Marginal Interest? Why You Need A Wide-Margin Bible

Widemargin_openIf you've been around this site for any length of time -- five seconds ought to do it -- you know that I'm an opinionated, hair-splitting sort of fellow. For everything I like about a particular edition of the Bible, there are a dozen things I want to change, and I'll be the first to admit that some of my demands are a little unrealistic. Despite what some people think, the folks who publish Bibles do it out of a sense of vocation. They're not out to shaft the end user. The generally poor quality of contemporary Bible design and binding has as much to do with economy and the changing face of publishing as anything else. But you know what? I'm an idealist. My strategy is simple: if we're all graciously demanding, then the quality and options we see in the market will improve.

REALLY BASIC As far as I'm concerned, some features ought to be basic in Bible publishing. Text should be paragraphed, set in readable modern type and formatted in a single column. Bindings should be genuine leather, spines sewn, and every Bible should come with at least two ribbons -- and they should be wide, too, not the dinky little strings that never lay flat between the pages. Every publisher of every translation should consider it essential to produce at least one edition that meets this criteria. Sadly, most don't publish any that do.

And that's why another favored feature of mine is languishing: the wide margin. If publishers aren't getting their basic editions right, you can't expect them to invest much effort in something as 'exotic' as a well-made wide margin Bible. After all, there isn't that much demand. Who wants a wide margin Bible?

The wide margin Bible is the thinking man's Study Bible. Like the Study Bible, it is full of notes, outlines and annotations. Unlike the Study Bible, it doesn't come with them. Instead, you make the notes yourself. That way, they're the result of your study, not someone else's. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against store-bought Study Bibles. It's just that the one you make yourself is better. Sure, it demands more of you, but over time it gives more back.

If the demand for wide margin Bibles has declined, perhaps it's an indicator that the quality of our study has, too. We don't need those vast margins because we have nothing to write in them.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of the English Standard Version, but until there's an ESV wide margin edition, I won't be able to switch over completely. One day, hopefully not too far in the future, I will sit down with an ESV wide margin on one side and my trusty Cambridge Concord on the other and start the laborious process of transferring notes. Until then, I keep the Cambridge handy. It's margins are full of annotations -- notes reminding me of glosses I discovered in commentaries, outlines I've used for teaching studies, and more. Next to various "problem" passages I've written down explanations. For example, my notes on Romans 11 include a reminder that in verse 32, when Paul writes "...that he might have mercy upon all," the word all refers to both Gentile and Jew. It's a simple point about context, but significant in certain theological conversations.

In the back of the Cambridge Concord wide margin, there is a series of lined pages. Mine are filled with questions and answers from the Westminster Longer Catechism; passages copied from Calvin, Kuyper, Berkouwer, Bavinck and Warfield; a two-page synopsis of John Frame's arguments for both the deity of Christ and the Trinity from The Doctrine of God, and much more. How many times have you gotten into a discussion only to find yourself unable to recall the flow of a certain line of exegesis? Whenever that happens to me, I research the answers and copy them into the back of my wide margin Bible.

Verse_noteAnother thing you'll find in the margins of my Cambridge: variant readings from other translations. Whenever I come across an opaque passage and discover that an alternate translation offers more light, I note the reading in the margin beside the verse. This is particularly helpful when teaching.

Obviously, there are trade offs. Wide margin Bibles are, well, wider. And because of those big margins, the page headings are farther in; you don't want to use a wide margin for your "sword drills." In my experience, it is even more important to have a good binding on a wide margin than it is on a regular edition. With a supple, flexible binding, the extra bulk of the wide margin is more manageable.

Widemargin_spineAs Cambridge fans will know, just because two Bibles are the same edition in the same binding doesn't mean they will actually be the same. If you choose a Cambridge wide margin -- available only in the KJV and NIV, as far as I know -- be sure to shop around and handle the bindings in person. I have three Cambridge wide margins. One of them is bound in spectacular Berkshire leather and is more compact than the other two, which are both identical Concords. I say "identical," but the fact is they are very different. The one pictured here is quite flexible. I bought it after I'd already shelled out money on the first one only to discover that the calfskin cover was so stiff and sharp that it was impossible to flip through the Bible without reaching inside the cover and holding the paper block separately.

No doubt if Tolstoy had known me, he would have titled his famous short story "How Many Bibles Does A Man Need?" instead of "How Much Land," but what can I say? I really think that if you're serious about Bible study, a wide margin edition is an asset.

For more about wide margin Bibles, including a survey of what's out there, see Rick Mansfield's "A Survey of Wide Margin Bibles by Version."