic and cultural norms, I suggest looking at the early Church Fathers. What’s more, their target audiences were largely illiterate and ignorant of the Scriptural content. Since these Fathers only knew biblical tools such as you postulate, their preaching could be an indication of how modern preaching might change if we used similar tools

  13. That’s a really great point, BC! I admit I’ve gotten a little weary of taking my Reader’s Bible to church. This very Sunday I finally gave up. I’m not complaining at all, just recognizing that we’ve got a system set up and it’s hard to violate it. Likewise, versified Bibles may have been difficult to use in Chrysostom’s church.

    Hey, do I know you?

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