A Short History of Bible Clutter
How did our Bible pages get so cluttered?
Open your Bible to a random page and you will find verse and chapter numbers, of course. And often the text has been scrunched into a 2-column layout like no other book, and often with a bunch of tiny cross-references printed down the middle. Section headings have been added, and so too book introductions, and often study notes, colorful images, call-out boxes on the pages, and a concordance and maps in the back.
The history of how our Bibles got so jammed up with notes and markings is a long one, and Bible readers are beginning to ask what the clutter is doing to the psychology of our Bible reading, and should we also be preserving space in our lives to read the Bible without all these markings?
I connected with Glenn Paauw, the Executive Director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading, a think tank dedicated to studying trends in Bible reading and design. He’s also the author of the new book: Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (IVP).
We recently sat down and recorded this “weekend conversation.” To start, I asked him about the history of verse and chapter numbers. Who added those to our Bibles?
Sure. It is actually a little piece of a bigger story with the Bible. It is pretty hard to find Bible manuscripts that are perfectly clean with no markings on them at all. It is often said that the very first manuscripts were just a series of letters with not even spaces between words and punctuation, that sort of thing, which is basically true. However, very early on people started saying: Look, we need to have these things with helps. The early manuscripts were read out loud.
So, often times, the very first things that appear are breathing marks: little spaces between words, page numbers, those sorts of things. And I think what happened over time is we just started inserting more things into Bible design, all with the interest of providing help, of course. There were practical reasons for these things. But by the time you get to the end of the history of the Bible in our time, these helps, these additions have pretty much overwhelmed the text.
We insert so much into our Bibles to help us read them. But these additions have pretty much overwhelmed the text.
Chapter numbers — surprisingly to many people, when I speak about this — came rather late in the game. The chapter system that we know in our Bibles today came from Steven Langdon, who was an English church leader in the early 1200s. So, to think about the fact that the Bible existed without these chapter numbers for over 1,000 years is startling to many people. I think one big light that comes on for people is to know that the Bible itself has a history as a book and that it developed over time in its format and that the Bible doesn’t have to be what we see today. And it actually always hasn’t been what we see today. And they are interested to know that verses and chapters have separate histories, really. The chapter numbers were inserted when Langdon was actually working on Bible commentaries.
And so, it is very helpful to find the Bible in sections that are easier to find specific pieces. The chapter numbers came in for that reason. Also, many times some of the various chapter number systems — there were more than one at various points in the Bible’s history — were included so that people could find passages for public reading of Scripture. So, it is these practical uses that really developed the form, the changing form that we see in the Bible.
Verses came 300 years later in the 1500s and it is interesting. The gentleman who started the verse number system, again, that we know, Robert Essien, a French printer, was actually working on a Bible concordance. So verses, of course, are more precise than chapters. And so, he needed something closer to smaller pieces of the Bible than chapter number. So, he inserted verse numbers into a Greek New Testament and added numbers to the Hebrew breathing marks that already existed in the Old Testament. And voila, you get the modern chapter and verse Bible for the very first time in the 16th century, which is, again, surprisingly late in the Bible’s history. And, again, it is fascinating, I think, to realize that both innovations were added to the text in the search of better reference help, commentaries, and concordances, and that is what led to the introduction of chapters and verses.
The history of oral Bible reading is a rich and incredible story of its own, but it will have to wait for another podcast episode. And I want to talk about the implications of this reference style in a moment. When we open our Bibles, we also see a 2-column style. Where did that originate? And how does it influence our engagement with Bible reading?
When you think about the scroll opening horizontally, columns had to exist. Those lines can’t go on forever. So, you know, the scrolls certainly had columns. It was a question of how long is the length of a column. And then when you switch to the codex form of the book, what we would know as a book form, first on animal skins and later on paper, it became just a practical matter of being able to fit as much material onto a page as possible.
And so, it was really that practical desire, I think, that drove this because the Bible is a big book. It is hard to fit it into a single volume without putting two columns on the page, which really maximizes the use of space with your words. The problem I have with double column Bibles — or even worse this terrible thing I saw a few years ago which is a three column Bible, which was almost impossible to read and squeezes the Bible down into a few hundred pages — but, what can you do with it?
