What Happens if You Package the Bible as a Novel Instead of a Textbook?

A new publishing approach could revolutionize how people process the Good Book.

Reader's Bible.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

I’ve owned eight or 10 Bibles over the course of my life, including a children’s illustrated New International Version, a handful of small gilt-edged New Testaments, a “life application” Bible packaged for 1990s teenagers, and a hefty tome emblazoned with my name. I’m not an unusually prodigious collector. Eighty-eight percent of American households own at least one Bible, and many own more. I happen to be writing this in a room at my in-laws’ house that holds five versions of the Bible, a small portion of their stash—which includes a pocket-sized New Testament, a hardcover “amplified” version, two leather-bound New King James translations, and a brightly covered Nuevo Testamento.

These Bibles vary in translation, publisher, language, intended audience, and aesthetics, but they have one thing in common: They are reference books. The text has been broken down into chapters and verses, and they contain explanatory footnotes and cross-references to related passages. In almost all of them, justified blocks of text run down each tissue-thin page in two columns, and in some of them, each sentence is its own paragraph. Some contain maps, long introductions to each book, sidebars, and copious endnotes. They are meant to be sampled or studied like a textbook, not read like a novel.

For most Bible owners, it’s almost impossible to imagine the book in any other form. The chapter system, which breaks each book into digestible chunks, was developed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century. Verses, which further atomize each chapter into sentences or even shorter fragments, were added in the 16th century. The King James Bible then printed each verse as its own paragraph, an approach that helped Reformation battlers flip to individual passages that “proved” their side in doctrinal controversies. Centuries later, the modern publishing industry further larded up the ancient text, packaging Bibles with supplementary content for men, women, children, families, couples, single women, athletes, coloring-book aficionados, and cowboys. “I’m not sure everyone likes the Bible to be what it actually is, a collection of ancient books,” said Glenn Paauw, author of the 2016 book Saving the Bible from Ourselves. “The chapter and verse thing is a nice shortcut to the parts of the Bible that seem to speak directly to me, without mediation.”

The reference-book approach has had its critics from the start. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke complained that verse divisions so “chop’d and minc’d” the sacred text that readers “take the Verses usually for distinct Aphorisms” rather than reading them as a whole. But only now have publishers begun in earnest to offer a radically different kind of Bible consumption experience. The concept is to present the Bible in a form that is meant to be consumed as a multicourse meal, not a “chop’d and minc’d” sampler platter. These “Reader’s Bibles” strip away footnotes, sidebars, and chapter and verse divisions; text typically appears in a single column and is formatted to represent each passage’s true genre, rather than making all the books look the same.

This idea has been tried sporadically before, but it’s only really caught on in the past few years. Bibliotheca, a minimalist five-volume set, raised almost $1.5 million on Kickstarter in 2014. And most major Bible publishers have gotten into the game too. Zondervan’s new Sola Scriptura project reorders the individual books, separating the four gospels and using each of them as the heads of sections that emphasize different aspects of the New Testament story. Crossway offers its English Standard translation as a six-volume reader’s Bible in a library-ready slipcase, grouping books of poetry, prophecy, and history together into their own tomes. And Tyndale’s “Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience” is meant to guide churches through reading the entire Bible together, book club–style.

Some proponents hope the style will be more appealing to novice or overwhelmed Bible readers. “I struggled pretty badly reading the Bible growing up,” said Jesse Tyler, who is part of a team behind Manuscripts, a reader’s Bible project that launches with a four-volume set of the gospels next month. Tyler and his partners were inspired by college courses that approached the books of the Bible as literature and by pocket versions of great novels that the military issued to soldiers during World War II. Traditional reference Bibles are great for studying, they realized, but they can be daunting for newcomers to the text. And they can seem too heavy and ostentatious to lug to coffee shops or onto the subway.

It’s not just newcomers to the Bible who could benefit from such a redesign. It’s tempting for longtime readers of all political and theological persuasions to parachute in to find debate ammo. In the context of the Bible’s handful of references to homosexuality, these are often called “clobber” verses. But clobbering can take subtler forms, including the tendency to pluck out verses that read like bits of personal encouragement and leaving behind the Bible’s frequent exhortations to feed the poor and privilege the oppressed. Then again, verses like Matthew 19:24 (“ … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”) are often used as clobbers on the left. Marco Rubio has spent the Trump era apparently subtweeting the president with Bible verses, deploying, for example, a proverb about a foolish “scoffer” the morning after Trump’s “shithole” comments.

Paauw argues that many lifelong readers have been tricked by the standardized framework into experiencing the entire Bible as a uniform kind of “divine information.” But the Bible is not one book; it is 66, and its genres range from poetry to prophecy to letters to songs to narratives, written by dozens of authors over the course of centuries. Paauw believes that many ongoing controversies within Christian circles, like whether to read the story of Creation in Genesis as a historical account, would be ameliorated if readers were accustomed to encountering the text in something closer to its original form. “If you think the Bible is divine information, you think these are spiritual facts, straight from Heaven,” he said. “Two columns, numbered, it looks like a straight-up description of how the world came to be.” If it were presented as the literary story it actually is, however, it might be clearer to readers that Genesis 1 is not about science but about the nature of the world and God’s relationship to it. Though theological conservatives may be wary, Paauw says this is actually a more respectful approach: It means taking the Bible on its own terms, not our own.

When I picked up the pocket-size gospel of Luke produced by Manuscripts, I was skeptical that I would experience anything new. After 13 years of evangelical schooling and a lifetime of churchgoing, I must have read the book hundreds of times. Rarely, though, have I read it from cover to cover. The highlights were still all familiar, but in this context, Luke took on its own narrative arc, from the arrival of John the Baptist to the Christmas story, to miracles and parables, to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to Heaven. I can’t claim there were any major epiphanies (OK, there was one), but it read like a full story rather than a collection of quotes. It was, in other words, a book.