Humans like simplicity. We crave it, in fact. It’s why southerners say y’all instead of you all, or goodbye instead of God be with you. It’s shorter, easier, simpler.
We simplify our lives in a thousand different ways that you probably don’t even notice anymore. Some of it’s linguistic, some of it’s cultural, some of it’s technological. One obvious example is the Keurig coffee maker. Who has five extra minutes in their day to grind beans and heat water?
There are less obvious examples too, like how we read our Bibles.
Not only do we crave simplicity, but we crave beauty.
Adam Lewis Greene, for his project Bibliotheca, said, “Book design isn’t something we often think about. The book is actually doing work to eliminate distractions for the reader. It’s doing its best to present content in a way that is beautiful, inviting, and that makes the story the center of the reader’s experience.”
When you look at a book, you’re looking at a very complex object. Think about this for a moment.
A book is made of paper between covers. What kind of paper should you use? Should the covers be made of cloth or leather? How do you bind that paper to the covers?
The text, too, is an intricate production. The space between the lines and the letters has to be just open enough to let the text breathe, to let the reader have a sense of peace while they’re reading. Each line has to be compressed or expanded ever so slightly, depending on the length of the words, to make sure words fit in the line accordingly. This is not to say anything of font choice or the mathematics of the text block.
Bibles today are overwhelmingly complex. They’re not often inviting places to read and get caught up in a story.
A few companies in recent years have fought the good fight of returning the Bible, the book of books, to a beautiful collection of stories rather than a collection of data points. One such company is Crossway.
Crossway is a publisher based out of Wheaton, Illinois, and their work is some of the best out there. About six months ago, they released the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-volume set—and they were kind enough to lend us a set.
Let’s first look back at why our modern Bibles are the way they are.
The Traditional Bible
For the first few centuries of the Common Era, Bibles were written by hand and copied from one community to another. Since the Bible is sometimes unclear in its meaning, early readers would write notes in the margins to help explain the text. We still do this today.
Over the years scholars would write those notes for readers to educate them. Schools and information were not as available as they are today, so this grew into a practice of cramming a lot of information into a small space, since books were very expensive back then.
If you look at a modern Bible, like the one you probably have in your home, you’ll see this same trend. You’ll see chapter divisions, verses, cross-references, footnotes, or maybe even maps and lexicons—all trying to help us understand the meaning behind the text.
However, what’s trying to help us understand the text can ironically be overwhelming, especially since modern Christians are less biblically educated than previous generations. I wonder if this has more to do with modern Bible design than with modern laziness.
Chapters and verses, by the way, weren’t invented until the medieval era, so the Bible flourished for over a thousand years with just the text and a few notes. After the medieval era, however, the Bible became a complicated encyclopedia rather than a story.
New movements have swelled lately to return this classic and beautiful story to just that—a beautiful story.
The Reader’s Bible
The ESV Reader’s Bible is a work of art. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s in six volumes rather than one. This gave the designers a lot more room to make decisions regarding the text and formatting, like we talked about earlier.
You may have heard before that the medium is the message, and in a product like this you can see that in a very tangible way. Crossway believes that the word of God is a precious and beautiful thing, and they approach all their Bible projects with this in mind.
So, what about the text itself?
Unlike modern Bibles, all of the accoutrements we’re used to has been removed. I said earlier that the notes and cross-references can overwhelm a reader, especially one unfamiliar with how the Bible works, but I have to admit something here.
Even with a master’s degree in the Bible, it’s often hard to read. Sometimes you can get lost in the footnotes and explanations, careening from one argument to another.
It is an overwhelming book, even when you know it pretty well. Written over 1,500 years by forty different authors in several different languages and cultures, this set of books and letters is not easy to fit into one volume.
We sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of stories, so by removing all the helps and data from the text, it’s able to breathe again, opening up a new chapter for the Bible and its old story.
Modern Bibles have their place, certainly. Crossway understands this. They have a whole selection of Bibles with many maps and notes. These things help us understand this ancient text. However, when they’re crammed full of information, what’s lost is the simple beauty of the story.
The Bibliotheca Bible
If you read that sample of the book of Daniel above, you can see how approachable, how humble, this book is, even with its high-quality production.
However, what might not be too approachable for most people is its price. The cloth-bound edition comes at a steep $199.99, while the leather-bound edition with a walnut case comes in at $499.99.
This book is helping me venture back into the text and linger a while. It’s helping a post-seminarian find his way back to the story of Jesus. And that, like Jonathan said, is no small thing.
Cover image by Crossway.