The Books of the Bible

I recently came across an advertisement for a project called The Books of the Bible, in which the chapter and verse references have been stripped out of the text and reformatted into one column. So each book now reads like (or is at least presented as) more of a book and not a set of individual units pasted together. The order of the books has also been altered, sometimes radically (e.g., most of the New Testament) and sometimes slightly (e.g., the Pentateuch and historical books). They provide sample pdfs on their website, and the text looks clean and sleek when unencumbered by myriad superscripts, headings and cross-references. Partly, I’m just excited to read a Bible that offers more by offering less. Often Bibles are glutted with offerings of more notes, more study options, more background material, more ways to apply each text, you name it. This is one that takes its medium seriously, infusing the content typical of most study Bibles directly into the physical object.

I was initially skeptical when I saw the advert, but when I saw that they had taken out all the subheads and chapter and verse references, I was intrigued. I had actually wanted something like that for a long time (as in, “don’t tell me where to stop or where to start or how you or your intern or whoever think the passage should be summarized. Just let me read the text.”). Then I went to their website, and I was a little dismayed (as in “here’s another specially-branded new Bible to appeal to the most recently-deemed-profitable demographic, just like those BibleZines [for which Thomas Nelson will have to answer at the Pearly Gates].”). But the more I read, the more excited I got, with a few caveats.

I think they’re on to something at the International Bible Society. They realize that the Bible should be read in the chunks in which it was written and not necessarily just in the bite-sized nuggets of verses or even chapters. Furthermore, they visually structure the text according to its natural literary breaks, so, for instance, a prologue has an extra line of white space after it to indicate that the preceding section is set off somehow from the rest of the book. Sure this is something a reader could infer simply by paying close attention to the content, but when form and content are correlated as closely as possible, the visual presentation reinforces the cognitive process, a synthesis more powerful than the sum of its parts. My caveat is that the website overstates its case: they breathlessly announce this new Bible as a paradigm shift, a revolutionary new way of reading the Bible. One that is relevant and fresh and simple. Well, now, let’s not get too worked up here. While they’re clear in their FAQs and elsewhere that they’re not trying to replace the Bible as it is, they employ a lot of overwrought marketing jargon to get their audience’s attention. But in the end I think it’s only that – overwrought marketing jargon – and to dismiss it or ridicule it based on that would be to give it too short of shrift. I learned the Bible according to its chapter and verse division, and, while I’m not denying that chapters and verses are extremely useful, I feel like there are a lot of false divisions of chapters and isolated understandings of certain verses I have had to unlearn (and still have to) because of the way I grew up reading the Bible. Having a text that doesn’t tempt me to stop at Romans 6 and get to Romans 7 later is, I think, a blessing – and would be invaluable for somebody reading it for the first time.

I’m more ambivalent about the rearrangement of the books. The Old Testament (or “First Testament” as they call it) is a little clearer than the New Testament. There are the general categories of history, writings, and prophets, and the editors have grouped them as such. I like that books that have historically been placed together but that have been separated for reading convenience have been reunited (Samuel-Kings and Ezrah-Nehemiah-Esther – and Luke-Acts, but more on that later). When viewed as a single whole, readers are more likely to glean the overarching narrative, drama, and message of the book. I only have two beefs. First, they broke up the Minor Prophets in order to place them in chronological order, which is helpful in terms of placing the prophets within their context in the history of Israel but which is not so helpful in placing them in their literary contexts. The Minor Prophets were all kept on one scroll and were arranged in a deliberate fashion. For instance, Jonah is smack in the middle of the scroll as an example of a prophet who didn’t really get it, but God accomplished his purpose through him and despite his obstinancy. This arrangement ignores these more subtle literary points within the Minor Prophets. This, however, was a decision the editors had to make, and that’s fine with me, though I would have done it differently. Second, and less importantly since the Old Testament has always been grouped generally into genres, grouping certain books under history and others under writings tends to ignore the fact that each book has its own literary style and structure. Historical books are not less literary than the Writings simply because they are not poetic. Samuel-Kings, for instance, has a clear literary structure that coheres with one of the main themes of the book: Israel’s sin leads to exile. Conversely, a book grouped in history could be speaking of Israel’s history, or a moment in it, such as Ruth, but not necessarily be rooted as firmly in historical fact. But the historicity of certain books of the Bible is not something I want to get into, so I will put that firebrand back into the fire and move on.

The New Testament is a different story. The books are grouped in an almost arbitrary fashion. Luke-Acts is first followed by the Pauline epistles. I like that Luke and Acts are together, since Luke wrote Acts as a sequel to his Gospel, but I’m not sure he really intended them as one book. I haven’t gone to any sources to refresh, but that’s the impression I have. But from there the problems only multiply. So much of their organization is built on opinions that have no scholarly consensus in regards to date or even authorship. I don’t blame them for uncritically grouping everything bearing Paul’s name under Pauline, and they had to choose some order if they were going to hazard an attempt at a chronology but it just seems to tenuous to even try. Matthew, Hebrews, and James are all together, I guess because they’re all Jewish (!), a thematic grouping; but then Mark, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude are together because they’re (mostly) Petrine, an authorial grouping; finally all the Johannine material ends the New Testament. It seems so rag-tag, like they wanted to change the order for the sake of changing the order. It seems much more intuitive to keep the Gospels together, maybe putting Luke last to place it next to Acts, then almost the same order the New Testament is already in. But now that I look at it more, perhaps they were grouping them according to communities, that is, each group at least points, for example, to a Petrine or Pauline community. I suppose that could work, but it still seems pretty tenuous. Those communities are partly theorized and may not have been as close-knit as some scholars have made them out to be. The order they chose for the New Testament is a mixed bag.

There’s also the issue of the TNIV. Nobody I’ve talked to is very excited about the fact that they used the TNIV. I’m among them, but it’s a long discussion, and it’s getting late. I believe in gender-inclusive language, but it seems like it introduces more problems than it solves to use it in Scripture.

Overall, though, I’m really excited to get my hands on one. Maybe I’ll be disappointed by the actual experience, but I doubt it.

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14 comments so far

  1. Josh on

    I wonder if this could actually be a revolutionary text, as the website claims, but more for the changes in book order than for the end to chapter and verse numbers (that will be helpful, but not paradigm-shifting). I suspect that there will be much good and much bad done by the book order changes, at least for my reading. I will no longer have an excuse for mixing up Matthew with Mark or Luke and I will be aware of what some scholars think of Jude, but I may never find James again and will only get to the last Pauline Epistles occasionally.

  2. timothycairns on

    How about I take my “old” Bible and pretend that there are no verses and chapters, ignore footnotes and “study” notes and just read! then just make up my own order!

    just saved myself a few quid (for Derek) bucks for the rest!!!

  3. chad on

    as Jeff knows, I’m not too big a fan of the whole thing. I even used some cuss words in my e-mail to him…but that might have had more to do with the fact that I had just finished reading Luther than anything else. Nevertheless, I guess it all depends on how you think the bible should be read in the first place as to how jazzed you’ll get over this. But if you speak to more liturgical folk, as I seem to have to do nowadays, they would tell you the bible is best read theologically. The premise of this bible seems to be the whole excitement about narrative this and context that, which, to be sure, has its relative importance. Nevertheless, the bible, as my liturgical peers would say, is to be read in the Church with her theological understanding, best summarized in the Nicene Creed. Thus, you read the bible theologically, which means having your readings structured according to the Church’s doctrine.

    So, reading it, as Jeff said, “in chunks” is really no better than reading it anyway else if you’re not structuring your reading in a way that will further you in your theological understanding of the faith. I personally think the “bite size” is great, especially if you study how the Fathers read Scripture. Slow, steady, bit by bit, verse by verse, word by word, mulling over everything prayerfully and contemplatively. Keep in the chapter and verses and slow down the reading, in my mind. Foster meditation and contemplation – very unlike how you are reading this post and its ramblings..

  4. Kristi on

    I like it. For what it is (rather than what it claims to be) I think it’s refreshing and makes me excited to read the Bible in a new way.

  5. timothycairns on

    Chad,

    You need to get out of that Boersma bubble!! get with the emergin’ church

    we had a reformation you know!!!

    Did none of that Luther seep in!! I guess its all that Florida heat

  6. derekryanbrown on

    Excellent thoughts Jeff. I thoroughly agree with your criticisms of the divisions of the biblical books; they are categorically gratuitous and I see no reason to prefer them to the current divisions.

    When it comes to the layout of the text, however, I think ‘The Books of the Bible’ (despite its clichéd title) has something worthwhile to contribute to the bible publishing world. (Let’s all be honest here; we all know that ‘The Books of the Bible’ probably won’t revolutionize bible reading, though it will hopefully aid some to read it more often and others more profitably.) I appreciate that the creators of this project were willing to help correct the glaring difficulty of the versification of the English text. As they stand—and if I remember correctly—the verses and chapters were introduced to provide corresponding stopping points to the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Thus they aren’t exactly necessary for the original purpose for all bible readers (though scholars and lay writers alike still make use of the references). It would be nice if, as Tim suggested above, we could simply ‘pretend’ the breaks and numbers weren’t present amongst the pages of our bibles, but this isn’t a real possibility. So personally I welcome the page arrangement as a helpful option within the world of bible options. If a ‘My Best Prayer Life of 40 Days of Purpose-Driven-Jabez-Life so I won’t be Left Behind Bible: Youth Edition’ is allowed within the walls of churches today, then surely ‘The Books of the Bible’ has its place in the pews of churches and homes of Christians.

    Chad—I’m not exactly sure what your comments have to do with Jeff’s post or ‘The Books of the Bible’ project, but certainly you don’t think this project is primarily (if at all) targeted at Catholics (i.e. your ‘liturgical peers’)?

