Marking Up Your Bible

Q. Bill asks: "I recently found your site helpful when purchasing my new goatskin leather NKJV copy of the Word. I was wondering if you had any advice when it comes to marking Bibles or making notes in them? Is there a way to do it without destroying it?"

That's a question that comes up from time to time. Unfortunately, the super thin paper Bibles are printed on isn't ideal for marking/writing. (For that matter, it's not always ideal for printing, but that's another story.) There are thin papers that work well for this — for example, Smythson's thin paper, which will take even fountain pen ink without bleeding — but they're prohibitively expensive for printing.

I've written about the subject just a little, and the community has filled in the gaps. Here's a good place to start:

Writing and Highlighting in Your Bible

For what it's worth, I've found the Pigma Micron archival pens good for use with Bible paper — and when they aren't handy, I make due with ballpoints, typically the Space Pen. I'm not a big fan of highlighting in this context, but the new generation of "drylighters" seem promising. A soft pencil, while not as visible on the page, offers an old school solution to the problem, so long as you're careful not to let a sharpened point tear through. Whatever you use, it's not a bad idea to test the writing instrument on the paper first. A mishap in the concordance won't be nearly as disruptive as one that mars a key passage.

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Above: Writing, underlining and highlighting in a Cambridge ESV wide margin.
The pen used was a Pigma Micron, and the highlighter was a Sharpie Gel.

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Above: The reverse of the same page. The writing and highlighting are visible,
but neither has bled through the paper. 

Readers, since the last time we talked about the subject extensively on the blog was in 2008, how about sharing your most recent thoughts? What are you using to write/highlight in your Bible, and how well does it work? Are there particular editions that seem better suited to the task than others? 

43 Comments on “Marking Up Your Bible

  1. The only Bible I currently write in is my ESV Journaling Bible, and when I do write in it, the only pen I will use is a black 01 Pigma Micron. The paper used in the Journaling Bible seems more suited for writing in compared to traditional Bible paper. The 01 Micron is small enough that you can fit more words into smaller spaces, but still large enough that it can be seen on the front side while keeping ghosting on the reverse side to a minimum. The other two Bibles that I use on a regular basis (ESV SB Hardback and ESV Thinline Black Calfskin) each have their own Moleskin in which I keep notes. Keeping notes this way can be difficult, and requires meticulous organization, but is well worth it in the end.

  2. I have used the pigma micron .005 and it works very well as a rule of thumb. Pentel put out a few pens that are very expensive but are amazing, even better than the pigma micron! But here is the problem the pentel model is the slicci in a .025 tip, they write thin which is good, there is no bleed on the pages, kicker is that they last for about 3 weeks, if pentel can fix this they would be the most awesome pen ever! Staples has a pen known as the pilot G-Tech, they are needle point and come in a five pack for close to 9 bucks, they work well in some Bibles but others they bleed make sure you test them, I use these for note taking in my journal and they perform very well and you can somewhat orgnize your notes with different colors, for instance Word Studies are red, phrases are blue, general notes are black, and knowledge gleaned is purpel, every now and then i use orange and green for those epic moments of discovery. Like I said the Pentel Slicci .025 is the most awesome pen ever for Bible study if they would just last longer, although I have found I can heat the pen and get a few extra weeks out of it. No pen is good for marking in the Bible if you have a heavy hand, in fact dont even try.

  3. I mostly underline my Bible, which I do in pencil. The Bible I frequently use is the ESV Compact – hence the use of the pencil because the paper is so thin. Everything else bleeds through too much. I use a separate journal for meditations, which I need to work on organizing. One way to organize journal entries is to categorize them and list an index in the front or back to help you find certain passages. When it comes to marking a Bible, I would start with underlining and/or starring and quick notes that will help aid when you are re-reading the text. And if you are wanting to underline a large passage, I will sometimes bracket the text and add a star in the margin.

  4. I use a fine point red pen with a 6 inch ruler in my Allan NIV and Crossway ESV Heirloom. My other Allan bibles do not get marked up. Notes in 2 are enough. If used with care the pen doesn’t bleed through.

  5. I’m not particularly careful about writing in my study Bible. That’s what it’s for, after all. I use whatever pen or pencil is at hand. After decades of note taking in my Cambridge Cameo Wide Margin, I rather enjoy seeing the many different looks to my notes. Years ago, someone told me to use a green fine point pen for notes on india paper because the green wouldn’t fade over time, or some such thing. So I’ve a few scattered notes in green Bic ink.
    I’m not a fan of highlighting so I never do it. I find it hard to read with highlights on the page; the eye is captivated by the glowing color swath and I find it distracting to my concentration (ditto red letter editions).
    I’ve a new Note Taker’s Bible from the great folks at LCBP, which I quite like. I’ll treat it much as I treated my old Cambridge Cameo.

  6. I go the opposite direction and refuse to highlight or write in my bibles. Instead, I usually record any notes or thoughts in a notebook or in a word processing documents. Perhaps I am simply too intense on this issue, but I have always felt that scripture is for sacred words and not my human thinking. ;-) And this of course brings up the issue of study bibles in general. Hmm.

    • The Roman Catholic Church believed as you do. In fact, they thought the Scriptures were too sacred for the layity to read, and for a 1,000 years kept the Word of God from the people. No wonder they were the “dark ages”. During this time an estimated 50,000,000 Christians were martyred, many of whom because they either possessed the scriptures, translated the scriptures, or had the heretical tendency to share the Word of God with others. The Catholic Church believed the scriptues could and should only be interpreted by the Chuch, because they were not for “human thinking”. I can’t say enough how unbiblical your position is; please do a study on the scriptures and find out that God wants us digging and discovering truth “line upon line, and precept upon precept.”

  7. Marking in one’s bible is one of those subjects that should get more attention. How does one take notes in his/her bible so that one can live with them a day, a month, or a year later? There have been some very good articles commenting on the technical side of note taking: the use and availability of various pens, pencils, etc. that are best for that purpose. Although I still take notes in my bibles I usually make a wide margin copy of the chapters I’m studying. It’s easy to do this by copying and pasting sections of scripture from a bible program. I then mark-up and write notes on the copy made. The notes that I find most accurate and helpful I’ll transfer to my bible in time. This procedure has worked well for me. I can “go wild” with marking and note taking without worrying about “ruining” an expensive bible. Again, the most accurate and helpful notes can easily be transferred to one’s bible itself. I’ve never had an interleaf bible and would like to try out one of these. The interleaf bible has a blank page between every two pages of text. Has anyone used the interleaf bible? If so, what has been your experience with it?

  8. I’m with Ed: I think our Bibles are meant to be read and used. Personally, I use run-of-the-mill ballpoint pens. The one problem with these is their tendency to get “goopy” and dispense inconsistent amounts of ink. I think, however, having any pen handy is more important than having the right pen, because using ones Bible is paramount.
    On the other hand, I think what MWPeak mentions about keeping notes elsewhere (i.e., in another notebook) is a good idea. But even taking notes in a single notebook can be a problem. With so many resources in so many locations (physical and “virtual”) it can be hard to justify putting all your note-taking “eggs” in one basket. I am still working out a system for this, and I’d be interested in what others are doing to take notes. Personally, I favor digital over analog precisely because the end-result can be copied, searched, printed, e-mailed, annotated, revised, and backed up — which I cannot say for paper notebooks.
    What I really want is my own personal study Bible, with my cross-references and notes in it.
    Craig

  9. You can use a bible without writing in it. You need to do what helps you study the bible. If writing in it helps, then do it. If writing in a notebook helps, do that. Perhaps I’m reading too far into this, but this is what I hear from some comments: If you don’t write in your bible you aren’t really using it.
    I don’t write in my bible because it doesn’t really help me. What works best for me is reading as much and as often as I can. That is how I remember things. I make notes in a notebook.

  10. Relating to John S, I find that the more I read my numerous bibles, the less I need to mark them up, given that I’m able to recall previous notes, studies, conversations, etc.
    Years ago I started using a pen on a large print KJ Open Bible, but now prefer a pencil (no ink stains); I can drawn lines, etc., through the text to make a point and/or compare passages. I do use highlighters (Pentel Handy – Lines; they are refillable): yellow, orange, red. They work well with my bibles, and the flourescent colors don’t fade. Using several translations, some are for reading (REB), others are study bibles or reference, so the degree of note taking varies with the purpose.
    One note: I use a calfskin ESV (no ref’s) for church, and mark down preachers and sermon passages with a pencil – just to keep track.
    As has been said many times, the best bible is the one you read (and use).
    Aren’t we blessed to have such choices!!

