“The Case Against Reference Bibles” at Relay

With apologies to Baron Munchausen, I have learned from experience that a modicum of hyperbole can be most efficacious. This explains why my feature for the latest edition of Relay, the new online magazine of Worldview Academy, makes the case for reader-friendly Bibles by making the case against reference editions.

Relay: “The Case Against Reference Bibles”

No, I haven’t gone (entirely) crazy … I just hope to get people’s attention by calling into question one of those truths we tend to hold self-evident: namely, that the accretion of ‘helps’ in your typical printed Bible are actually, well, helpful.

I took up this theme in my recent interview with The Bible Exchange, too.

“A help is something that assists you in solving a problem you can’t resolve on your own. The goal of help is to fill a gap until you develop the strength to fill it yourself without help. This is why a good teacher, in classroom discussion, doesn’t just give students the answers. Struggling with the problem is one way you learn. So ideally you would know your Bible well enough to find specific passages without help. Because you don’t, there are cross references, concordances, chapter and verse numbers, even thumb indexes if you can’t recollection the order of the books. If these things were just helps, you would rely on them less over time. That’s not what happens. Most of us find, when they are taken away, that we can’t do without them. That’s the definition of a crutch.”

Crazy talk? Maybe. But I find myself questioning more and more whether the helps are really helping. Over the years, I’ve tended to remain on the conservative end of the reader-friendly design spectrum. The section headings are useful, I’d argue. Surely we need the verse numbers. Lose the chapter breaks? Unthinkable. Yet my tendency recently has been to ask just how much I really need even the most basic helps. Even when I find I do need them, I wonder whether I should. Especially then, in fact.

Whatever your view, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Check out the article and the whole of that interview question and tell me what you think.

Jonathan Edwards’s Blank Bible: A Guest Post by Matthew Everhard

Back in February when I shared Randy Brown’s excellent “Why You Need More than One Bible,” I mentioned my desire to bring you more features by talented writers who’ve been influenced by Bible Design Blog. The latest installment is from Matthew Everhard, and it covers a subject of perennial interest to Bible enthusiasts: Jonathan Edwards’s famous ‘Blank Bible.’ Matthew has been doing quite a bit of work on Edwards as part of his D. Min. program at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, so I am especially grateful that he took time out from his scholarship to write this piece for us! — JMB 


by Matthew Everhard

Two famous men in Colonial-American history owned Bibles that had literally been cut to pieces and then stitched back together again.

The first, was Thomas Jefferson – more concerned with morality than divinity – who famously edited out the miraculous and the supernatural from Scripture. Hardly an orthodox Christian by any definition, Jefferson simply cut away the portions that he did not like.

The other man was the famous New England Puritan, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), considered by some to be the greatest scholar that America has ever produced. Edwards’s own rebound Bible had an entirely more sacred purpose – he took copious notes on nearly every major section of Scripture.

The story of this particular Bible is relentlessly fascinating.


Dubbed by most (including Edwards himself) as the “Blank Bible,” the official title of the manuscript is technically “Miscellaneous Observations on Holy Scripture,” and can be found today in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. There, you can see it yourself – possibly handle it even – provided of course that the curator is in a good mood, and that you lick the orange Cheetos powder off your fingers before touching it.

The Blank Bible is entirely unusual in construction: it is really two books in one. It consists of a large 9.5 X 7.5 inch blank writing notebook, nearly three inches in girth, into which an entire miniature King James Version of the Bible has been meticulously stitched. Bound in brown leather over board (Mark Bertrand might call it “British Tan”), the book literally looks like one larger volume ate a smaller one for dinner.



Picture something the size of an ESV Study Bible, but fatter at the top than the bottom. From the side view, it looks like a python trying to squeeze down a meal.

The smaller book, a 1653 King James Bible, printed in London by the “Company of Stationers” is a miniscule, double-column AV with both side and center column references, along with some study notes provided by the publisher to boot.


Someone (not Edwards) who was very skilled in bookbinding took apart both original books, first removing their signatures and cutting apart the individual sheets, and then splicing together the larger blank pages with the smaller text of the KJV. Finally, the boundary sewed the newer, larger work together as an irregularly shaped monolith.

Kind of makes me wonder if Leonard’s had anything to do with this. Naaw…

Apparently the Blank Bible came into Edwards’s possession through family: it bears the name and handwritten signature of his brother-in-law, Benjamin Pierpont, and is dated by the same in his own script in 1728. A young candidate for ministry, Pierpont never actually ended up being ordained unfortunately. Apparently, he came into some controversy with the local clergymen having acted “apishly” around the young ladies, and was dubbed unfit for public ministry. Sadly, he died sometime thereafter.

Clearly interested in owning the unique book himself – no others like it exist – Edwards obtained possession of the Blank Bible sometime around 1730, probably through the mediation of Sarah his wife. Whether Benjamin could see that his ministry career was going nowhere and gave it to Edwards himself before he died, or whether it came to Edwards as part of the deceased’s estate is unknown. However it came into Edwards’s possession, it had already collected around 70 of Benjamin’s own thoughts and comments on Scripture. No matter. All the New Hampshire Puritan would do is add another 5,506 entries or so over the next thirty years.



The Bible itself is still in remarkably good condition. Its high traffic wear is from daily use, not at all from neglect or abuse. One theory holds that the current cover is itself yet another rebind. The fact that the signatures appear to have been tightened up against the inner columns, resulting in a smaller gutter, suggests that it was used so much by Edwards that the minister again took it to a professional, who cinched the signatures even tighter, added a newer cover and sewed it up again for a third time. A note in the flyleaf from Edwards himself dating the book to 1748 (almost twenty years after he received it) may support that theory.

In terms of its contents, the Blank Bible contains a treasure trove of information for Jonathan Edwards scholars to devour. As a matter of fact, some people are surprised to know that there are thousands of pages of Edwards’s materials that have still never been published. This volume, too, has only recently come into publication thanks to scholar Stephen J. Stein who meticulously transcribed Edwards’s nearly indecipherable handwriting into the 24th Volume of the complete Yale edition Works of Jonathan Edwards (2006).

This is a good news/bad news deal for eager readers, though. The bad news is that if anyone wants to actually read the thoughts of Edwards on various texts throughout the Bible in the published volume of the Yale Edition, they will have to fork over $225.00 claims to do so.

Hmm. Might as well buy a Quentel at that price.

The good news is that the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has graciously hosted the entire volume digitally, published for free on the internet, alongside a host of other Edwards manuscripts, sermons, and treatises.

For some, this unique book will create a desire to replicate a Blank Bible of their own. For those who are interested in creating their own ‘Miscellaneous Observations on Scripture,’ there are options. It may not be feasible to do what Edwards’s Bible managed to do – merge two existing volumes into one. But it may be possible to attempt what Edwards did in spirit at least. Today, high quality Bible publishers have given us a number of options for those who want to work closely with the sacred text: just like a Puritan!

First, consider a wide margin edition. I have written about the glory of these editions elsewhere as has Mark. While you may not be able to pour 5,506 entries into the space just over an inch wide on either margin, at least you won’t have to dip your quill into the ink to write every third letter either.

Second, Crossway is making some really cool journaling Bible options now too. Their new single column journaling Bible improves on the previous edition, now by reducing the text of Scripture down to one column instead of two columns. In this way, confusion between which column of Scripture you are referring to in the lined margin space is eliminated.

If neither of these options work for you, it is still possible to acquire loose-leaf editions of several major Bible translations. Although you’ll never get that sweet leather smell, a three ring binder will give you the ability to add notes as your collection of “Miscellanies” grows.

So, go make a “Blank Bible” like Jonathan Edwards! Just don’t edit out the parts you don’t like as did Thomas Jefferson and become “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

* * *

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Florida. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647 and a few other shorter books. You can read more by Matthew at AChristianManifesto.com. A devoted fan of Bible Design Blog, Matthew has a growing collection of goatskin Bibles thanks to Mark’s informative work. 


“The Blank Bible.” Ed. Stephen J. Stein. Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University Online. Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 24. http://edwards.yale.edu/archive. Accessed April 2, 2015.

All pictures courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“Peer into the private life of the man behind the Bible Design Blog phenomenon”: My Interview with The Bible Exchange

When you graduate from creative writing school, along with your diploma you receive a poetic license, a picture ID card that gives you the freedom to speak with unearned authority on whatever subject catches your fancy. I’ve used mine extensively over the years. (This is a true story: a publisher once told me I didn’t have the right kind of degree to have have written the book I’d just written. “Au contraire,” I said, sporting my sophistication. I have the kind that lets me pontificate on every subject under the sun.)

If you harbor any doubts about this predilection for pontificating — though if you’ve read this far, it’s hard to imagine you do — check out the interview I did over the weekend for the Bible Exchange. They asked a lot of good questions about Bibles, and threw in some curve balls covering everything from desert islands to future fiction to favorite color. And I swung at every pitch, naturally.

Here’s the link: The Bible Exchange: “17 Questions with J. Mark Bertrand”

I’d like to thank Paul Tanca and Bobby Hanson for making it possible, and Matthew Everhard and Randy Brown for helping out. Also, special thanks to everyone who suggested questions! There were some great ones in the mix that got me thinking.

Support 2K/Denmark’s BibleOn via Kickstarter

I love the idea of digital books much more than the current reality. As I’ve written, the form of digital books still leaves a lot to be desired compared to the printed specimen. That won’t always be true, however. It’s a new technology, and the focus so far has been much more on convenience than quality. Just look at the way most e-books handle typography.