So, the two column Bible was a page saving, space saving device. But it really is very hard on things like poetry. Hebrew parallelism — where the lines are always meant to work together and are talking to each other and so forth — this becomes almost impossible to see in a two column Bible, because you can’t fit a whole line of the Hebrew text across a column. And so, you end up indenting it. And then you have multiple levels of indents and the page becomes indecipherable. You can’t really see what is going on with the Hebrew poetry. Therefore, you don’t really read it as poetry. You are just reading words.
That’s really key. The Bible is a huge book, that’s just reality — and then packaged with a lot of added references. How did the rise of concordances change how Christians read Bibles?
Well, again, I say it is the desire to make good use of the Bible. So, concordances are very helpful things. And now, of course, we can do all this electronically. It is so fast and so easy to look things up, which is great in many ways. The problem is a concordance drives you to use the Bible in a particular way. When we back-design or back-format the Bible to fit our desire for something like a concordance, then we are changing what the Bible is in its regular presentation. It would be one thing if we said: Well, we need reference Bibles for when we are using the Bible to reference things, like when I want to do a word study and I look up words. Finding the verse number is much faster than scanning a chapter for that word. However, when we change the form to fit that particular need, what we have done without really thinking about it is we hurt reading.
So, when we change the Bible into a chapter and verse Bible, plus added all these other modern additives — cross references, section headings, footnotes, all the other stuff that we put in Bibles — we have really made it hard for people to just flat out read the Bible. And one of the things I contend in my book is we should be reading first and studying second and actually doing our study in the context of having read whole books, because that is really what authors intended. Their central unit is not a verse, is not a chapter, it is a book. Those are the central units the Bible is built on, and I think we should read holistically first and then do our study in the context of that reading. And I think the modern Bible reverses those things.
“When we change the Bible in so many ways, we have really made it hard for people to just flat out read the Bible.”
It does. Verses and chapters are two fairly recent phenomena. Even more recent, newer “data smog” as you call it, and I’m thinking of all those tiny cross-reference texts listed in Bible margins. When you have a column of references to related texts, what is your fear? What does this do to our Bible reading?
Yes, it is interesting. I didn’t really do the research to know when that originated. I should probably track that down. That would be a fascinating piece of this history of the development of the format of the Bible. But I know how they function. They function, again, helpfully in the right ways, but the problem is they tend to take over. And what it does, again, is prevents longform, in-depth kind of “lose yourself in the text” reading.
I don’t know if you ever read the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr? I think he has a fascinating chapter in there about how, in the electronic media, when we have these built-in distractions, hyperlinks, ads running down the side of the page, a million things on a page to look at and click on, those distractions become, actually, addictive to our brain. And, in fact, there are studies that show it actually starts to rewire our brain so that our brains prefer the distractions and like to keep clicking on new things rather than stick with a long piece of text, reading it, absorbing it, understanding it in a deeper way.
And I think cross-references down the middle column of a Bible are kind of an early version of a built-in distraction system. They tell us to jump around the Bible looking at this verse and that verse, not necessarily stopping to take the time to read each of those references in its own context. But what kind of book am I looking at? Is this poetry? Is it a letter? Is it a narrative? And what is the context of what is happening in that book?
The danger of a cross reference system is that it becomes a kind of an out-of-context, distraction system that tells us this is serious study of the Bible when actually it can easily become a superficial kind of study of the Bible, unless I stop to do the due diligence making sure every reference that I am looking up is read in its own context, which, of course, is a time commitment. It is a commitment to read the Bible a particular way. The danger is I think I am really getting significant Bible study, topical study, these sorts of things, but there is a clearer danger and, again, I say: The first and the primary and the most natural thing to do with the Bible is to read individual books at length in their own terms. So understanding the kind of literature it is, who was the author, who were they writing to, what was the issue, those kinds of things are necessary.
One of my first Bibles was a Thompson’s Chain Reference Bible. You pick topic and then bounce from Genesis to Revelation, verse-by-verse, thematically. I’m having flashbacks. You’re exactly right. Biblical cross-references are a pre-digital hypertext, really. . . . You ask this in the book: “Which of the following is the Bible most like: (A) Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, (B) The Reader’s Digest Guide to Home Repairs, or (C) The Collected Papers of the American Antislavery Society?” (26). Great question. These are illustrations of course, not exact representations. So what is more close to the right answer? And what do the other two options imply?
