Bible Typography Question

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 3.41.21 PMomeone asked me today, “If you’re going to take out chapter and verse numbers from the Bible text,* why not go all the way back to Pauline practice and remove the punctuation and spaces, too?”

Well, because.

It’s a question of meaning. What would taking out all modern typographic conventions mean? It would mean miscommunication. Our conventions simply can’t be ignored. They are a necessary part of our written language. They are, therefore, just as much a part of the translation process as the words and sentences are. If we fail to use contemporary typographical conventions like paragraphs, spaces, quotation marks, question marks, and dashes we will be saying something the text of Scripture doesn’t say.

This fact does require translators to make some interpretive decisions. One of the more controversial and obvious examples is 1 Corinthians 7:1. Is Paul quoting the Corinthians when he says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman”? Several modern translations think so, so they add in quotation marks.

Translators can’t not make this interpretive decision. They can’t say, “Paul didn’t put in quotation marks, so we aren’t going to.” Paul didn’t have the option to use those marks, of course. And we don’t have the option to ignore them. Either way you go—quotation marks or no—you’re going to be telling readers something about Paul’s authorial intention. You can’t be neutral. Modern typographic conventions are demanding that way.

The same is true for paragraph breaks. If you abuse them, making every verse a paragraph (like most of the Bible editions I grew up with), you’re not-so-subtly communicating that every verse is a more-or-less self-contained thought. That’s murderously bad for Bible interpretation. It’s a big invitation for King James Only defenders to ignore the context of Psalm 12:6–7; it’s an invitation to Bible readers to turn God’s Word into a fortune cookie database (see Prov. 24:16 example here).

If, on the other hand, you refuse to use paragraph breaks, you’re also communicating something that the authors of the Bible text didn’t intend. You’re saying, “This is a dense block of continuous prose on the same topic.” And/or you’re saying, “This writer didn’t know how to structure his writing to make it readable.” You don’t want to say those things, do you? Then you need paragraph divisions.

Bible compositors at publishing houses can’t avoid communicating something about the biblical authors’ intentions by their use of typographical conventions. And you as a reader can’t avoid the issue, either. Your Bible edition is either going to help you read like the author intended or it’s going to impede you.

*Few Christians today would think to say, “Since we’ve added chapter and verse numbers into the Bible text…” People assume that the way things are is the way they always have been. But if the Bible were a 65-year-old man, verse numbers would have been added when he was 56 ½.

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.

4 thoughts on “Bible Typography Question”

  1. While we are having this discussion, I’ll add that I think it is possible to have the middle way. I am in whole-hearted agreement with your position that we should use a paragraphed format. This is immensely helpful. However, once you do that, the issue of chapter and verse become irrelevant. I have been using a Cambridge Bible for about 5 years that puts the text into paragraphs and verses numbers are a superscript in the text. The verse numbers, though in plain sight, have become invisible to me. This so much the case that whenever I’m recording or citing passage I spend minutes hunting for the best verse numbers to describe the section I’m in. Unfortunately, Cambridge maintained the chapter breaks, which do interrupt the flow. But I’m sure if they were moved to the margin, they too would become invisible. In my opinion, this is the best of both worlds. Understanding without the loss of utility. I suppose this means I can’t sign your manifesto 🙁

  2. Hi, Mark. I have a somewhat different response.

    I just finished teaching a classic calculus application on fluid force–such as how much fluid force is on a dam’s underwater gate. In our case, once one knows the shape and dimensions of the gate, and how far it is under water, one can pretty easily compute the total fluid force against the gate. But in the solution, one must superimpose a grid, the x- and y-axes. It doesn’t essentially matter where the student puts them–the solution would be the same. But some grids are more computationally efficient than others.

    That’s how I see chapter and verse numbers. They’re just part of a grid. They could be moved, but some uses of it are more efficient than others.

    But they’re too helpful to discard. I use them to locate, then I tend to ignore them.

    FWIW.

  3. A very fair assessment, Phil. I’d say only that 1) I don’t propose to fully discard verse numbers. I believe they have their place in study editions of the Bible, as a “toggled” option in computer/phone/tablet Bibles, in Bible software, in written references. I’d really be tilting at windmills to put a pox on all verse numbers. And 2) I wonder if you really ignore the verse numbers as much as you think you do. The only way you’ll know, I suggest, is by doing some extensive reading in a non-versified edition of the Bible. If your reading experience is similar to that with versified Bibles, then more power to you. For me it has been a different experience; not wholly different, but significantly different.

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