The reason I get excited about 2k/Denmark’s BibleOn app is that they are trying to bring to bear the typographic know-how developed over years of designing print Bibles. I have several Bible apps on my phone, but BibleOn is the one I open when I want to sit and read. Now 2k/Denmark has launched a Kickstarter to fund the future development of the app.

The video gives you a glimpse of 2k/Denmark, so it’s worth watching whether the idea of Bible apps excites you or not.

I would have shared this with you sooner, but I’ve been on the road. In fact, this is my first and last day back at my desk before leaving for another speaking engagement. There’s more I would say about BibleOn if I had the time. I will save that for another post. For now, check out the Kickstarter and if you like what you see, get behind this thing. I snagged one of the early bird slots — I want one of those type specimen posters for my wall!

The R. L. Allan NIV Proclamation Bible in Navy Blue Goatskin


The NIV Proclamation Bible bound in navy blue Highland goatskin for R. L. Allan

This offering from R. L. Allan adds a luxury binding to the Anglicized edition of the NIV Proclamation Bible, published by Hodder & Stoughton. The edition is available in four colors: black, brown, crimson red, and the navy blue of the review copy pictured here. They list for £140.00 from R. L. Allan direct, and $219 from EvangelicalBible.com. Whichever color you chose, the Bible comes with a semi-yapp cover, art-gilt edges, three ribbons, presentation pages, maps, and lined notepaper in back. Inside the back cover you’ll find a stamp proclaiming ALLAN FIRST EDITION.


The Proclamation Trust developed this Bible for Hodder & Stoughton with expository preaching in mind. In addition to section and book introductions, it includes essays on the reliability of Scripture, how to find the “melodic line” when studying or teaching a particular book, how doctrine is developed from the text, how to prepare a sermon, how to lead small group and one-on-one discussion, and much more. The editor’s preface sums up the approach this way: “If you have ever wished you could have just a few minutes with an expert at the start of your journey into a passage of the Bible, then here is a study resource which provides just that.” Preachers and teachers will appreciate the NIV Proclamation Bible especially, though the material is accessible enough for any reader to enjoy.

Ian Metcalfe oversaw the development of the NIV Proclamation Bible from the Hodder end before taking over the reins at R. L. Allan, which adds to the significance of the project in my mind. For those of us who would love to see Allan develop and publish its own book blocks to go with the luxury bindings, this hints at what could be.


Most of the extras are up front, set in a lovely single column with generous margins.

The NIV 2011 text itself is set in an attractive two-column layout by Blue Heron Bookcraft. I rave about the text setting every time I see it, and have done so for years despite the fact that I much prefer single column layouts. What’s the appeal? Maybe it’s the dotted lines that set off the center column references. I’m a sucker for details like that. Perhaps it’s the typeface — I am especially fond of the way those boldface section headings jump off the page. Whatever the reason, hats off to Blue Heron for design work that has stood the test of time and almost persuaded me — almost! — that I can live without a single column.


In all its iterations, I have always loved this text setting by Blue Heron Bookcraft. The 9.3 pt. type size and the wider margins are especially easy on the eye.

There are a few quibbles to make, though. Ever since my interview last summer with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene about his decision not to justify the text, the gaps between words in justified text columns have been jumping out at me. Once they whispered, now they shout. A narrow column of justified text can’t help inserting wider gaps between individual words to balance things out. Reading the NIV Proclamation Bible I found myself noticing the occasional gap, not to the point of distraction but certainly more than I would have in the past. Another thing that always bugs me is when a two-column setting imposes awkward line breaks on versified text, especially when it results in a single word dangling alone on a line to itself. While the Schuyler Quentel seems to avoid this, I noticed it a number of times with the NIV Proclamation Bible, as in the photo below:


Chapter 3 is full of examples of one word alone on a line: see verses 2, 3, 4, and 7 (which does it twice!)


When the lines happen to match up, opacity isn’t bad, but when they don’t the grey shadow makes words a bit harder to read.

The typeface is Versa Pro, which is familiar from other text settings (for example Nelson’s single column NKJV, later reprinted by Schuyler). The The book block is printed by CTPS in China. Since I haven’t seen any indications otherwise in the product descriptions, I assume the paper spec — a 35 gsm sheet from Spain called Especialprint — is the same as the Hodder editions.

For some of you, I know China-printed book blocks in a high end binding are a deal breaker because they’re received as cheap and therefore incongruous with the nice cover. I’m not trying to win anybody over — it’s an old argument and I respect all sides — but I have to say that this Bible doesn’t feel cheap, not on the outside and not on the inside. While I would have preferred consistent line matching and less ghosting, my reading experience was good, comparable to what I’ve had with Crossway’s China-printed book blocks. The print impression is nice and dark, and consistent from page to page throughout my review copy, which, combined with the 9.3 pt. type makes the NIV Proclamation Bible a fairly easy read.

The product description gives the page size as 9″ x 6″. The cover on my review copy measures 10″ x 6.75″, and the book is right at 1.5″ thick. While that’s not compact, considering the fact that you get 9.3 pt. type, an outer margin that runs 0.75″ wide, and a bottom margin clocking in at 1″, it’s still pretty handy. Since the book opens flat on a podium or tabletop, you shouldn’t have any trouble teaching or preaching from it. Too big for casual carry, perhaps, but for its intended purpose the NIV Proclamation Bible works quite well.

Turning our attention to the binding, one thing that really stands out about the NIV Proclamation Bible is the rounded spine. If you ask me, every Bible ought to have one. Here’s a photo to help illustrate what I’m talking about:

Top: A flat spine. Bottom: A rounded spine.

Top: A flat spine. Bottom: A rounded spine.

A rounded cover doesn’t mean anything. Plenty of rounded covers conceal flat-spined book blocks underneath. What we’re talking about here is the rounding of the book block’s spine, which changes the profile of the block when viewed from top or bottom. Instead of a rectangle with ninety degree corners, both ends curve in the shape of a C. Rounding the spine is an additional step, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a flat spine connotes inferior quality, the rounded spine is one of those bookbinding grace notes I appreciate more and more as the the step is increasingly neglected.

The edge-lined cover in natural grain Highland goatskin makes for a limp Bible. As always, the fit and finish on this London-bound book is impressive. Because Allan bindings are consistently beautiful, there’s always a danger of taking their loveliness for granted. The details here are truly splendid, even up close.


The crisp imprint on the spine looks molten up close. And the blue goatskin almost resembles an alien landscape.

The inside corners are neatly tucked over, with a gilt line around the perimeter of the lining.

The inside corners are neatly tucked over, with a gilt line around the perimeter of the lining.


The navy blue edition is available in limited numbers. If that beautiful grain speaks to you, answer sooner rather than later.


The signature white headband and the three thick ribbons are Allan staples, as are the art-gilt pages and the curved, overlapping cover.


The overlapping cover qualifies as semi-yapp, right? It curves enough to notice, though it doesn’t extend as far as it might.

The limp Allan binding inspired by first experiments with Bible yoga, and the NIV Proclamation Bible doesn’t disappoint on this score, either. You won’t encounter many situations in life that necessitate rolling your Bible backward into a leathery cylinder. Rest assured, though, should the need arise, you’ll be ready:



The only gripe I have with the navy blue binding is the black liner. You know how I feel about black liners inside non-black covers. Look, here’s the deal: sometimes black is the closest match available in a limited range of options. I get that. But I want publishers to exhaust their options before settling for black, because it just looks lazy. A navy lining would be lovely in this Bible. Personally, I’d have gone with scarlet to match the ribbons, but then I’ve always loved those staid navy blazers that blow open to reveal a retina-scorching red lining. The way I’m coping with the black liner in this case is simple: I pretend it’s midnight blue.



The Allan NLT (top) is anorexic in comparison to the NIV Proclamation Bible, which falls somewhere between the Crossway Heirloom Legacy (bottom) and the Schuyler Quentel (second from bottom) in terms of girth.

Why would you spend over $200 on this edition when you could pick up the Hodder version for a lot less? If the font size and extra margin aren’t a major draw for you, it’s not an unreasonable question. Here’s the way I see it: an investment like this makes sense when you find the Bible you’re going to be using day in and day out. The aesthetic pleasure we derive from a well-made book isn’t hedonistic self-indulgence. To me it’s akin to the satisfaction a craftsman feels when working with good tools.

And this is a good tool. It feels right in your hand, it feels right as you flip the pages and scan down the columns. The Allan formula has been refined by now to the point of rock solid consistency. Their Bibles are dependably fine. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a Bible put together with expositional preaching in mind, and plan on using it on a regular basis, the R. L. Allan NIV Proclamation Bible will make a wonderful companion.


The Perfect Format

The Effect of Reader-Friendly Design Choices

Monday, February 23, 2015

“I’ve read what you said about Bibles being designed like dictionaries,” writes Bradford Taliaferro. “Now that I have this Bible — I get it! Reading the Bible doesn’t…

Why Bible Typography Matters

Friday, February 6, 2015

Here’s a treat for a Friday afternoon: check out Mark Ward, Jr.’s video “Why Bible Typography Matters”! Mark shares our concern for good design, and has put together a…

Are reader-friendly Bibles just marketing hype?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own: “I have had a few days now…

Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the Future of Printed Bibles

Monday, July 7, 2014

The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed,…