Bible Typography Manifesto

Note: the manifesto format is tongue-in-cheek, but the upshot is serious. Give it a read, and feel free to sign.

 

WHEREAS

  • typography is a major but often overlooked source of meaning, for good or ill, in any book,
  • and Bible typography, in particular, has long been shackled by unexamined custom and consumer forces rather than shaped by readers’ best interests,
  • and chapter and (especially) verse divisions have a comparatively brief history among God’s people,
  • and prooftexting and other forms of hermeneutical atomism—which are abetted by a versified rather than a paragraphed Bible—are still rife among Christians,
  • and computers have made good typography easily achievable,
  • and computers have put extensive Bible study materials literally in the pocket of countless believers,

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, do hereby call upon all Bible publishers throughout the world to

  1. limit the number of Bible editions published in two-column formats, and
  2. begin publishing most Bibles in paragraphed, one-column formats.

These two items form the heart of our polite demands—but here are a few more for good measure, specifically directed at American Bible publishers:

  • Publishers and readers alike must add a fundamental binary category to their thinking about Bible publishing: study editions and readers’ editions. Americans have enough money to have both kinds (and they also typically have access to computer resources for Bible study), so Bibles should cease trying to compromise between these two major categories of Bible usage.
    • Study Editions should have superscript numerals and letters referring readers to other parts of Scripture and to explanatory material. They should still be set in a single column, but should include as much useful information for the Bible student as possible.
    • But Readers’ Editions should be free of these intrusions. Readers Editions should, in fact, have nothing but the text, set in paragraphed formatting common to other serious non-fiction. Verse numbers, ideally, would be omitted in these editions. They might possibly go in the margin as an acceptable compromise, and a verse range can certainly be put in the header for each page, but anyone who needs to look up a particular verse can use a study edition or a computer/smart phone. (The Books of the Bible project is a good example of a Reader’s Edition. Update, 2014: Partly as a result of this manifesto, Crossway now offers an ESV Reader’s Edition.)
  • Within the two categories above, feel free to produce as much useful variation as possible: wide margins, journaling editions, preachers’ Bibles, etc.
  • Pay attention to typography. Pay actual designers to lay out your Bibles. There are standards for ideal line length, type size, and leading that have been established over the centuries. Lexicon is a exceptionally good typeface for Bible publishing.
  • Do not try to sell Bibles by including cutesy material that undermines the gravity of the text—or edgy, worldly material that undermines its holiness. Bibles should not look like teen magazines or gift-store kitsch. The medium is part of the message.
Click to see pages from “The Books of the Bible,” an excellent Reader’s Edition.

We are aware that evangelical Christians will be suspicious of any changes to The Way Things Have Always Been. But it’s time to learn a lesson from Steve Jobs, who didn’t know he was speaking about Bible typography when he said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Jobs has proved that beauty of form actually enhances usefulness of function.

The particular function Readers’ Bibles will serve is keeping the flow of thought going for Bible readers. The paragraphs will break up the thought where the thought itself breaks instead of at fixed intervals (as in our current system), and the single-column format—along with appropriate modern typographic conventions—will say “narrative” or “letter” (etc.) rather than “reference book,” as double-columns do. Treating the Bible like a reference book to the exclusion of Story has been one of the cardinal errors of evangelical interpretation.

As John Frame points out (DKG, p. 197), not all prooftexting is wrong; but plenty is. And double-column, non-paragraphed Bible text invites it, because it causes readers to think of “verse” as the fundamental unit of scriptural statement. Witness the evangelical predilection to include logical connectors when quoting a verse, despite the fact that they are unnecessary and confusing when quoted alone: “But God commendeth His love toward us… (Rom 5:8).” Unversified text would invite readers to think of familiar verses as parts of paragraphs and overall discourses.

We, the undersigned, commend some publishers, especially Crossway Bibles and Cambridge Bibles, for their sense of creativity and beauty in Bible typography. These have also led the way (along with companies like R. L. Allan) in innovative use of new and old materials for beautiful, flexible, and lasting Bible covers—and in printing methods which allow, for example, rich color on thin Bible paper.

 

THE UNDERSIGNED

MARK LEE WARD, JR., B.A. Bible/Art, M.A. Bible, Ph.D. New Testament
DUSTIN BATTLES, B.A., M.A., M.Div.
ANDREW DAVID NASELLI, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.2
BRIAN CURTIS COLLINS, B.A., M.A., M.Div., Ph.D. Theology

Comment on this page to become one of the undersigned.

Update (03/07/2012): The manifesto review committee now believes one line in the initial language to be unjustifiably intemperate (even though the whole format is tongue-in-cheek): “Immediately cease publishing Bibles in two-column formats.” Two-column formats do allow for smaller Bibles to be printed, and there may be other specialized reasons for having them. However, it is still the opinion of the committee that their predominance is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Update (10/25/2013): The manifesto has been heard!

Update (7/24/2014): A groundswell is building.

Update (2/21/2015): A presentation and a few recommendations:


Click here to download the audio

Reader’s Editions

The NIV Books of the Bible edition is the best reader’s Bible available, typographically speaking. The binding, the typeface, and tiny details of the layout could all be improved, but the basic idea is unsurpassed. This is what a Bible should look like. Narrative looks like narrative, epistle like epistle, poetry like (Hebrew parallel) poetry.
The ESV Reader’s Bible is a fairly close second. I prefer the ESV over the NIV for most (not all) uses, and this Bible’s typeface and layout make up for what The Books of the Bible edition lacks. However, this edition retains numbered chapter divisions, a mistake in my opinion. Leave those in study editions.
The Bibliotheca project is fascinating, and may prove to be the best available reader’s edition when it comes out this summer. The translation is a bit of a question mark—the progenitor of this edition, a dedicated and passionate book designer, is spearheading some revisions to the 1901 ASV text. I can’t make a judgment on those revisions until I see them.

52 thoughts on “Bible Typography Manifesto”

  1. I am in agreement. I have been using the Life Application Bible in two different translations for many years. Both translations feature paragraphed, one-column format with excellent notation, running glossary, and cross references, in addition to character studies, timelines, and other background information. I am also a fan of Bradbury Thompson’s Washburn College Bible in which Thompson utilized thought-unit typography to better render the KJV Modern Phrased text for lectern reading. It’s a treat for both the eye and the mind.

  2. Andrew Steven Anglea, B.A., M.A. Bible (almost M.Div.)

    I’m also an appreciator of the Books of the Bible, and have been using paragraphed electronic texts as my primary medium for some time now.

  3. I whole heartedly agree with the concept of a change in typography to improve readability and understanding. I especially liked the requests not to marginalize the sobriety and holiness of Scripture for the sake of marketing.

    Thank you for posting this!

    B.A M.A. Bible

  4. What a tendentious post! I hope you’ll share your views about Hebrew and Greek typography next.

    For me, some bugbears are:

    bold font/black face — for some reason, this is painful to me — just like reading Gothic or blackletter type

    sans-serif fonts — so hard to read when densely printed

    bleed-through — if the paper is translucent and allows type through, it is incredibly annoying

    non-justified text — this just looks awful, especially in a double column format.

    Now, you may imagine that no Bible could possibly be so badly designed that it had all these flaws (as well as many you cite above). But there is one — the 4th edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible. It is worth buying just to see all the things that can go wrong with book design.

  5. Good points, Lue-Yee. And thank you for commenting!

    “Few instances” is surely right: lectern Bibles have got to be a minute percentage of the market and, more importantly, of actual Bible usage.

    I had an old NEB that had the verse references in the margin. I like that idea a great deal; it seems to be the best compromise one step back from a pure Reader’s Bible. That’s the kind of thing I think I’d prefer to give to someone who is getting his first Bible or who is unlikely to get two! I think it would make a good standard or mainstay in evangelical Bible usage. It would allow a Reader’s Edition to be useful for someone listening to expository preaching in church. I think that even pastors could use it with a little practice.

    However, the more compromises we make on our journey toward the middle of the continuum (between Reader’s Editions and the other “extreme” I recommended, Study Editions) the worse we get. And I’m afraid the otherwise beautiful Clarion is exactly the kind of Bible my silly little manifesto is likely to eliminate, if successful. The Clarion makes great strides toward helping readers, but I don’t think readers use cross references enough to justify their presence in an edition meant for reading. Instead, I’m suggesting we place those references in a Study Edition.

    Right now we seem to have Bibles only toward one extreme of my suggested continuum. There is only one contemporary Reader’s Edition I know of, and only recently was it placed in a mainstream translation, the NIV (before that for several years it was in the much-maligned TNIV and therefore not likely to be successful).

  6. I am in favor of many of these recommendations, especially paragraphing and single column format. Just to note that God’s Word translation has been published in single column format since 1995 (and even its predecessor translations back to 1988. The format of the text itself aids the oral reader. Recently the newest publisher of GW offered a text that was double column for history and single column for poetry/prophecy. I have used it on occasion and find it useful.

    Chapter and verse numbers are intriguing. I like the differentiation between a study Bible and a text Bible for their use.

