Over the last few centuries, we’ve come to believe that the key to better Bible reading is to add more and more stuff to the text. Modern Bibles are cut into two columns and laced with chapters and verses, cross references, footnotes, section headings, commentary and all manner of what-not and hooha. We’ve split books that were originally whole and severed natural connections within big sections. Our Bibles are a complicated mess.
Bible additives like these left philosopher John Locke complaining that the scriptures “are so chop’d and minc’d, and as they are now Printed, stand so broken and divided, that...the Common People take the Verses usually for distinct Aphorisms,” and “even Men of more advanc’d Knowledge in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the Coherence, and the Light that depends on it.” In other words: we’ve adapted the Bible to the point that it’s nearly impossible to understand.
Locke was right. The modern form of the Bible has compelled us to read it in bits and pieces. But the Bible is not made up of these bits and pieces. It’s really a collection of whole books. There are lots of books in the Bible and they are quite different from each other. There are letters and short stories, historical narratives and apocalyptic visions. Collections of song lyrics are included alongside prophetic oracles. The Bible’s wisdom literature includes books of short, pithy sayings as well as longer, ponderous explorations of life’s quandaries.
All in all, the Bible is a remarkable gathering of ancient writings combining many literary forms. These things are actual books! Who knew?
Today, readers who want to encounter Bible books as they were intended have work against our fancy formatting. It turns out that fewer people are making that effort. The research tells us that biblical literacy is low across our land. Apparently folks do not willingly, eagerly dive into giant reference books, holy or otherwise, for times of extended reading.
The time has come to reverse the old “Let’s add more!” approach. It’s time for an additive-free, organic Bible.
What would happen if Bible publishers acted on the belief that less is more? Bible formats have not been mandated by early creeds, church councils or denominational boards. Publishers are free to lead the way here. If they will do so, the Bible could be simplified, its text rediscovered.
Some attempts have already been made in this direction. Probably the most far-reaching is The Books of The Bible, a project I’ve been a part of for the last five years. Here’s what we decided to do in our attempt to uncover the books hidden by centuries of accumulated additives:
• Ditch the inserted chapter and verse numbers along with the artificial divisions they create, and look for natural literary breaks instead;
• Scrap the multiple columns which typically ruin the literary flow;
• Take all the footnotes, cross-references, section headings and commentary off the page of scripture text;
• Restore divided books to their original wholeness;
• Arrange the books in an order that makes more sense for literary type and historical order.
What about the objection that, minus the modern navigation equipment, no one will be able to find their way around? Well, that shows just how much our grasp of Bible “reading” (to use the term lightly) is tied to Bible additives. One especially sorry consequence of this is verse-jacking, the yanking of selected words out of their natural context to make them mean things they manifestly don’t mean.
Secondly, the belief that modern additives are essential to Bible interaction shows a lack of historical awareness of the church’s history with the Bible. The church has read, studied, taught and preached a Bible without all the numbers for much longer than the modern version has been in existence. Plus, the “additives are necessary” objection reveals a disturbing lack of interest in recovering older, different practices, or for imagining new ways to use and reference the Bible in more holistic and contextual ways.
It is not impossible to use a Bible like this. We are simply out of practice. For all the helps and tools brought to us by Bible publishers, we don’t know our Bibles well enough to actually know how to read them.
Eugene Peterson warns us that “[t]he form in which language comes to us is as important as its content. If we mistake its form, we will almost certainly respond wrongly to its content.” The modern Bible forces its literature into unnatural contortions, making it easier for us to mistake the form of the language and thus misinterpret the content. For the sake of the Bible, for the sake of our own reading, let’s go organic and learn again how to read whole books.