June 21, 2007
The Organic Bible
Reading God's Word with no artificial additives.
Previously, John Dunham from the International Bible Society wrote about the unintended impact of having scripture divided by chapters and verses. It's led to what he calls "verse jacking," taking scripture out of context and using it for a purpose it was never intended. In this follow up post Dunham responds to some of your comments, and introduces an alternative way to read the Bible.
Commenting on my previous post, Glenn Krobel wrote:
There are too many Christians in ministry today who thrive off attacking our heritage without offering a solutions to problems they address.
Thanks for bringing that up, Glenn. I agree. And despite many people thinking the current system is too ingrained to move away from, I think it's worth a try. On August 1, International Bible Society will release The Books of The Bible. Chapter and verse numbers? Gone. Topical section headers? Gone. Extra columns? Gone. On the page helps? Gone. Footnotes? Moved to the back of each book. What you are left with is a no-additives edition of the Bible.
Not only have we taken out the dubiously beneficial additives, but we have also humbly attempted to bring a more faithful structure to today's Bible. There is no doubt the Holy Spirit has worked powerfully throughout the centuries through God's word in the Messiah's church, no matter what form his word has taken. But form does matter as we display the beauty of God's word.
Topical section headers are shortcuts for finding a verse or letting us know what's going on. Therein is the problem. Too often we rely on them to tell us how to interpret a passage without regard to the larger story, and sometimes these breaks come at the worst spots. While trained leaders may easily look past them, most readers are better off without them. The Books of The Bible allows the literary structure of a book to spring out by inserting appropriate amounts of white space in places where the author shows a transition (e.g., the toledot formulae in the Torah or Matthew's five sections of Jesus' activity and teaching).
A single-column typesetting is what we expect when we open any non-fiction book or novel. But most Bibles have two columns. Rick Shott correctly commented that this is for conserving space and reducing white space. This ends up saving publishers about fifteen to twenty percent on paper. But at what cost? Books like the Psalms are absolutely decimated with no reasonable way of making sense of the poetic structure. A single-column text displays poetry more clearly and narrative more naturally.
At times throughout the Bible's development limits in technology forced scribes to separate books that were meant to be one. For example, the books we know today as 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings were originally a unified book telling a single narrative. In The Books of The Bible, Samuel?Kings is presented as the one book that it is. Luke and Acts are two volumes of a single history, so they have been placed together.
Historians have documented over 70 different orders of the books of the Bible. In the current Protestant Bible, poetry and wisdom literature are mixed up with each other and prophets are generally grouped together by the size of the books, the four gospels are grouped together, and Paul's letters are placed in the order of their length. As the reformers did, we asked, "Is this tradition helpful?" In The Books of The Bible, we have put poetry books in a group and wisdom books in another. We have put the prophets in historical order, and the same goes for Paul's letters. And we've honored the fourfold gospel tradition by grouping each gospel with other New Testament books by theme or audience. To see the complete table of contents, visit www.thebooksofthebible.info.
To revisit chapters and verses, in many ways they have become a crutch for us to quickly locate a passage. But recall what Jesus did in Luke's account: "He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ?The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . .' " Our Lord did not use a handy reference system. He had devoted his life to the study of Scripture and was able to find passages based solely on context.
I crave that sort of familiarity with the Bible, and I think it will help all people. In sermons and Bible studies, one can locate a section like any book club would: "Turn to page 362, second paragraph, where it says . . ." We already do just fine without chapters and verses in every other area of life. (We recognize, however, that chapters and verses are of limited benefit, so we have retained a chapter and verse range at the bottom of each page.)
We hope that God's image bearers will use this new (and in many ways, old) format of the Scripture to engage in more and better Bible reading. There is no question that God has worked in amazing ways throughout the history of the Bible. But it is time to revisit how we print and read sacred Scripture. By liberating God's word from some of the formatting constraints that have been placed on it, his people will be better equipped to tell his awesome story of redemption.