“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.

47 Comments on ““The Case Against Reference Bibles” at Relay

  1. Most believers are not Bible readers. Not regular readers or students of the scripture anyway. I think the author of this article has been a serious student of the scriptures for a long time and as such has no more need of these aids. But when and if a new student/reader reads and comes to a point he can’t understand he may often abandon further reading. Anything that can help him continue his reading/studies is welcome in my humble opinion.

  2. I feel studying under the Holy Spirit, he will use whatever tools are available.

    Remember the Geneva was first to do breaks in chapter and verse in English as well as cross reference with marginal notes abeit Calvinism biased. The new 1599 version is most refreshing for those not wanting the Anglican Version bias.

    This verse I believe sums up the study reference Bible issue;

    2Tim 2:15 Study diligently to present thyself approved before God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed; handling rightly the word of truth. LXX

  3. I know exactly what you mean Mark. I had used Study bibles exclusively for years as a teen and young adult and found myself reading the lower half of the page more than the top.
    When I started primarily using a text-only bible and referencing study materials when I’ve already wrestled with a difficult portion for a good while, my understanding increased significantly.

    Crutch v Help is a good way to describe this.

    Now I find using different formats (verse by verse, paragraph, chapter headings and numbers removed) quite enjoyable. It gives your brain permission to see how the words join together differently.

  4. Bible study notes vary so widely in their purpose and function that either an all out dismissal or acceptance of them is unwise. I find that classifying notes as either interpretive or non-interpretive establishes the function of them in any “study” bible. Interpretive notes usually teach a particular point of view or a denominational perspective of scripture. Non-interpretative notes provide basic information about names, places, and things that saves the reader time by not having to consult a bible dictionary. Although these two types of notes are not always clearly separate, the non-interpretive note can be very helpful to the reader and should be included in any bible designed for “study”.

  5. It’s tricky. And I appreciate that in the linked article you’re saying you’re actually more pro-readers’-Bibles than anti-reference-Bibles.

    I DO think that a world in which the “default” Bible was a readers’ edition would be a better world. I also think some amount of apparatus is helpful in a lot of situations. When I was a new believer, the book introductions in my ESV PSR were invaluable in helping me decide which books to read and what to expect from them. On the other hand, the PSR had so many cross-references that they were worse-than-useless. If a passage confused me and I tried to look up the cross-references, they would often leave me even more confused. I imagine that now, several years later and more Biblically literate, I would understand the cross-references better, but also need them less.

    I’m particularly bothered by Study Bibles serving as people’s only, or default Bibles. There’s nothing more frustrating in a Bible study than asking a question and having someone respond “Well, my study Bible says…”. Who cares? What does the Biblical text say?!

    But of course, many of these helps ARE helpful. I always appreciate footnotes that tell me what place names mean when they’re important (good luck understanding Hosea if you don’t know what the children’s names mean, for example). So it’s tricky.

    And of course, reference and study editions should exist—they just have no business being the default they have somehow become.

    Wow. That was more of rant than I intended.

  6. About a year ago I heard a (very knowledgeable) Bible teacher say that it was once considered an embarrassment for a Bible reading Christian to need a concordance. That’s something to think about.

    • Wow! Indeed, the pastor’s comment shows our dependence on study tools. Would I be without a concordance – No! Should I be more informed about scripture to help lessen such co-dependence – Yes!

  7. Absolutely agree. The first step to understanding something is to read it on its own terms.

    Obviously the Bible is a very long and complex book, and, as a Christian, I would say that there is a “proper” way of reading and understanding the whole of the Bible–based on the life and teachings of Jesus. If someone is approaching the Bible without any background, and they start reading from the beginning of Genesis, it can be a daunting task (of course it can still be a daunting task no matter how much background you have!). That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t do it, but some guidance is helpful–for example, introductions to the books that place them in their historical context and that discuss how they’ve traditionally been understood by the church, etc. I’m fine with things like that being in Bible (although I think they’d be better as a companion volume). Just set them off somewhere at the beginning then let the books be themselves without the accoutrements of reference Bibles.

    The features that define reference Bibles (chapters, verses, descriptive headings, and especially cross references) get in the way of reading and understanding the books on their own terms (i.e., the way that God in his wisdom gave them to us). As a secondary measure, for more advanced study, they may be useful, although the very nature of these “helps” presupposes a certain interpretative framework–one where the Bible is primarily a reference book, making it is easier to ignore context, genre, and the differing outlooks and styles of the human authors, often leading to proof texting, etc. And, while I may be wrong, I think this is not a helpful framework since it does not reflect the fact that God did not give us a reference book. I wish he did, but he didn’t. We can dress the Bible up and make it into a reference book, but maybe it’s also worth our time to be concerned with what it actually, primarily is.

    Sorry for being long-winded. Basically, yes, form and function have profound and sometimes unconscious influences on one another.

  8. I have grown to like text only Bibles. Set up correctly they can give you a larger print size in the same size Bible. Or allow the Bible to be smaller.

  9. I just want to read God’s naked Word in a Bible stripped of all bells and whistles. Why can’t publishers like Crossway get it through their heads that readability should be the number one priority in publishing the Word of God? Other publishers, Nelson for example, have put out aesthetically pleasing, readable Bibles at premium prices.

    Font is important if you intend to read your Bible as it was meant to be read rather than as a reference tool. The ideal font, in my opinion, for the best readability for everyone across the eye-sight spectrum is 11-12 point. Bible ads. reviews, boxes and other things associated with certain editions often don’t even mention font size. How could something so important be hidden so many times by publishers?

    A Bible with no cross-refs, only essential footnotes, in a one-column format would be the template for what I consider a readable Bible. Oh, and no annoying red letters. Crossway got close to it with their Heritage Bible, but they set the font at 9. How very disappointing that was to my aging eyes and my ischemic optic neuropathy.

    The most readable cross-ref Bible I own happens to be a Nelson NKJV with 11 point font and end-of-verse cross-refs, and not every verse has one. It cost me under $20 bucks! I clicked with it so well that I sent it off to Leonard’s for a rebind in soft, pebbled cowhide. I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Then I start at Genesis and read through to Revelation again. And again. What a blessing that’s been, and I will continue to read it that way till I shuffle off this mortal coil. Therefore, a readable Bible as described above would be a treasure to me. Thanks for reading and God bless.

    • Have you tried the ESV Single Column Legacy? The font size is a little smaller than you sound like you want, but the huge leading makes it incredibly readable (in my experience as a young person with good eyesight).

      • Kaleb, thanks for your reply. Maybe I’ve gotten the Heritage confused with the Legacy, so I’ll have to mosey on over to CBD and check it out. It sounds promising, but I may have already gave it a look-see and decided, meh. Thanks again for taking the time to respond. May God bless you mightily.

    • The probable reason publishers avoid sharing the point size is because it is a meaningless number when comparing the readability of fonts. One font in 12pt will look substantially larger or smaller than another font in 12pt. Here’s a quick demonstration: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3198561/12pt-Bible.gif

      In metal type, the point size described the height of the metal body on which the characters were cast. An otherwise identical typeface would have a much larger point size if it had a really low hanging tail on it’s lowercase J, but would be no more readable.

      In digital type, the point size can be even more meaningless as it refers to an imaginary space that the font is designed around, but doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to the final size of a letter.

      So the only way to determine if a type size is readable for you is to see it. This is obviously tricky online, but most publishers now share PDF samples of the layout that you can print at 100% size to get a much more accurate representation of the readability.

      • Your comment is so true. The various pics at evbible.com can give a relatively good idea of the size of a bible’s font but, as you say, one must see the text in person. And, of course, that usually means purchasing the bible since there are few bookstores that carry high quality bibles any longer. If the font is not to one’s liking then return postage and additional charges must be paid. I’ve spent more than I’d like to admit returning bibles that didn’t meet my expectations. Yet personal examination is the only way to find out for sure it it’s a bible you want to keep or not.

      • Very good point, and besides the pdf files–you have to print it to see the true size–some publishers print a text sample from their Bible on the box. But even that can be deceiving if the sample isn’t large enough.

    • Very nice Andrew. They look great. I love the Clarion and wish it had thicker paper with less show through as well

  10. Getting someone else to chew your food makes it easily digestible with the minimum of effort, but I find you can often taste their spit.

  11. Regarding formatting issues, there is much to agree with here.

    This having been noted, I would caution, however, that the case can be made that one doesn’t really read the Bible “on it’s own terms” until one is sufficiently engaged with the original languages and various textual traditions (Masoretic, LXX, DSS, Greek NT, Coptic NT, etc).

