As I've started actually reading my Bible more, I've become pickier about which Bible I read. Since this is my blog, I'm going to spend some time talking about what goes into my decision. Be warned: this is slightly long winded.
I prefer the English Standard Version. The ESV website describes the translation this way:
The ESV is an "essentially literal" translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on "word-for-word" correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.
Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between "formal equivalence" in expression and "functional equivalence" in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework we have sought to be "as literal as possible" while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence.
Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original; and, as far as grammar and syntax allow, we have rendered Old Testament passages cited in the New in ways that show their correspondence. Thus in each of these areas, as well as throughout the Bible as a whole, we have sought to capture the echoes and overtones of meaning that are so abundantly present in the original texts.
That's very important to me. I've read other translations that chose to emphasize readability and understandability instead of literalness. They weren't bad translations -- I liked them. But when it came to "difficult" passages (such as the issue of women in leadership), I felt like the translation was hiding the author's original meaning. After a while, that started to bother me. I feel that the ESV strikes a decent balance between being understandable in the 21st century and staying true to the original text.
Whichever translation I use, I want a black-letter edition of the Bible. Many popular editions of the Bible choose to print Jesus's words in red. I don't like that practice, for two reasons.
Printing the words of Jesus in red implies that they are more important than the other words in the Bible. It sets them apart from the rest of the text and draws extra attention to them. The publisher, in effect, chose to highlight those words for you. But I don't think that's what God intended. Paul and Peter explicitly say that all of the Bible comes from God.
[esvbible reference="2 Timothy 3:16" format="inline"]2 Timothy 3:16[/esvbible]
[esvbible reference="2 Peter 1:21" format="inline"]2 Peter 1:21[/esvbible]
Secondly, printing the words of Jesus in red assumes that the Gospel quotations are direct quotations. I don't believe that they are. First century writers weren't concerned with getting direct quotations or properly attributing every source. They didn't make material up, they just weren't as rigorous as we are about documenting it and relaying it precisely. We can also see that the quotations aren't exact. Compare Matthew 9:4-6 with Mark 2:8-11.
[esvbible reference="Matthew 9:4-6" format="inline"]Matthew 9:4-6[/esvbible]
[esvbible reference="Mark 2:8-11" format="inline"]Mark 2:8-11[/esvbible]
The differences are subtle but real. While the gist is the same, the exact words differ. Both texts were inspired by God, but related by men. I want a Bible that prints the Jesus's words the same as everybody else's words.
I want a Bible that doesn't distract me from the meaning of the text. Chapter headings, subheadings, and chapter / verse divisions are all modern innovations. People throughout history created multiple different ways of breaking up and organizing the text. Our modern chapter and verse divisions first appeared in the Geneva Bible in 1599.
Chapter and verse divisions are necessary, to quickly locate a given passage. But they can break a text in the middle of a narrative, leaving the reader with a false impression about where a thought begins or ends. Headings and subheadings can be even more intrusive and distracting.
One example: the parable of the prodigal son. Many people are familiar with the parable, from [esvbible reference="Luke 15:11-32" header="on" format="link"]Luke 15:11-32[/esvbible]. Most Bible editions have a helpful subheader that indicates "The Parable of the Prodigal Son". But that subheader hides the fact that the parable was told as the third in a series.
In [esvbible reference="Luke 15" header="on" format="link"]Luke 15[/esvbible], the Pharisees complain about Jesus choosing to hang out with non-religious people. Jesus responds to them by telling three parables, each with a different point. Jesus intended each parable to be a partial response. We misread the text if we try to take the parables one at a time and read them separately.
I think we also risk misreading the text if the publisher formats the text in a verse-by-verse style instead of a paragraph-by-paragraph style. In a verse-by-verse style each verse starts on a new line. This unnecessarily -- and arbitrarily -- breaks up the text. It destroys the flow of the narrative and makes the text harder to read. Conversely, a paragraph-by-paragraph style combines multiple verses into one block of text. It is much more natural to read and helps to keep the text as a series of coherent thoughts.
Headers, subheaders, and intrusive verse divisions can encourage misreading. I prefer a Bible edition that formats the text into paragraphs and has few headers dividing up the text.
I want a Bible that's easy to read: not too heavy, not too thick, and easy on the eyes. I have two primary criteria for readability: single column pages with at least a 9pt font. I take this preference from J. Mark Bertrand. In this review of The Message: Remixed Bible, he explains his fondness for single-column layouts.
The fact that The Message Remix is laid out in single columns deserves a point all its own. This is what readers are accustomed to, and it makes more visual sense than the traditional double column layout. I don't know why so many publishers are committed to double columns. The practice creates all sorts of problems. For example, the ESV's narrow columns force unintentional line breaks on passages set in verse. The problem is solved in the standalone edition of the Psalms, which is set in a single column. But for some reason, the single column format that works so well in the ESV standalone editions of the Psalms and the Gospel of John is not available in a complete edition of the Bible. Designers take note: single-column formatting makes a world of difference in terms of the reader's experience.
If a Bible is going to have a single column layout, the lines need to be kept relatively short. Studies have shown that most people prefer reading text that has 60-75 characters per line. (About 12 words per line.) Using a larger font is the best to keep the lines short and the text easy to read.
As someone who loves to read, I prefer single column text. As someone who loves to read for long stretches of time, I prefer text that's large enough to read without requiring me to squint or strain to see the text.
Finally, I want a strong binding that will last for a while. My goal is to find a Bible that I'll use daily for the next 10-20 years. The binding should last as long as the Bible does. Ideally, I'd like pages that are sewn together, not glued together. Again, J. Mark Bertrand explains why:
This means that the pages are folded over into little booklets called signatures and then the signatures are stitched together. The individual page -- say page 993 -- is actually one of four pages that are printed together on a single sheet, then folded. What's the advantage of this? For one thing, the pages don't fall out with heavy use the way adhesive bindings do. For another, a sewn binding has the potential to be more flexible in the hand.
To be honest, I'm not yet sure what the Bible cover should be made out of. I'm not up on the differences between genuine leather, calfskin and TruTone materials. Rest assured, I'll have an opinion soon and I'll let you know what it is when I discover it.
Here's the short version of my "perfect" Bible checklist.
- Black letter
- Paragraph layout, not verse layout
- 9+ pt font
- Single Column
- No subheadings
- Sewn, not glued, binding
Yes, that's very picky. As I write this, I'm incredibly grateful that I live in a society wealthy enough to enable me to be that picky about my copy of the Bible. I'm thankful that not only do I have access to a complete copy of the Bible -- something that many Christians worldwide still don't have -- but that I can be discriminating about what that copy looks like. As I read each day, I thank God for the text I have and the freedom I have to worship Him.