Confession: When I heard about The ESV Reader’s Gospels, which is essentially a specialized Bible featuring only the four Gospels, I thought, “Interesting concept, but practically useless.” I had a hard time determining why I would want a copy of the Gospels in their own volume, or when I would ever reach for such a book over my regular Bible. In retrospect, my eyes have been opened, and I can hardly keep my hands off this thing. So if you ask the same, skeptical questions, allow me to illuminate through personal narrative…
Factor #1: Philosophical Underpinnings
But first, if you’re like me, you need to be able to philosophically justify and legitimize most everything in your life. The editors at Crossway introduce The Reader’s Gospels with a short, two page apologia of sorts for a Gospels-only “Bible”. Here is the summary:
All Scripture is inspired by God and useful (2 Tim. 3:16), yet the four Gospels are unique, for here we see in flesh and blood the daily ministry, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we see the dawning of the new age longed for throughout the Old Testament. For such reasons, the four Gospels have a long history of being presented to the church on their own, and we are pleased to present the Gospels in this tradition. p. viii.
I completely agree, and a self-contained, Gospels-only volume is a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. However I am mildly concerned it could lead some to view the Gospels as a canon within the canon. But The Reader’s Gospels would not be at fault if some reached this conclusion; such a lack of discretion would be on the shoulders of the individual. That out of the way, what made me fall in love with this book?
Factor #2: Physical Form
The first factor that warmed me to the idea of a Reader’s Gospels (henceforth RG) was actually the physical form. The book itself was so inviting, even on first glance, that I had to keep it close. When I opened the package, the first thing I saw (after bubble wrap) was a beautifully designed slipcase–obviously useful for storage, protection, and mobility, but with style. Being a proud owner of both the ESV Psalms and the ESV Reader’s Bible, I must say that the RG features the finest slipcase of them all. The small size plus the sturdy slipcase have allowed me to cart it around town in my backpack effectively.
Then I turned the case sidelong so I could view the spine of the book, and it was love at first sight. The RG features raised bands, which isn’t uncommon territory to me, but the application of these bands to such a small, novel-sized book charmed me to no end.
After removing the treasure from its casing, I was impressed by how this book was at once so simple and yet so refined. The softness of the top-grain (cowhide) leather paired with the hardness of the board cover is a tactile delight, a sort of paradox to the touch. There is one burgundy (or wine) colored ribbon marker, a perfect color for this volume, though I would have liked at least one more ribbon for comparing parallels in the Synoptics.
As with every other Bible worth mentioning, the RG features a sewn binding. Typically, we associate “smythe-sewn” or “stitched binding” with limpness, but this isn’t always true. What is always true is that a sewn binding is better than a glued one. That being said, I must issue a word of warning on the RG binding: If you’re expecting the same flexibility as your other sewn Bibles from Crossway, Cambridge, Allan or Schuyler, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. Judging by premium Bible standards, one might call the RG “stiff”, but those are the wrong standards for judging this book. The correct comparison would actually be other sewn, hardback books with regular, thicker paper–particularly novels. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the RG as “firm and not floppy, but still flexible” and thus avoid the “s” word altogether. Again, if you’re accustomed to sewn hardbacks of the same size, this will be familiar territory for you. Though they say it in reference to the inside, Crossway’s comments are fitting for the external package as well:
The presentation [of the RG] is ancient in its similarity to the original manuscripts, yet familiar in its resemblance to the modern novel. p. viii.
I love books (I know, a real surprise)…particularly when they’re well constructed, and this goes beyond just Bibles. Some of the collections I’ve become most fond of are Everyman’s Library and Folio Society, and the RG is much akin to these fine editions. It is perhaps a tad stiffer out the gate than Everyman’s books, but pretty similar to Folio. But I can attest that with time and use, it does loosen up…it did slightly after one complete reading, and I expect it will get better as time goes on. The leather-over-board cover is reminiscent of Easton Press books, but I’d say Crossway’s work is better. In sum, if you want a book that will sit open on your lap or your desk, look elsewhere. But for what it is, this is a fantastic little volume! And on that note, because of the more sturdy materials (i.e. book paper rather than Bible “onion” paper), I was able to sit outside on a windy day and read it. Whenever I try that with my “normal” Bibles and their sub-40 gsm paper, it is never easy and usually ends with my surrendering and going back inside.
Now that I’ve mentioned the paper, let me just say Wow. The paper! You thought the 38 gsm paper in the Schuyler Quentel and Cambridge Wide-Margin was opaque? Try 80 gsm. Thats right, 80 gsm, printed at the ineffable Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto, aka L.E.G.O. (not to be confused with a child’s plaything) in Italy. In the RG we have moved out of the realm of the onion-esque, flimsy paper featured in almost every Bible known to to man. This is not Bible paper; this is book paper, even thicker than that of many books I own, and the result is pure magic. I will discuss the typesetting under “Factor #3”, but let me say that this 80 gsm Munken Premium Cream woodfree paper provides the hardware for this “Trinité” typeface (by Bram de Does) to come alive.
Before we move into more about the typesetting and my experience reading it, allow me three more notes on the book: First, it features a paste-down binding, which is the only real choice for a hardback. Second, they did a nice job making the spine slightly rounded, a breath of fresh air amid the myriad of books unintentionally designed to sport flat or concave spines. Third, the size is “just right” for reading, at roughly 5.25″ x 7.75″ x 1″.
Factor #3: Usage and Experience
The factor that sealed the deal and convinced me of the viability of The Reader’s Gospels was, well, reading the Gospels! I set out to use this Bible for my daily reading for a couple weeks, and during that time I read through all four Gospels. Personal background: I don’t subscribe to the Bible design philosophy of “go single-column or go home.” I am not convinced by theories that say chapter and verse numbers are The Man‘s tactics for making us conform to status quo and miss what’s really going on in the biblical narrative around us. In other words, I like double-column reference Bibles a lot; in fact, I generally favor them over single-column options (which is an admitted evolution in my viewpoint since this time last year). So all that being said, it is not easy for me to admit that the RG sucked me in.
I wholeheartedly affirm what the editors have to say about the RG in their introduction:
Chapter and verse numbers, footnotes, and most headings have been stripped from the text. The result is an uncluttered reading experience that brings us seamlessly into the story of Jesus Christ. This elimination of potential distractions, combined with high-quality paper and an elegant typeface, means that the Gospels can be read like a book. p. vii
I’ll briefly describe the typesetting of the RG before I make some observations of my time spent in it. As mentioned, the wonderful 80 gsm paper in this volume provides a worthy playground for this wonderful typesetting, which features the Trinité typeface and is typeset by Crossway themselves (well done, Crossway!). All of the design factors effectively serve to focus your attention on the text itself, sans distractions. One of my pet peeves is that many books have gutter problems–the text gets sucked into the inside margin and you get carpal tunnel trying to bend the book so you can read it well. This is certainly not the case in the RG–quite the opposite. The margins are generous at about .75″ (on the inside and outside), thus framing the text and allowing your eyes “easy access”. The font is 12 point, and I can’t think of any book I’ve encountered that is more legible, and that includes every type of book (not just Bibles).
The RG’s words per line count is optimal, coming in at less than the ESV Reader’s Bible and the Legacy (and probably even the Clarion). The leading is just right. The result is that the amount of text per line and per page keeps you flipping pages and reading easy. There is a subtle and classy use of red too. Let me tell you, I haven’t been more excited about a new typesetting since the Schuyler Quentel.
As for “what’s included” in the text itself, the RG features the text of the Gospels with no chapter or verse numbers. There are some section headings, but nowhere near as many as in a traditional Bible. Since you asked, there are only 9 section headings in all of Matthew, 4 in Mark, 7 in Luke, and 5 in John. In my reading, these headings help the narrative rather than hinder it, like they can do when they’re more frequent and “random” as in the traditional Bible. The RG‘s section headings are almost like chapter breaks in a novel, dividing up long chapters and giving you just a smidgen of editorial guidance as you wade through the narrative and discourse. And the headings are admirably and helpfully tied tightly to the themes of each individual Gospel. For instance, the themes of Messiah and Kingdom in Matthew are captured in the following 9 subject headings: The Arrival in History of Jesus the Messiah, The Sermon on the Mount, The Authority of Jesus the Messiah, Opposition to the Messiah, Parables of the Kingdom, Teaching the Disciples about the Kingdom, The Messiah’s Authority over Jerusalem, The Messiah will One Day Return, The Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Messiah. These headings help tell a story rather than simply helping you find a verse to lift out of context, which is sometimes how we like to use them in our normal Bibles!
Even though there are relatively few section breaks in the RG, I found that my mind could detect the flow of the narrative without all the help. Every once and a while, I would recall what chapter I was in from memory, and I was often surprised at how far I had gotten without realizing it. The lack of breaks doesn’t offer you as many chances to stop as a typical bible, and the result is that you just keep reading!
Another phenomenon I noticed in reading the Gospels in this format is that things stood out to me that had not really done so before. For instance, regarding his predictions of his sufferings in Mark, the narrator says of Jesus, “And he said this plainly.” Jesus left no room for misunderstanding as to his pending fate, and somehow reading in this novel format helped me to see some of the narrative details like this better. Similarly, when Peter suggests setting up a campsite for Elijah and Moses during the Transfiguration, that Mark explains: “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” At a few points I suspected that the editors had pulled a fast one and slipped in additional content– that’s how fresh this reading was to me.
The RG helped me notice more connections than I sometimes do, as I could not rely on the editors help as much. For instance, in Mark’s rendering of the parables, Jesus tells the disciples to “stay awake” in preparation for the master’s return, and only a few pages later, ironically, we find the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane while Jesus prays. I detected a similar contrast when the scribe says to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion”, only to find Pilate releasing Barabbas to satisfy the crowd and protect his standing just pages later in the narrative. And for a final example, the rampant trinitarian theology of John’s Gospel came alive to me like never before (which is a foundational distinctive of John’s Gospel). Extended time in the RG allowed contrasts, connections, and themes to appear to me in this way, and the lack of distractions such as subject headings certainly played a big role in making that happen.
Similarly, this uninterrupted layout brought out tension in the narrative more, thus forcing me to do some deep thinking. In some cases, two paragraphs that are in direct sequence seemed to have no apparent connection to one another. There would probably be a section heading in other Bibles separating them, but in unbroken narrative it goes from one saying to the next without prelude or explanation, forcing the reader to ponder the flow in its own rite, apart from most editorial pointers. This wrestling with context is the essence of biblical interpretation, and is a pleasant byproduct of reading the RG.
Again, the editors of the RG say it well:
One downside of modern editions of the Bible is that things like chapter and verse divisions can hinder us from reading large portions of Scripture without interruption. This can prevent us from encountering the chapters and verses of the Bible in the larger context of the documents that contain them. We miss out on the flow of the argument, the arc of the story, and the broader contexts of individual verses. p. viii.
True to my experience, though I would qualify this quote by pointing out that the whole-canon context is also necessary for fully picking up the larger biblical arcs and flow. Interestingly, and helpfully, Crossway includes the chapter numbers and their corresponding page numbers as an appendix in the back:
I will say that I was frustrated more than a few times because I’m so used to having my Bible software on standby on my iPhone, ready to look up commentary as needed. Without chapter and verse, this is made more difficult. But in all fairness, this is the reasoning behind a reader’s edition– to remove distractions and zero in on the words of scripture themselves–chapter, verse numbers, and commentary be darned.
One minor quibble is that the dialogue is not always broken up as it ought to be, but overall this is a nearly perfect production:
What makes the RG better than other, single-column, reader-optimized attempts such as the NIV Books of the Bible, ESV Readers Bible, Cambridge Clarion, ESV Legacy, etc? I’ll put it simply: There is no other existing edition (of which I’m aware) that goes “all the way” in presenting any significant portion of Scripture in the same format as a novel on the same (or higher) quality and weight paper. This is a foretaste of what we will see in Adam Greene’s forthcoming Bibliotheca. For the sake of simplicity, take a look at the table (and please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about the Books of the Bible by Zondervan):
|NIV Books of the Bible||ESV Reader’s Bible||ESV Legacy||Cambridge Clarion|
I think its true that for every Bible I’ve reviewed on this blog, I basically formed my opinions within minutes of opening the box, and these opinions rarely changed with time and usage. The Reader’s Gospels has broken this trend. Through slow, nitty-gritty use and interaction, the RG softened my skepticism and convinced me of the usefulness of reader-optimized Bible editions. I’ve said before, Crossway is doing the church a service in rolling out so many specialized Bibles, and this one is perhaps the most unique yet.
My double-column reference ESV is still my favorite Bible, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon (Allan ESV New Classic Reader’s for the curious). But there is something about seeing the familiar stories in this novel format that brings a freshness to them, and for this reason, I expect to return to the Reader’s Gospels time and time again.
Postscript: An Appeal to Crossway
Would you consider making an entire, multi-volume Bible with the same typesetting as The Reader’s Gospels? I could envision a 5-volume set: Torah, Writings, Prophets, Gospels-Acts, and Epistles…and I would be your first buyer! What say you, Crossway?
…What say you, readers?
And lest we get lost in leather-bound English-Bible luxury, please remember to pray for translations in the remaining 1,859 Bible-less languages in our world. Click here to see my heart on the matter and to even support the work of Bible translation.