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.”