When I talk with Bible teachers, particularly those who focus on working through the text with their students (as opposed to a more topical approach), I am always struck by how many of them take advantage of desktop publishing software and readily available texts online to create customized layouts for class. It's nice to have a handout featuring just the section under consideration, single-colum, paragraphed, in 12 pt. type, perhaps even double-spaced, something students won't think twice about marking up during discussion. And of course it's so easy.

A bit more challenging is to create an entire Bible to your own specs. It can be done, of course. The tools are readily available. But most of us underestimate what a complicated task designing the Bible really is. Most who start down the path eventually give up. After all, the readily-available texts online aren't usually formatted for print. Do you take the time to re-format them, or do you copy and paste? (If you choose the latter, you might as well not bother.) Then there's the whole problem of good design. Knowing how to run the software is one thing; knowing how to design a thousand pages of text is another.

Every so often, I hear from someone who has persevered and created their own layout of the Bible or a portion of it. These efforts, while fine for personal use, don't often impress me from the standpoint of classic design. Let me introduce you to an exception to the rule, The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre. 

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As he explains in the preface (which is available at the link above) Chad started with the four gospels from the World English Bible, a revision of the ASV, which is available at ebible.org, then made some Cormac McCarthy-inspired tweaks to the punctuation -- removing quotation marks and converting semicolons to commas. Guided by the single column NEB layout, he removed chapter and verse numbers to the margin, but instead of the outer margin he chose the inner one. He also divided the gospels internally into a total of thirty-four sections designed to emulate novel-style chapter breaks, making it easier to divide the readings in a group setting. When in doubt, he referred to Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, which never disappoints.

To get a flavor for the result, you can follow the link to Chad's site and download a free PDF of the resulting layout. He has also made it available in two editions printed on demand by Lulu, a softcover and a hardback.

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The Bible is an anthology of books, and while traditionally we tend to bind it under one cover -- a feat aided by small type and ultra-thin paper -- there is something to be said for breaking out specific portions. The idea of a pocket New Testament springs from this logic, as do multi-volume editions of the Bible, not to mention the ultimate portable single-column KJV, the Pocket Canon.

By narrowing in on the gospels, Chad has freed himself from the kind of trade-offs that haunt designers of complete Bibles. He can create an elegant page layout without having to worry how many extra sheets will be required to print the spacious, uncramped volume. He can also use the standard paper options available through on-demand printing. Both of the Lulu volumes are comparable in binding quality to anything you'd find at the bookstore. Ghosting? Not a problem with this paper. And you can write on it with any instrument you like. I used rollerballs and a foutain pen. Neither bled or showed through on the reverse. There you go.

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As you flip through the Whitacre Gospels (for lack of a better title), you're stuck by how novel-like the layout is. If it weren't for those numbers along the inner margin, you could be reading pretty much anything. Which is the point. Chad's experience leading Bible studies plays a factor in the choices he makes. Having used The Books of the Bible, he appreciates the value to readers of an uncluttered experience of the text. We're accustomed to the books we read looking a certain way, and when they do, we don't really notice what they look like. The painstaking design choices disappear, leaving us alone with the text. But in a group setting, you want everyone to be able to find the right spot in the text, so Chad steps back from TBOTB's approach to chapter and verse numbering to adopt the NEB's method. Whether you agree or not with the choices he's made, it becomes clear that Chad has given each one some thought. 

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One of the most interesting features Chad has introduced is "scrolling." Instead of placing book, chapter, and verse information in the page header, each of the four gospels has a black bar on the side of the page. Sideways on, you can tell immediately where each book begins and ends. Next to the bars, you'll find the chapter numbers for the page spread. By flipping through the black bars, you can quickly locate the chapter you want in the book you want. Then you use the numbering down the inner margin to zero in on particular verses. Although I was initially skeptical, this method actually works quite well.

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Above, you can see the pages fanned out to reveal the chapter numbers. Here's a video from Chad's site in which he demonstrates how scrolling works:

The 6x9 page size is larger than that of the Cambridge Clarion I wrote about yesterday. The text column is also slightly wider at 3.75 inches. The typeface is Adobe Caslon Pro. I'm guessing the size is 10 pt., though it could be 9.5 or 9. Compared to the Pitt Minion, below, which is typical of the sort of handy edition we're likely to carry around, you can see that the Whitacre Gospels are much roomier and lend themselves better to easy reading.

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That's the trade-off question again. The Pitt Minion is slim and small and contains the entire Bible, whereas this volume is slim and large and contains only the gospels. If you happen to be reading the gospels, though, you'd clearly have an easier time with the specialized edition.

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In short, Chad has produced a splendid edition of the gospels based on a sound design philosophy optimized for reading and group study/discussion. He is making the result of his efforts available free as a PDF. If you like what you see, I would encourage you to support the effort by picking up a hard copy. You'll be surprised how readable this format is. Chad is also open to feedback, and would love to hear from publishers and other industry types who might be interested in helping take the project further. 

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(Updated) To order the latest edition, follow the link:

The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre