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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    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. says

    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. says

    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. says

    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. says

    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. says

    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. says

    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. Randy Rhoades says

    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. says

    Some good points, Randy. Appreciated. I do agree that line length is important. I’ve read that 65 characters tends to be the upper limit for line-length.

  10. cec says

    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*

  11. says

    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

  12. says

    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.

  13. Layton Talbert says

    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

  14. Mark Sequeira says

    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!)

  15. says

    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.

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