The Unreadable Bible

How the modern Bible is not designed for reading

Imagine this: a friend excitedly tells you about a novel she’s discovered.

Young woman reading from a tablet device

It’s called ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and she can’t stop talking about it. It’s the most enthralling, witty drama she’s ever read!

After your friend leaves, you think to yourself, ‘I’d like to see for myself why she’s so excited about this book.’ So you find a copy of Pride and Prejudice and open it to the first page.

You probably expect it to look something like this:

Would you be more, or less keen to read it if it looked like this instead?

Every ‘normal’ modern Bible is formatted like a reference book.

Pause for a moment. Can you think of 5 pros and 5 cons of the way we format ‘normal’ Bibles?

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The elements of a reference Bible

Added in AD 1205 by Stephen Langton, an author of Bible commentaries.
tick.svg Help you find parts of the Bible quickly
cross.svg Break the flow of the text, often ignoring the literary sections of the books
cross.svg Make the Bible look like a collection of short articles
cross.svg Tell your brain you’ve reached a stopping point, even if the author would have disagreed
Added to the New Testament in AD 1551 by Robert Estienne, who was writing a concordance. Estienne added all the verse numbers while on a 10-day journey.
tick.svg Allow you to refer to a precise part of the Bible
cross.svg Encourage you to ignore genre and read the Bible as a collection of isolated spiritual statements
cross.svg Contribute to a cluttered reading experience
Section headings
Added by translators to organise and divide passages. Differ from translation to translation.
tick.svg Useful when searching for a specific part of a passage you’ve previously read
cross.svg Ruin the suspense, and rob readers of the chance to interpret for themselves
cross.svg Interrupt the natural flow of the text
cross.svg Encourage you to treat the Bible as short episodes
cross.svg Are sometimes misleading
Added by translators to provide context or explain translation choices.
tick.svg Can provide helpful context which may not be obvious from the text
tick.svg Useful if you’re trying to understand precise textual nuances
cross.svg Interrupt your reading experience—you have to shift your eye to the bottom of the page, then find your place again
cross.svg Contribute to a cluttered reading experience
Cluttered pages
Narrow columns, small fonts, reduced line spacing and tiny paragraph breaks.
tick.svg Less whitespace = less paper = cheaper Bibles
cross.svg Pages look ugly and cluttered
cross.svg Reading feels more stressful and overwhelming
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It doesn’t have to be this way

A reference Bible can be great for reference purposes. But the design of most Bibles gets in the way of just enjoying reading the Bible.

So what can you do about it?

One simple solution is to get yourself a reader’s Bible. That is, a Bible without the columns, tiny fonts and distracting additions.

If you’re introducing a friend to the Bible, get them a reader’s Bible too. Otherwise you’ll need to work hard to help them overcome the challenges that come with a reference format. (If you really can’t find a reader’s Bible in a translation that will make sense to them, The Field Guide to the Bible might help them to not find the Bible so daunting.)

When choosing a reader’s Bible, look for an edition that communicates the genre and natural flow of the text through the page design. Poetry should look like poetry, letters should look like letters and narrative should look like narrative.

For example, here’s the start of Ephesians in Immerse: the Reading Bible.

The book of Ephesians from Immerse: Messiah

You won’t realise how much difference a reader’s Bible makes until you try one.

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Further reading

Image credits

Open Bible on table: Priscilla Du Preez
Woman holding tablet: Anna Demianenko
Blank drawing pad: Ashley West Edwards
Ephesians page from Immerse: the Reading Bible: Institute for Bible Reading, used by permission.