Right. We want to believe, and many times we are presented with the Bible, that it is either A or B. That is, it is either a collection of familiar quotations. So, we see the usual suspects like Philippians 4:13, Jeremiah 29:11, and Joshua 1:9 — all these verses that get regularly shared as the most encouraging, most uplifting collection. And social media, I think, has just made this problem kind of even stronger. It has heightened it, that the Bible just is a collection of these little gems, these precious one-liners that just do amazing work to encourage us and strengthen us and so forth. So there is that. And the problem is that answer says: Well, the Bible is meant to be used in a way that you can look past all those verses that don’t fit this model and find the good ones.
Now, we never really stop to ask why are these good ones buried in all this other text and what do we need that text for if we are not using it for our daily encouragement? I don’t really need the other texts. And so it narrows the Bible down into these really tremendous bite-sized pieces that we love, but it ignores the rest of the text. So, it misrepresents what the Bible actually is and has just become the way that we are familiar with using the Bible.
The second answer, B, the Reader’s Digest Guide to Home Repairs, again, says that the book was designed to be a kind of a self-help book. All I do is I think of a topic — marriage, for instance — and I look up all the verses, all the passages that are about marriage, and I think that by adding them together I can get the Bible’s teaching about marriage. The problem is that that kind of work isn’t contextualized. It doesn’t say: The marriage of the patriarchs was set in a certain cultural setting and it operated in certain ways that we don’t do anymore, ways that we don’t operate. And it had assumptions that we don’t work with anymore.
For instance, can’t just look up the marriage of, say, Jacob and say: That is a model or something for what God’s intention is for marriage in every respect. It isn’t. And through the story of the Bible, God’s teaching about marriage moves forward into more light, I would say, which is this key point that I really learned from Geerhardus Vos, who was a professor of biblical theology at Princeton back in the day and really did tremendous work on helping us read the Bible well as a revelation that gets more clear as it moves toward Christ and towards God’s ultimate intensions for human flourishing.
So, really, we need to end up with C. It is the collected papers of the American Antislavery Society. That is, the Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings, each of which exist in its own context, its own literary form, and they have to be taken as this kind of a collection. It is true that the collection of the Bible comes together to tell this amazing, redemptive, restorative narrative of what Jesus the Messiah has done. But the books themselves are the core units. The Bible is the collection of those things. It is not a collection of verses, so not a collection of little how-to passages. Again, it is a matter of receiving the Bible on its own terms, receiving the Bible in the form that God actually chose to give it to us. That, I think, is something that our modern format tempts us to move away from.
Certainly does. The market seems to really push “Scripture McNuggets,” isolated verses applied to a situation of life — not a horrible habit in itself, but certainly not a sufficient method for understanding the sweep of those books. You write: “In an atmosphere where consumer choice is the bottom line, the pressure is overwhelming on Bible providers to shape the Bible to these market-driven expectations. The core proposal is that these and similar tools will help you quickly find the small pieces of the Bible that seem to speak directly and meaningfully to you individually without having to bother with who these words were first written to and what they might have meant then” (168). Where do you see this, what types of things illustrate this market trend?
Yeah. It is interesting. My own experience, nearly three decades in Bible publishing in a nonprofit setting, yes, but we also know what it is like to have market pressure. I was selling Bibles in a nonprofit atmosphere. There were still demands that I felt as the publisher to make the Bible a certain kind of thing. We always would introduce helps into our Bibles, those introductory material, the front and the back of New Testaments, Gospels of John Bibles. Our material was mostly used for low-cost kind of outreach and evangelism. But I felt that pressure.
When we met with a partner and were producing a specialty New Testament, one of these niche products for a certain kind of target audience, think of the whole list of the kind of Bibles that you use these days. When I met with that partner, they said: Yeah, here are the verses that we found that are most helpful for this audience. And I would say: Well, I think the whole Scripture is helpful to this audience. And we would have these discussions, and I would feel the pressure to say: Yeah, but these people aren’t readers. They are not big readers. So this audience, it would be great if they would read more of the Bible, but we can help them find these little Bible vitamins that especially speak to this situation that they are in.
So, it is this desire to kind of adapt the Bible to an audience and in a market sense so that people will buy a product. And I think that is a really dangerous thing, because the Bible is what it is, and it has words of correction and teaching besides just encouragement and promises. And so, the danger with a market-driven Bible is that the pressure is to turn the Bible into a very happy thing all the time. And it is hard to sell people correction or death, for instance. These are things that people don’t necessarily want to buy. They want to be encouraged. Life is hard. We understand that. But the Bible has to be respected for what it is.
“The Bible is what it is, and it has words of correction and teaching besides just encouragement and promises.”
And so, there has been a real change, I think, in how people think about the Bible with the increasing commodification of the Bible. Making the Bible into a commodity that has to be bought and sold will necessarily put pressure on the Bible to be a certain kind of thing. And we need to be really aware of that as the church. The church should be the prime caretakers of the Bible, not something like a business in my opinion, because business has a goal. It is not that they are bad people, it is that businesses have to sell things and there is pressure to form things in certain ways when something has to be sold. Whereas a church is free to say: This is the Word of God. This is what it proclaims. This is what it teaches. We have to conform ourselves to it, not it to our consumer desires.
Yes, we must think of how market demands influence our Bible design and how we engage the text. In your book I sensed another caution, an implicit pushback as I read it — and I think it’s healthy. You seem to say that for a lot of us, when we say we have confidence in God’s Word, what we’re really saying is that we have confidence in a certain edition of a study Bible that puts enough guide-rails around the text to protect a reader from messing up on interpretation. Is that right?
Yes, there is. And I think that is right. I live and work among evangelicals. I have for three decades now in the Bible ministry in particular: Bible publishing, Bible work. And it is clear that the group of evangelicals that I interact with, they have a high view of Scripture in their minds. And I am not doubting the sincerity of that. But I think the danger is that the Scripture that we have a high view of is so often — I think this is a danger in particular for Protestants, because we see ourselves as the Bible people. We are the people who kind of brought renewal and reformation to the church in the name of the Scripture. Like: This is what the Scriptures actually say. But over time, any group, I would say, can build up kind of its own tradition, and then it is a danger for every single one of us that, at some point, we quit letting the text be the text, and we think of our notes and our guard rails as where the authority really is.
Once, back when the Christian Booksellers Association were having their annual summer gatherings of booksellers and authors, those big events that would happen annually, I heard a presentation by someone doing research on Bible use saying that, with the average Study Bible, what was actually happening more often, people were starting to jump straight to the notes and not reading the text and just reading the study notes. And, again, I think this is a fascinating thing.
Again, a huge point in my book is the relationship of form and content. Because Study Bibles put the design emphasis on the callouts, the notes — if there is going to be color on that page, it is going to be around the callout material, not in the Bible text. The Bible text doesn’t really receive significant design attention. So, our eyes are even drawn to the notes first. And I think for many people, the notes, then, replace text as the real source of authority. And I think that is the danger.
So, the danger with even the group that thinks of itself as having the highest view of Scripture is that at some point we will say: I am so comfortable in my positions I don’t really have to delve into the text and put things back on the table and just see what the Scriptures actually say again. Anybody who spends time with the Bible is in danger, I think, of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know this. I have read this. I got this one down. It is all figured out.”
We need to make sure we are always ready to listen to the text first and put our material, which is not inspired, our thinking, which is not inspired like the original text was, and say: A real high view of Scripture says: Let the text be the text, and always seek to let it speak to me, even on things where I think I might have my mind settled. And it is true, you can’t question everything at once. We have to have places where we stand. But we need to always be willing to say: What does the Word of God say? Not: What have I always said that the Word of God says?
I think that is a wise and healthy pushback for lovers of Study Bibles, like me. . . . So we have this TMI Bible, as you call it, cluttered with all these things. When we talk about “the market” how much of this is really tied to reader impatience? The time commitment you mentioned earlier. We want the point — fast. We want application — now? Therefore our Bible becomes a super technical looking reference document.
Right. Much of the material in my book is tied to this, what I call a modernistic paradigm: information. And the information at our fingertips is a huge value in the modern world. We want to be able to access information. The electronic revolution has just heightened that again, so it is now on hyperdrive, this thing. I expect to be able to look things up. If you are presenting a talk these days, you know that there are people in the room who will check what you are saying immediately as you are talking to Google it. Is this really what it says?
So, this expectation of instant access to information is a big deal in our culture. And so, this idea that that Bible should be broken down into that kind of information — again, helpful in many ways. I love my electronic Bible. I use it and it is great. When I have YouVersion on my phone, my pastor is preaching. I can look things up, check things. I am doing all that, right? So that is great. But the danger is, When am I just taking that stuff away, all that information, gathering information, accessing, overloading my brain with multiple distractions, when am I simply living deeply in the text? When am I reading it, just absorbing it, reading at length so I am getting the flow of an argument over time in one of Paul’s letters?
“When am I simply living deeply in the Bible? When am I just absorbing it, reading at length?”
I am seeing that there are deep things in the narratives of the Old Testament — things that we don’t pick up because we are always reading small. And so, if we would spend time with narratives and see very intentional devices, like repeated phrases in stories about Samuel and Kings — those things are crafted very intentionally — and I fear it is just lost on modern readers who have this bias toward easy, quick access to information, not dwelling in the text in a deep and slow way.
I think the Christian church in the world that it is not going to slow down any time soon. We have to be somewhat countercultural. As we are in other areas, morally we kind of realize there is a need to be countercultural. I hope we do. But we need to be countercultural in ways that we live within our Book, even if the rest of the culture doesn’t do that anymore. That needs to be something that we form Christian people into being dwellers in the book, not just people who access information superficially.
So good. Amen. We must end. This has been helpful, so I’ll end by asking you about some really interesting trends. In opposition to all of this, in recent years there are some really good options for readers who want a clean Bible. Bibliotheca went viral as one example. The ESV Reader’s Bible is my choice. And the NIV Books of the Bible functions similarly. When the ESV Reader’s Bible launched last year, I used it to read Ezekiel in one setting, and it was like nothing I’ve experienced before: waves of powerful metaphors and images, and no temptation to stop and parse every phrase. How do you explain the experience of reading a decluttered Bible?
That is very interesting you bring up this question. I have had people push back when I am giving presentations on this topic saying, “Yes, my Bible is busy, as you say. There is a lot of stuff going on on that page. But, of course, I can read right past that and it doesn’t really hinder my reading at all.” And then I hand them one of these new Reader’s editions, which, I think, have become the biggest purchaser of these Bibles, because I hand them out to everyone saying, “Yes, you have a Bible, but you have a modern Reference Bible. You need a Reader’s edition, because that is what we aren’t doing with the Bible these days, and this is the thing that we have to recover.” Then they read it and they say, “Wow, that really is a different experience.” It changes. I don’t get to a chapter number, no stop signs. I keep reading. I read in the natural sections. When the story takes a break, maybe that is where I take a break or it changes. But I don’t have these artificial markers telling me that this is an intentional unit, and this is meant to be taken just on its own, out of the context of this bigger writing.
So, I am really excited to see Bible publishers embracing this new kind of reading. And I hope that all of them will do that with all of the translations that we have available to us these days, because it is just good for the Bible. It is good for the church that people have a form of the Bible that lets them see the Bible in something closer to its original form rather than the reference book format that everybody has at this point in time.
I hope they do well for these publishers. I am glad to see these things taking off — the Bibliotheca thing was amazing: to think that there were that many people who wanted to get a multivolume Bible in this clean format in a well-crafted book. This is the thing we need to start bringing back to our Bibles. Instead of having such utilitarian Bibles, I think we need books that are actually crafted to honor the Scriptures as the gift from God that they are — that will invite people into reading. It is hard enough to get people to read these days, but get them a difficult format: What chances do we have of getting people to read Bibles that are hard to read?
And so, this new category, I hope it grows. I hope it becomes the new normal so that one day soon anybody who has a Bible will say: “Yes, I have a Reader’s Bible. And maybe I have a Reference Bible, too, or maybe that is just what I have as a setting on my electronic Bible. Sometimes I need to reference the Bible. But my main thing with the Bible is to be always reading it. I am reading it holistically. I am feasting on the Bible and not snacking on the Bible anymore.”
That was Glenn Paauw, the Executive Director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading, a think tank dedicated to studying trends in Bible reading and design. He’s also the author of the new book: Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (IVP). Also, be sure to check out the simplified Bible projects, if you don’t own one. Bibliotheca went viral as one example. The ESV Reader’s Bible is my choice, the one-volume edition, and the 6-volume set coming out this fall looks very appealing. And of course the NIV Books of the Bible project is in the mix, too.