    Lastly, Jeff I encourage, nay demand you to unpack your struggles with the decision to use the TNIV. I’m curious to know your rationale. It seems to me, at least initially, that a project that is clearly geared to make the bible more accessible to readers would do well to employ a more ‘readable’ translation such as the TNIV.

    drb

  7. chad on

    wow – I didn’t realize I would have such a fanfare.

    let’s see…liturgical, to some it seems = Catholic. Well, I’m not so sure Anglicans, Lutherans, and even High-Church Presbyterians would consider themselves Catholic. But you’re right…I’m not so sure who IS the target for this project – probably westerners with enough money to put yet another bible on the book shelf at the cost of $100 bucks.I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I’d read one of the three bibles I have right now if only those pesky chapter and verse marks weren’t there.”

    and i personally thought my comments had everything to do with jeff and his post. maybe a reread would help. I’ll summarize: the jazz behind this whole project assumes a certain way of reading the bible, and I brought up another way of reading it that considered the Church’s theological developments. So what if we read the bible like an early educated Christian (I stress educated, because most Christian won’t have read the thing in the first place…maybe this project should have been bible on tape) – does that mean we should throw out our articulation of the trinity found in nicene creed because no early Christian would have talked about God that way? What role to later development play in our handling of the Scriptures? That way my point – seems relevant.

    Tim – I know you would prefer me follow Stackhouse and Brian McLaren rather than Boersma…but i just can’t force myself to go there…

  8. chad on

    I’d like to restate the last two lines of the middle paragraph above:

    “What role do later developments play in our handling of the Scriptures? That was my point – seems relevant.”

    The debauchery of spelling you see above was due to being beckoned to come to the table for dinner…I typed faster than I thought (which some would say characterized the whole post :).

  9. derekryanbrown on

    Chad-

    I don’t mean to suggest that ‘liturgical’ only means ‘catholic’; my point was, rather, that your label ‘liturgical peers’ probably refers to your catholic colleagues at school and that, as such, they most likely aren’t a main focus of the project’s demographic.

    NB-the cost of a single copy of ‘The Books of the Bible’ is $9; a case of twelve copies will set you back $96.

    While the project may assume ‘a certain way of reading the bible’, I don’t think their main concern is as theological as yours seems to be. What I think they are concerned with is the pragmatic side of bible reading. “The Books of the Bible” is, after all, a project of the International Bible Society whose ‘vision’ statement is ‘[t]o get God’s Word into the hands of more people, in more countries, more efficiently, so they may become disciples of Jesus Christ.’ In less developed countries this vision would take on the form of getting any bible translation to virtually anyone willing to receive one. In the US and other western countries, where Christians seem to be growing increasingly lethargic towards spiritual practices and quite blasé towards bible reading in particular, their vision rightly takes the form of introducing a fresh approach to a permanent exercise of the faith.

    All this is to say that I don’t think they are opposed to ‘bite-size’ ways of reading the biblical text or some theological way of reading the bible that would undergird such an approach. Nor do I suppose that the people at the IBS want to part ways with the doctrine of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed. Rather, it seems to me that they want to visually (not theologically) simplify the text for readers. And they rightly point to the original state of the text as historical antecedent for this move. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate this point too much, but they aren’t introducing a new way of reading/hearing the text as much as they are recalling and reintroducing how the text was originally heard and read, that is, in larger chunks than a few verses if not entire books. Morever, as they point out, ‘…even when smaller parts of books are being studied (individual stories, sections or even individual sentences and phrases), locating these within the larger context will help readers keep the overall intentions of the biblical authors in mind’.

    All in all, I think their aims are largely practical in nature and their fruit of their labor is well designed to help address a gaping problem within the spiritual practices of Christians and will also provide another option amongst the cornucopia of bible versions.

  10. jeffreimer on

    Well said, Derek.

  11. chad on

    look – if all we want to do is try to get people to read the bible, and this project gets people to read the bible, then success. But I want people living life in the Church, not just reading the bible (not that it has to be either/or), but i still sense a lingering common evangelical dialectic between Church and Scripture that is problematic in the way we’re talking about this project, at least how I’ve come to see it (yes, in part thanks to Boesrma, Tim). I guess I just think that the text doesn’t need “simplifying” (as you said) if people are being developed theologically within the Church. And I also think pure pragmatics (as you stressed in your post) often gets us into more trouble that it helps. But I guess I’m just placing this project within what i see to be a larger context that Derek, your post isn’t trying to do, and that’s fair enough. So I’ll take the whole project for what it’s worth – although it seems to think (and claims to think) its doing a lot more than what’s being described by you guys.

  12. Ryan on

    A young guy from my church has recently been asking about Bible translations recently and we’ve been talking back and forth over e-mail about it. He sent this today, and I thought you all would find it interesting…

    “… the KJV lacks headings, I am assuming that headings are an addition made by translators or publishers. My initial reaction to them is that they focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects of the following passage, which means they are simultaneously directing attention away from other facts or interpretations which may be important. I personally could do without them, though admit that they are useful for finding particular passages or events during study.”

  13. chad on

    since I know that no one is reading this post anymore, I just want to declare how right i am about the whole thing. I’m right, I’m right, I’m right!!!!

    I can say this cause no one is reading this anymore. If you happen to be reading this, because you just can’t get past things, just remember: I’m right. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be ok.

    it’s so freeing to post something when you know no one is reading it. ahhhhhhhhhh.

  14. Shelley on

    Chad. You’re wrong. (how d’ya like hearing that from a guuuurrrrl?)


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