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.)
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:
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.
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.