  7. Thomas Keene, BA, MDiv, Phd (Westminster Seminary).

    If chapter and verse numbers are absolutely necessary, something similar to the way we do Josephus and other ancient texts would be appropriate: put it far away in the margins.

  8. I mostly agree, especially the comments about typography. Paragraphs rather than versification do make the language flow easier to follow.
    However, I would disagree with one column if pages are wide. Newspapers know something about ease of reading and helping people’s eyes follow the story. We need to think about the common man, most of whom read very little. Their eyes are not exercised in following long lines. One column makes senses when the pages are about the size of a novel. This may be good for Bible portions, but can you imagine how huge a Bible would be if it followed the comfortable one column format of novels?

    I have some experience in creating training handouts where where I need to leave trainees with a lot of information on one page. It is using a two column format that gets more on the page with a still easy to follow format. A one column format on a wide page is almost unbearable and easy to loose ones place in the reading. Bible publishing could borrow lessons from other areas of the industry to make the reading more comfortable in formats that draw the eyes along with the story.

    It was said in a 2010 survey that 80% US graduates who do not go on for further studies never open a book again. We who study the Word, or even read this type of blog posts, often forget that our literacy levels are not the average. If we are involved in discipling new converts from among the masses it makes a difference not only what translation they start with (another discussion) but how readable the unfamilar text is for them to follow.

  9. Great article!

    I’m trying to get used to single column paragraph format, but the one thing that I don’t like about it is the very crowded look of each page. (Double column paragraph format looks even worse.) The Bible has a LOT of words, and the pages look so crowded that they appear daunting. Pages in verse format don’t look so intimidating, especially to those new to reading the Bible.

    I actually like single column verse format if the lines aren’t too long, but that makes for a larger Bible, which I don’t prefer. *sigh*

  10. I hereby sign in agreement that the issues raised above are important and publishers would do well to head this advice! The caveat in the update footnote is well advised, but, as the original manifesto points out, formatting priorities for printed texts should be re-aligned such that the text and its continuity are put front and center. The text’s integrity should generally take priority over other concerns.

    Rev. Caleb Maclennan

  11. I endorse comprehensively your manifesto. I am unsure if , Stephanus (Robert Estienne) and Rabbi Nathan did us any favours with their somewhat arbitrary divisions.
    Although the language is different, oft times I read Tyndale’s Bible (Yale University Press) because it is set out in single column with no verse numbers, and only chapter breaks.

  12. Happy to add my meager voice to the burgeoning chorus. I’ve long taught my students the potential hermeneutical perils of what I have dubbed “dedicated versification” and the importance of paragraph formatting. My one pet peeve, however, continues to be the failure of modern translation publishers to find some way of differentiating the singular and plural second person personal pronoun. Few seem to appreciate that the thee’s and thou’s we are so eager to abandon as tedious and obsolete provided English readers (especially English-only readers) with a decided hermeneutical advantage over the reader of modern translations in not a few passages where the difference between the singular “you” (thee, thou, thy) and plural “you” (you, your) is critical to a correct understanding of the passage. The unwillingness to stylize the plural “you” in some simple way in modern translations, and/or the apparent continuing ignorance over its significance, continues to mystify me.

    P.S. Hurrah for Bibliotheca which, it appears, may be correcting this pronominal peccadillo. Looking forward to my copy!

    Layton Talbert, PhD
    Professor of Theology and Biblical Exposition
    Bob Jones University Seminary & Graduate School of Religion

  13. I agree fully. we need to get back to context of books and letters and thought rather than proof-texting verses. I for one want this kind of Bible. Please. (And I am a voracious reader!)

  14. Signed. I appreciate that the manifesto itself does not take a position on justified text (though it has been mentioned in the comments). I prefer a ragged-right, left-justified text, mostly to keep spacing consistent. I can appreciate that an appropriate line length and good hyphenation can help the spacing immensely, though.

  15. Hey guys! Sorry I’m late, but count me in.

    I’m also seriously considering adopting the “two-Bible model” for myself: NASB New Inductive Study Bible for church and study, and an ESV Reader’s Bible for reading and memorizing. That will enable me to make the “switch” to ESV without losing all I’ve written in my NASB.

    I’m actually not quite ready to take the plunge – hopefully a good ESV without chapter divisions will appear sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m waiting on Bibliotheca for my next Bible read-through.

    Maybe this is a bit off topic, but some points of the discussion remind me of comments from Wayne Grudem on why he often quoted the Bible passages in his Systematic Theology instead of just listing references.

    It’s not so edifying to read a theologian’s point, then see a long string of numbers and colons. Since no one is really going to look all those verses up, those references are nearly meaningless. So, why not put the passage right there for everyone to read? That way the reader’s attention isn’t completely monopolized by the theologian: God gets to have a part in the discussion, too.

  16. I heartily endorse this manifesto. I would like to see more Bibles in the format used by The Books of the Bible, which I have read through and enjoyed twice, so far: once in TNIV and once in NIV2011

  17. This issue has been a concern of ours for years. I am so thankful for an opportunity to sign and support this movement. My wife and I serve in central Asia. We teach often and pointedly the need to read the Bible as it was written and to ignore chapter and verse while reading. Find the beginning of each thought or teaching and read it to the end regardless of chapter and verse divisions.
    Also we hope and pray that the practice of reading a single verse in one of the major prophets, or the book of Philippians, framing it, hanging it on the wall and claiming it for our lives all while completely ignorant of the context and intention of the author will stop.

    We look forward greatly to acquiring a readers Bible. Thank you sincerely.

    B and K

  18. I agree – wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. The Bibliotheca project of Adam Lewis Greene is one of the most worthy endeavors in recent memory.

  19. I agree without reservation and hereby indicate so, here, in this single column of only text. I have recently discovered the Books of the Bible publication to my great delight. As a pastor, I would love for the Readers Bible to become a household staple in this generation of Christians.

  20. Good presentation, Mark. I even laughed at your jokes. More importantly, I just ordered The Books of the Bible–as well as my wife’s birthday present, since I’m a sucker for getting Super Saver Free Shipping. Two-for-one: not bad for a Saturday morning.

    Keep it up.

  21. I agree with your manifesto, having lived it for the last 25 years.

    I began my journey of designing new typefaces for the Bible in 1985, with the goal of increasing readability for this most important text.

    Was the journey worthwhile? I can only pray yes, otherwise it was not worth the time and effort. There is always room for improvement, yet never enough time to continue the work.

    I humbly submit what have been my contributions to Bible typography:

    http://www.alteredegofonts.com/the-story-of-veritas-the-bible-font
    (found in select editions of NLT, ESV, GOD’S WORD and the forthcoming The Readable Bible)

    http://www.aespire.com/nonprofit/faith/lucerna-custom-bible-font
    (Exclusive to NLTse editions and in many Life Application Bibles (NIV, NKJV).

  22. Yes, yes, yes! Please do at least one reader’s edition sans verse (and preferably) chapter numbers for every major translation, especially the ones that typically get “chopped up” the most, like KJV and NASB. I would love to see something like The Books of the Bible in KJV – I think it will greatly improve the readability of an already linguistically difficult text. The Cambridge Clarion is the closest so far…but any chance of no verse (and chapter) numbers and reference notes?

  23. When I was an undergraduate student, my mentor professor had this on a 3×5 card in his office – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ οὐ δέδεται (“The word of God is not chained/bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). Surely we must make the Scriptures free from artificial chains that bind that God-breathed message. Your project is one such way to liberate the Word. May God continue to give you resources and supporters in this worthy endeavor!

  24. Absolutely agree! If we could have Bibles that seemed like they wanted to be read, I really think we would be more drawn toward reading the Word. I recently bound my own NASB Four Gospels without verse numbers or columns – but I think I’ll give some of your recommendations a try before I keep going! Thanks for making this a priority.

  25. I’ve struggled with this for many years. I started BibleBuyingGuide.com partially in an effort to help publishers hear what readers want. I’ve determined from my own habits that we all need to use more than one Bible – one for study and one for reading. I even use a different Bible for carry and another Bible for preaching. Being a pastor and preaching from the KJV, I realize that many readers are not fully getting what the Bible is saying. The KJV is a pretty translation, but its typography is terrible. I want a KJV just like the NLT Select. I’m okay with verse numbers (I can ignore them easily), but chapter numbers and the lack of paragraphs causes readers to not see the whole context.

  26. Thanks for the post! I’ve enjoyed watching the video a number of times and have also copied the link to friends who really haven’t even considered this subject at all. I, too, am one who until recently couldn’t put into words why I enjoyed certain copies of scripture over others, until I had some different sources (like you) point out all of the many different details that go into good bible design. I know many are still waiting on Bibliotheca, but until then, some might be interested in this:

    http://evangelicalbible.com/product-category/esv-bibles-crossway/esv-readers-six-volume-set/

    Thanks again for your time and your efforts to offer something to many who never knew it was there.

  27. Maybe this was covered–I didn’t read all the responses, however, why can’t personal pronouns referring to Deity be capitalized? Especially, He, Him and His as it refers to God and Christ such as in the NKJV and NASB? Many have trouble when a lower case “he” is used; who is the “he” referring to.

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