  11. Personally, I’ve found if you use a nice pen (I use my MontBlanc which NEVER bleeds or blots) and a straight edge in my calfskin thinline ESV that it works just fine. I can still read the text on the opposite page without any problems.

  12. I’ve got a few Bibles that are marked-up from past use – underlines, notes and arrows. When I go back and read them the underlining rarely “makes sense” as something else in the verse or passage seems to hit me in a different way. If I underlined the new stuff, eventually my whole Bible would be underlined. So, I’ve stopped underlining. I may underline single words such as “all” or “many”, but only rarely.
    I will put references to pronouns such as “we” and indicate to whom it’s referring if it’s ambiguous. I may also indicate the range of verses to which a “Therefore” or “Then” refers.
    Other than that, my most recent Bible (Allan ESV3) is fairly lacking in marks/underlines.
    I’m not saying everyone should take up the above practices. I’ve just shifted that way lately.

    • When I was a teenager,I started underlining major subjects by differing colors. For example, in the Old Testament, I marked special promises in green, condemnations and admonitions in brown, messianic promises/prophecies in red, all references to the Holy Spirit/Trinity or the nature of God in blue, and a couple doctrinal colors (like the state of the dead/hell/nature of man, etc). I fine that 30+ years later I can look at my old KJV given to me for my 8th grade graduation still makes perfect sense. I can look at the color code I wrote inside the front cover also. It a neat way of marking, and a blessing for me after all these years.

  13. I use wax highlighters (are those even available anymore? they use to be the thing) and pencil. No problems at all. I use green, yellow and orange, each for a different highlighting purpose and pencil for writing any text and occasional underline.
    Jeff

    • I’ve used wax highlighters for nearly 30 years and still find them the best means of marking without bleeding. Also, I keep a Thompson Chain Reference Bible for deep study (there is no better study Bible in the world if people learn how to use it), which I mark with wax highlighting and archival ink pens. I keep one Bible for highlighting that is purely a Scripture memorization Bible, marking texts or chapters I want “hid in my heart”. When marking entire chapter or long passage, I just put a color streak down the margins. And I am finding “marking” electronic Scriptures to be easy and great for organizing texts by categories (as long as they are not taken out of context (you know, the old “Judas went out and hung himself”, and “Go thou and do likewise” approach).

  14. “…what I hear from some comments: If you don’t write in your bible you aren’t really using it.”
    For my part, I was simply getting at the fact that, when all is said and done, Bibles are printed to be used, and if part of that use is to underline, highlight, take notes, or otherwise mark it, then that is what it’s for. The bible was made for man, not man for the bible. :)
    Craig

  15. I bought a few cases of Zebra Bible Highlighters because they never bleed through. I think this is because they just use a lighter amount of “ink” or something like that. Either way I have a 100% success with all my bibles plus they are not as bright on the page as other highlighters.
    Personally I have not found any dry highlighters that I really like, so the Zebras are my choice for now…they are just harder to find.
    http://www.internationalbibles.com/catalog/accessories/highlighters/double_ended_highlighter.htm

  16. Gotta agree with Matt about the Zebrite highlighters. I’ve tried just about every company’s highlighters (Zebrites are pretty expensive) and I always come back to the Zebras.
    I’ve marked many different types of Bible paper over the years, and Zebrites are by far the best.

  17. I don’t like highlighters, too dominating on the page. And I’ve taken to using “tick” marks on the margins with my trusty .38mm Pilot G2 gels. They dry fast, come in blue, red, green and black, and they don’t bleed through my Allan thinline reference.

  18. i use ordinary #2 pencils, kept as sharp as possible. i look back over the notes i took during college in my concordia self-study Bible, and frankly i cringe. i guess it’s part of the spiritual journey, that you advance without realizing it many times and then you look back and see how far you’ve come. because of those cringe-inducing notes in my study Bible, i got away from making notes for a while. i even got an niv pitt-minion as my “duty Bible” (i’m a Lutheran pastor) in part because i wouldn’t have the option of making notes, and i didn’t really feel the need for notes. now i’ve swung back the other way, so i got an lcbp ccc for my personal/private study — ample margins, beautiful ironed calfskin cover, raised bands, the whole bit. lately my notetaking has been on the order of the shorter & smaller, the better. mostly references to other passages (a passion of mine.) i can’t bring myself to use pen because i feel that only God’s words should have that level of permanence on the page…originally i told myself that i could go back and erase what i didn’t like out of my notes, but in practice a) i never do that, and b) when i did, it chewed up the paper too much. i couldn’t do that for all the notes that needed to go, so thus a new Bible was in order. pencil smudges over time, especially if it’s less than totally sharp, but it works for me. my notetaking has gotten more discreet, elliptical, and telegraphic over time. i spend so much time plowing my insights into sermons, devotions, and the occasional blog post, that i don’t really feel the need to record them in my Bible. the previous commenter who mentioned that most of the conversation focuses on equipment and not content or the thought organization of their personal system was dead on. i already have piles of pencils to use…figuring out how, what, when, & how much to write is the key. i’m getting closer.

  19. I use the pigma micron .01 or .005. I have different colors. interestingly enough, some of the colors bleed thru while others do not. Purple and brown are the worse for bleed through (Pigma .01) yellow, orange and reed do not. The blue .005 does not bleed thru either. I also use an automatic pencil from time to time. The Bible I mark up is a wide margin ESV from Cambridge.

  20. I use colored pencils. Sky blue for things that haven’t happened yet, spanish orange for “look here” dark blue for “God’s character” orange for “hear from God”-like the Jn6.45 mystery…. I have 13 colors that help me see what I’m seeing. Sometimes I chord them. “Hear from God” and “holy” together are my mark for “covenant” The pencils are cheap. They don’t smear or bleed through.
    For my notes and icons I use a blue fine point zebra pen. My icons are short and simple for a narrow margin. For instance CM is short for “cease from man whose breath is in his nostrils” (Isa2) and CS is short for “the communion of saints.” Again, these are to help me see what I’m looking at. I’m not a deep man and am still mostly just trying to see what is on the page. This system has worked more or less for several years. I have over 20 icons. In my next Bible I will discard some and add some. I keep a list of them in the front, heavy page of my Bible along with other things I’m trying to keep remembering.

  21. I no longer feel compelled to write in my Bible since I’d rather put my notes somewhere that’s electronic and searchable. Since I don’t have an iPad/Phone, I use a pen mostly with 3×5 index cards. The cards are very cheap, make great bookmarks and I can make larger more readable notes. If you use a fine-tipped pen you can record more notes.

  22. John S said it!
    That’s why they are called NOTE books.

    Bibles are (imho) for reading and studying.
    : )

  23. Bibles are sacred and not to be contaminated by mere mortals with our often ignorant graffiti.
    Besides, what do you do when reading a passage for the second time and have another thought to note.
    Third time reading or studying said passage and you have yet another need to make more notes.
    What about changing your perspective on the same passage and so on throughout the Bible.
    You end up with an incomprehensible mess that ruins God’s Word for future use.
    Totally disrespectful.
    No offense to all you scribblers (well, maybe a little).
    : )

    • I think you mistake paper and print for the Word of God, which is actually a living, breathing thing, not wood pulp and ink. What is printed at a press is simply a means of making God’s Word available to us, it is not that Word itself. If I have God’s word hid in my heart, as David wrote, then is it wrong to make mental notes, to comptemplate the scriptures, to compare texts in context and with other portions? Doing the same on paper seems appropriate. I’ve known many people in my lifetime that believe the Bible, the physical book, is holy and saced and it sits for years on a shelf or table because of it’s holiness….but is never cracked open. THAT Bible is certainly NOT sacred because it has been turned into a piece of furniture. The Lord invites us in Isaiah 1:18, “Come let us reason together”, and I find my Bible study, including marking, to be a large part of that relationship to which God invites me.

    • Bibles are physical objects, and not themselves to be worshiped. There’s a word for that: bibliolatry (a form of idolatry). As the poster Ty said, the real word of God is inward (and sometimes when God speaks to us, words are not even used). You are, of course, free to treat your Bible however you want, but don’t confuse your copy with God.

  24. Thanks, folks, for your helpful thoughts! I’ve always preferred to use either a very sharp pencil or a ballpoint pen that doesn’t ‘goop’ up easily and leave piles of sticky ink. Gel pens are bad news for the thin paper used in Bible. I hate the way the gel soaks thru the other side, and also appears dry when it is not – leaving marks on the opposite page.
    As for marking in my Bible, I usually mark sparingly. It’s too easy to read the Bible, and just mark all over the place! I mark what is really special to me, or what is useful in evangelism. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of noticing a note from years back and wondering – now what on earth was that supposed to mean?!? because of the lack of clarity.

  25. Pencil all the way. It’s more discreet and doesn’t distract me from the text.

  26. Ditto. 0.3mm (or 0.5mm MAX) mechanical pencil with 2B (or B MAX) lead softness. And with a piece of plastic behind the single page thickness you’re writing on. If you get a black piece of plastic (e.g. as used in report covers) you get the added reading benefit of reduced bleedthrough of the printed text.

  27. Do pencils underlinings fade over an extended period of time? Do they smudge the opposite side paper? Anyone got data on this?

  28. No problems after 40+ years.
    Yes, dirty fingers can smudge the pencil mark itself. But if it’s a problem, erase and start again…you can’t do that with ink.

  29. @bill thanks. I will go ahead and use pencil for underlining. It doesn’t scream at you from the page, is erasable, minimal ghosting. Works for me.

  30. to dbp. you said, ”
    Bibles are sacred and not to be contaminated by mere mortals with our often ignorant graffiti.” Boy what an arrogant statement. The Bible is not an idol, it is meant to be used, not worshipped. It is the Christians privledge to mine its depths and find meaning in the text. Bible study is a rare thing and to be encouraged. Do not put the Bible on a pedistal where God alone belongs. I have gained new insight when I read a verse over and over again, and if I have a note written it helps me to see the progression I have made. What I have done is write several views for a particular verse. Ex. In Genesis I have listed the various views of creation ie. the framework hypothesis; the day age theroy; and the literal 24 hour theroy. I find that to be helpful. My Allan Longprimer is all marked up!

    • Although it’s never a good idea to leave a bible in a hot car or even a trunk, if you use crayon, you really risk welding the pages together.

  31. I love highlighting, underlining, and making notes in my bible. I am in Ezekiel right now… making my way through the entire bible from cover to cover… once again. This time I started with a fresh new ESV Legacy in brown top grain leather. What a beautiful bible. It is perfect for taking notes in that it has a great wide outer margin beside the single column text. I use a colour coded system for highlighting verses and underlining words and phrases. I use a 0.9 mm mechanical pencil for making notes in the margin. I find that the thicker pencil doesn’t indent the pages like a sharper one does.
    I once saw an old Scofeild bible from the 50′s that had notes throughout in pencil and they were all still very legible. That’s why I feel comfortable taking notes in pencil. For my underlining I use a ruler.

  32. Also … I forgot to mention.. When I highlight verses, I draw a line through the verse with the tip of the highlighter.. instead of useing the flat surface of the chisel tip. I find this to be a more subtule approach which looks better in my opinion.. and it also eliminates bleedthrough. Try it out!

  33. Pencil lead fading can be a problem with some bibles that are exposed to significant amounts of light. Feel free to check out this website which compares several types of blue lead to fading after different light exposure levels: http://davesmechanicalpencils.blogspot.com/2009/05/blue-lead-fade-testing.html?m=1
    It’s something to consider when writing with different colored leads.
    (Please note, I am familiar with the topic that blue lead is for architects and should fade or something like that, but this is for the person who wants to write in blue color with little or no fade.)
    Cheers!

  34. I use a 0.38 mm Pilot pen,a yellow Sharpie gel marker and as far as notes:One of my bibles is circulating among my college son’s friends because they like the life’s lessons notes I’ve written in the front and back formerly blank pages as well as the notes I’ve written to explain various scriptures.Bibles are to use and share insights with others P.R.N.

  35. I’ve got the Scofield bible (Oxford) and use these new Friction roller balls. Not only do they not show through on the other side, but if I make a mistake, I can erase it. Perfect!

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