    • I respectfully disagree. If we can’t trust the translations of Scripture to be reliable in any meaningful fashion, then I suppose you would have a point; but consider this: the Bible of the Apostles (and of Jesus by extension, if we assume he spoke Aramaic and was then translated into Greek) was the Greek Septuagint, and even where the Septuagint differed from the Hebrew, the Apostles chose to go with the Greek rendering (a good example is Hebrews 8:9; compare it with Jeremiah 31:32). Now if inspired apostles could trust translations of the Scriptures to be representative of the actual Scriptures themselves, then why can’t we? The Apostles took the Bible on its own terms, even though they read and cited it in Greek and not Hebrew, and their citations have become the Word of God, even where they “disagree” with or are different from their Old Testament counterparts.

      Translations are certainly a trade-off between literality and readability, and as such do not always reflect *exactly* what the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic text says, but they do it well enough to consider good (and sometimes even bad) translations to be the actual Word of God (the KJV translators realized this too, when they wrote in their preface to the reader, “[W]e do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession,…containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere”). Disputes on meanings of words in key passages should always be taken back to the original languages: there is no quarrel about that; but that does not prevent the reader from experiencing the Scriptures “on their own terms” even in translation.

      Anyway. God bless.

      • The “Bible of the Apostles” demonstrates the point I had tried to make. The Septuagint variously translates the Masoretic text, or another Hebrew text closer to the variants found at Qumran, or at times is a paraphrase. In which case, one has to ask, what text is the Septuagint a translation of? Sometimes the text behind most of our English Bibles, sometimes the scrolls of Qumran, sometimes an as yet unidentified Hebrew textual tradition, sometimes a paraphrase.

        Pivoting to the Hebrew, one finds a variety of textual corruptions that we effectively have to apply some detective work to solve.

        Translations, more often than not, are a combination of compromise and detective work to create a readable product. A heavily annotated study Bible (with the appropriate textual apparatus) can help address some of the issues (be it manuscript variance, textual reconstructions, connotative meanings, etc). Indeed, I would argue that any Bible ought to have such an apparatus to permit as much of a window into the textual tradition as possible. Although, doing such undermines the notion that the Bible can be read on its own terms, if simply printing the text without any scholarly apparatus is sufficient.

        This said, there are those who will disagree with this perspective. To each his own.

      • Thanks l need that understanding because someone try to tell me that that was only man’s opinion and that we shouldn’t rely on such understanding

  12. Since reading your thoughts on this, I’ve bought an ESV Heritage and spent some time with it. It has no cross-references.

    There is definitely something nice about just focussing on the text at hand, and also having to think a bit harder for yourself to remember how it connects with other passages.

    But it also taught be something. The presence of cross-references communicates something about the unity of the Bible. I’m not saying it’s wrong to not have them! But when they are in, they help us avoid reading “Mark” then “Exodus” and help us remember that Mark and Exodus are part of one, integrated and coherent whole.

    I also think that cross-references can be done in a way that doesn’t distract very much from readability: https://medium.com/@andrewhayes/a-letter-i-wrote-to-crossway-today-c5fe82bbc6e7

  13. I just came across this article today and the one in Relay. It was timely for me because I have been using the Schuyler Quentel NASB, which is a new design. It has all the reference and text notes for the NASB, but the design of this Bible focuses on the text and the indicators of references and footnotes are very well sized and placed such that I find myself simply reading and not drawn to all the references. They’re there if I need them, but I almost have to look for them if I feel the need or want. It’s almost like have a Reading Edition and a Reference Edition all in one.

    • That’s a good point. Not all reference editions are created equally. The Quentel is a reader-friendly reference Bible, much more conducive to immersive reading than the typical reference edition.

  14. Thought-provoking points here. My first Bibles were the KJV Sunday School gift and a revised Authorised Version (later renamed the NKJV). Could not bear the terrible prose of the NIV — still can’t stand it. As an English undergraduate, I could not see the sense in reading Milton by day, and municipal English by night.

    Now, I have a bunch of Bibles, and they are for various purposes. None of them are luxury Bibles, though. The children have unannotated NKJV and KJV Bibles, for now.

    I’m not too bothered about references. We have sermons and websites, son’t we?

    • Fortunately the Quentel Schuyler bible format solves all. Perfect text on top; great verse references on the bottom. You can read your bible and reference it too.

