By Wesley Hill
My interest in beautifully bound Bibles is a relatively recent one, traceable, I think, to the moment several years ago when I opened the box containing the Cambridge Pitt Minion edition of the English Standard Version (ESV).
The black goatskin cover was as supple as any I’d touched before. The striations in its grain are deep enough to attract interest, and the grain’s sheen catches the eye too. The two sewn-in ribbons are bright red and create a pleasing complement to the red that underlies the gold on the gilt page edges.
At roughly five inches by seven inches, it is only slightly larger than the edition of the Book of Common Prayer that I carry around with me, and both fit easily into a small pocket in my backpack. It is now the Bible I prefer take with me whenever I travel, and I often use it at home too. It is a truly signal example of the art and craft of bookmaking.
Since acquiring my Pitt Minion, I’ve developed a small collection of finely bound Bibles. For years, I made do with an NIV (New International Version) hardcover, later followed by NASB (New American Standard Bible — when I was first learning Greek and Hebrew and found myself resenting any translations that weren’t woodenly literal) and then ESV hardcovers. But after living with the Pitt Minion for a while, I decided I wanted a slightly bigger version, with a larger font size (though the Pitt Minion’s 6.75 Lexicon No. 1 font remains as elegant as any in my collection).
Despite its forbidding price tag, I eventually sprang for Crossway’s Omega Thinline Reference Edition of the ESV, which is every bit as gorgeous as the Pitt Minion, but at six inches by nine inches, I find it nicer for home use. It is easier on the eyes and generously spreads out flat on my lap or desk. (Plus, as I tell my students, its cross-reference system, adapted by Crossway from a late-nineteenth century Oxbridge revision of the King James Version’s system, is the single best Bible study tool I’ve ever used. The Pitt Minion includes this cross-reference system too, in a center column, but the footnoted version makes for easier reading.)
Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has remarked on Crossway’s commitment to books as physical artifacts, and I can’t improve on the way he says it:
Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. Look, for instance, at this gorgeous edition of the Psalms — and it is but one example among several. Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps; in this area they have only one real competitor, Neubible, which is still very much a work in progress and in fact could take a few lessons from Crossway’s apps. Why doesn’t any other Bible publisher care about these matters as much as a little conservative evangelical press in Wheaton, Illinois does?
Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation.
Admittedly, though, I have a complicated relationship with the ESV translation, so I also feel the need not to rely on it exclusively. Some of its translation decisions strike me as ideological in a way that rubs me, in particular, the wrong way. (I went to college down the road from Crossway, at Wheaton College, Illinois, and some of my angst is no doubt a son’s jostling for independence from his theological fathers.)
I have come, for example, to think there is nothing in Scripture that would hinder a woman from being ordained to the priesthood (and episcopate) and sharing in the ministry of Word and Sacrament long thought to belong exclusively to men. It grates on me, therefore, to see the ESV translation of Romans 16:7, in which Paul commends the woman Junia as “well known to the apostles,” appearing without a footnote to the equally plausible translation, “prominent among the apostles” (so NRSV, though with my italics). The ESV’s refusal to mention, even in a footnote, the Greek text’s susceptibility to an alternate, more egalitarian translation irks me to the point of distraction at times, and so, partly out of a concern for my spiritual focus, I reach for other versions.
(It was of some comfort to me, years ago, to read Eugene Peterson describing a similar concern: “The first Bible that I chose for myself was a Scofield Reference Bible, purchased with my own money when I was thirteen years old. It was bound in Morocco leather and printed on fine India paper…. Ten years later I rejected, with more vehemence than was probably necessary, everything that Scofield had written in his notes on the scriptural text. I resented the intrusion of his headings and outlines.” When that kind of resentment builds, it’s time to find another Bible to read.)
I also have in my collection an Allan edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is the unofficial standard for the guild of biblical scholars as well as the most ecumenically recognized English version. (It is also, unlike the ESV, authorized for public use in The Episcopal Church, which is important for me.) The R. L. Allan company, established in the latter half of the nineteenth century, rebinds other publishers’ typesettings in high-end leather covers with an ample semi-yapp – a binding that slightly overlaps the page edges, which increases durability. The edition I have boasts a highland goatskin cover dyed a light burgundy. Its pages aren’t of nearly the quality as the ESV Omega Thinline, but that’s not Allan’s fault, since they simply rebind existing editions. And — a welcome bonus — I don’t get upset when I come to Romans 16:7 in that edition.
For a while now, I have been wondering about whether I might be able to acquire fine bindings for original language editions of the Old and New Testaments. I know I could have a company like Leonard’s Book Restoration (who have rebound two copies of the Book of Common Prayer for me) or Post Tenebras Lux rebind my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and my (beloved from college days) Nestle-Aland Ed. XXVII Novum Testamentum Graece, but I decided to see what might already be available before I go to that hassle.
Happily, Crossway, as of last November, has released a top-grain-leather-bound edition of the Greek New Testament produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge in 2017. It measures six inches by nine inches — the same as their ESV Omega Thinline — and features thick, faintly cream-colored pages with gilt edges. It is also a reader’s edition, which means it includes, at the bottom of each page, glosses (definitions) for words occurring 25 times or less in the Greek New Testament as well as parsings of difficult verbal forms. Like the Omega Thinline, it is an impressive instance of the bookmaking art, in addition to being practically useful with its reading aids.
My only complaint is that it really doesn’t lie flat when opened. Perhaps as I use it more, it will eventually, but as of now, its spine maintains its stiff convex shape when the book lies open, forcing the covers and pages into an annoying curvature. Its thickness is also prohibitive for stuffing it in a backpack — in mine, it takes up almost the entire pocket I reserve for carrying my laptop and books. All the same, I am glad to have it and expect to return to it often in personal study and devotional reading.
In a time when money is tight, for me and for so many other Americans, what good is a collection of finely bound Bibles? I am aware that many Christians would love to own editions like this but simply can’t, for budgetary reasons. No doubt I am indulging one of the privileges of my middle-class existence in owning these Bibles, but I also like to think I am investing for the future. When my 3-year-old goddaughter wanders into the living room each morning and sees me holding an open Book of Common Prayer with one hand, while looking down at the opened Allan NRSV or ESV Omega in my lap, I like to imagine her telling her daughter one day, “This was my Uncle Wes’s Bible. I would sometimes catch a whiff its rich leather mingling with the scent of his steaming coffee as he read it each morning. And when I saw that beautiful binding, I knew what he was reading must be something special. And then, later, he gave it to me.”
Dr. Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.
(The writer received a complimentary copy of The Greek New Testament, Reader’s Edition from Crossway, for the purpose of a candid review.)