    • My thoughts exactly. “Municipal English” is a great way to describe the NIV translation, as it reads more like a newspaper than…well, the Word of God. Perhaps this is why the NIV has proven difficult to memorize, at least for moi. Another thing that bothers me, and bothers me a lot, is their removing “the Lord of hosts” for “the Lord Almighty,” and “Lord God” for “Sovereign Lord.” Those changes in the names of God were the deal breakers for me.

  15. The Quentel Schulyer bible series solves all. Perfect text layout on top; perfect reference layout on the bottom. You can read your bible and reference it too.

  16. I wish Schuyler would re make their single column NKJV and use line matching. That would be awesome. They wouldn’t have to even use thicker paper. I wish the NKJV and NASB had a great single column text only bible, like Crossway’s ESV legacy. It uses line matching unlike the Schuyler NKJV.

    • I second that emotion. I also wish they’d stop capitalizing pronouns for deity. It doesn’t make the translation any more authentic than one that doesn’t capitalize these pronouns, and it is not good English. The pronouns are distracting if nothing else. Did the original manuscripts capitalize the pronouns of deity? No, but neither did they have the words of Jesus in red. That’s another sore spot I’ll not talk about. Thanks for reading.

      • I agree, Leonard. Capitalized pronouns for God always put across (IMHO) a “more pious than thou” approach on the part of the editor or whoever does it, and it looks cluttery. Some languages have such a custom, such as German for second-person pronouns (Sie meaning “you” in the more formal style, and Du in written correspondence in a more familiar style). Not necessary or normal in English and does nothing to help render the Hebrew or Greek more accurately.

  17. But I don’t think pure reference bibles, like the Quentel, are bad at all. I have it in the ESV and love it. It is a good thing to use scripture with scripture. There isn’t any commentary or anything in pure reference bibles.

  18. Using the ESV Reader’s Edition for my devotional reading this year has shown me that verse numbers aren’t even a necessity. My preaching/teaching is all done with a text only Bible.

    With good software (Logos, online sources, etc.) most “tools” for preparation don’t need to be between the covers where they clog up the works. This keeps the text unencumbered, but allows access to anything needed.

  19. I agree. I really like just text bibles. and have a few. And, speaking of that, I just had to share with someone who will appreciate it like you and your readers- today at the thrift store I found a 1961 edition of the New English Bible New Testament hardback in excellent condition with no markings or anything and just as you have said it is soooo reader friendly! Paragraphed, verse numbers along the outside margins, very readable type, It has a kind of denim blue cover. It reads just like a real book. It does have some subject headings.

    “Just like a real book”. I think that is one reason why they print and sell so many Bibles with all kinds of “helps”. It is because the majority of people do not read books for pleasure any more. They are literate and read technical books and such in their line of work. So the endless study type Bibles are perhaps more like the technical manuals they are used to. Does anyone else think this might be a possibility?

  20. I could not agree with this article more. I’m waiting for the days that Allan and Schuyler will produce editions that have no references. That, to me, is a preaching Bible. If they came out with those editions in ESV, I will go on record and say that I will buy two in every color.

    • The references in the new Schulyer ESV are only on the bottom of the page. That bothers you?

      • I have 2 Schuyler Quentels, and I have 2 first-edition Schuylers as well. I love the company and love the products. I just want to see a Bible without references. I’m not meaning to sound arrogant here, but I think the tone of the article was pointing out that references are helps for those who really need (or want) the help. I want a Bible that is just purely the Word. I don’t even want maps, concordances, creeds, confessions; I just want the text. It’s not that I don’t like all the other things, but I’m looking for a simply text-only Bible.

  21. In my early Christian walk I hated references, but once I learned to use them, I cannot do without them for methodic study, or to check on a question I may have after my daily reading. It’s a shame refs on all ESV Bibles are so tiny (my sight isn’t great). I wish Crossway would copy some of the Foundation Publication NASB designs. With the careful and methodic use of references, the Bible interprets itself. Yes, anyone can do the same by just reading the Bible and remembering similar words/passages, but very feel people can connect 80,000+ references in scripture by memory, thus the value of the cross-reference system. A good article here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/cross-references.html

    • Oh, I hear you loud and clear on those Crossway references. In fact you touched on a sore spot with me concerning the ESV Bibles Crossway has made available.

      It would be very good of Crossway, I think, to relinquish their hold on the ESV so that a Bible publisher that knows what it’s doing can take it from here. I have the 10.5 font-point ESV, which I bought because at that time, it was the largest font available for the ESV in a personal-sized format. And there are tons of cross-references. They’re at the bottom of each page in -4 point font. Whenever I read my ESV, I am always sure to take out my microscope in case I want to avail myself of those cross-refs.

      If you look at what other Bible publishers have produced in the area of readable, personal-sized Bibles, it’s amazing how many you can find. Zondervan is probably the king of the readable, handy-sized Bible, and I have two of theirs even though I don’t care that much for the NIV. But I can read them, and they’re nice to hold, and so I use them from time to time.

      Thomas Nelson puts out a quality 11-point-font Bible (NKJV) in a personal size for dirt cheap. I bought five of these, as I like to keep one in the car and others in reserve should Nelson suddenly decide not to publish it anymore. I sent two of them to Leonard’s for a limp cowhide rebinding, and it’s my daily read, but not by choice, although the translation has grown on me in spite of the capitalized pronouns for deity, which I do not care for at all.

      The ESV is my top choice, but I find myself reading other versions more than it because the publishers of those other versions put out more readable Bibles with more readable cross-references than Crossway. The ESV is basically an edited RSV, which I lovingly used while I was in the Air Force 45 years ago. The only thing that bothered me about the RSV was the archaic language used when someone, say Samuel or Moses, addresses deity. Now the NRSV has fixed that only to mistranslate Hebrew and Greek to make nice to feminists. It doesn’t sit well with me. The NIV has done it too.

      For now I’ll stick to the NKJV. The 11 point font is easy on the eyes, and cross-references can be seen without an electron microscope. Good luck with reading Crossway references. Maybe they’ll eventually publish an ESV Bible in a format that the ESV translation deserves. Until then, I’ll be reading what I can actually read.

  22. The finest reference Bible I’ve owned for study is the Darby Version from Bible Truth. After 25 years my first one fell apart and I purchased a new one to have on hand as I went to the KJV, but having read all the references and cross correlated them with pencil, it was a wealth, and fascinating to me. I never found Darby’s notes to push theology or bend doctrine, but what I did find were the splendid words of Greek and Hebrew illuminated, tenses explained, and well thought out opinion presented (see his view of Mk. 16. on pg. xi.). For example, he listed the references for “the same” and suggested that “the Same” could very well be a name of God. He appealed to the French in Eph. 5.4 “”convenir” or “fitting” but no other word exactly suits… perhaps becoming or suitable.” He also notes that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1 ‘with the absence of the article arrests the mind, presenting a wholly new thought. ‘ The examples as he defines words are myriad: the difference between hagiosune and hagiasmos; ginosko and oida; doulos – diakonos – and huperetes, and on and on. These are splendid notes and ones I would rather have any day than simple references or opinions about words because words mean things and the closer we get to what a thing means, the closer we get to the truth. The text is uncluttered and the mind is simply absorbed more and more in the Word of God.
    His opinion of his own translation is first rate, and if I had to describe where Darby stands as one who ‘cleaned up’ the KJV I would call Darby a KJV washed once; and the NKJV washed twice. The man respected the original and sought not to change it but rather provide “a more correct translation”, and the results support that.
    Anyone reading any translation ought in my opinion to do so with a Strong’s at hand and a Thayer and Gesenius on the shelf, but I am absorbed with the KJV, and it happily lends itself even more directly to these resources.

  23. I think the issue is really how much of a distraction footnotes & cross-references can be while reading a text. If every other word has a superscript numeral (other than the verse number), letter, asterisk,, dagger, etc., it can be easy to get distracted from what the text is trying to say. On the other hand, being able to compare parallel passages in the Gospels, e.g., may help flesh out your perspective on a difficult passage, and various tools that are used to enable you to make comparisons should not be dismissed.

    At BibleGateway.com, after you’ve chosen a passage, you can click on the “Page Options” icon (it looks like a geared wheel) to see what a passage in a particular version looks like with or without verse numbers, cross references, footnotes, headings, etc. That may help you in deciding which version or edition you would want to buy in hard copy.

  24. I have read almost all of them and I say leave well enough of alone, bigger​ word’s are good for all Bibles
    references, lines ,margins ect.if you believe in God and have his anointing when reading His word He guides and leads us his children all, it’s​ about growing in the word of God. hearing him between all you’re reading first of all we should all pray and seek God before we aproach the word of God, Blessing to all that needs to be guided in the word of God……..

  25. I am looking for the RL Allan Oxford Reference Bible Goatskin with Hymns

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *