Are Print Books a Thing of the Past . . . Like Scrolls?

Before the birth of the Christian movement, scrolls were the book-form used by most if not all people.  Scrolls, also known as rolls, were pages sewn or glued together end-to-end to create a long roll, sometimes up to 35 feet long.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are probably the best known and most significant collection of ancient scrolls, but rolls continued in use for 500 years after the birth of Jesus, mostly among non-Christian groups.scrolls

The codex form of the book was invented in the first century about the time Paul was crossing Asia Minor and planting churches in Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece).  The codex form is the kind of book we use today with individual pages stacked and sewn together along the same edge.  We don’t know exactly who invented the codex, but we do know Christians popularized it and used it for most of their books for the first five hundred years.  With a  couple of exceptions the Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament from the earliest centuries are written on codex.

Scholars have proposed a number of reasons why Christians adopted the codex book-form. First, codices (the plural of codex) are easier to use than scrolls.  If you want to see something at the end of a scroll, you have to unroll it first. With a codex, you can simply open up the stack to find the right place.  Second, scrolls were written only on the inside which wastes half the space.  A codex is written on the front and back of each leaf.  This makes better use of the pages.  Remember, paper wasn’t available to them so they wrote on papyrus, sheets made of a plant material, or on parchment, sheets made of a well prepared animal skin (the soft underbelly of a goat, cow, or ibex).  Both were expensive writing materials.  There is good evidence that the earliest Christians were poor so they wanted to use every square inch of the writing materials they could get their hands on.  Third, the codex form may help distinguish Christian books from Jewish books.  The Christian movement was started by Jews for Jews (Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were too!).  But when more and more outsiders (non-Jews) entered the Church, tensions grew and eventually there was a parting of the ways. Judaism became one religion, Christianity another.  At first, there was no real need to distinguish these communities, but as time went on both Jews and Christians wanted to find ways to distinguish themselves from each other.  The scroll and codex form may have been part of that.  codex

For the first 1500 years of Christian history all books were hand-copied.  With the invention of the printing press (around 1450) books could be produced mechanically.  That presented a huge shift in culture.  Hand-copied books took a long time to create, were very expensive, and had variations in them.  A machine-produced book could be printed quicker, were less costly, and had fewer variations.

In the last decade of the 20th century another huge shift took place as digital technology became less expensive and more available.  Today you probably read on computers, a Kindle, a smart phone, or a tablet.  These digital technologies have made books even cheaper, easier to carry around with you, and more available.  When we started work on The Voice Bible project we were all well aware we’d create print copies and digital versions.  I read The Voice in paper sometimes.  My students read it on their smart phones in class.  I often research and write on the computer using, which has The Voice translation (as well as many others).  Exactly where this is all headed it is hard to say.  Some have predicted the end of print books (that is, the codex form).  Others aren’t so sure.

Michael Hyatt, former president of Thomas Nelson Publishing, is a digital guru I like to follow. Hyatt  thinks for many applications and kinds of reading print books are still the best format and will endure.  In a recent article he acknowledges there are good reasons scientifically to continue to use paper books.  Here is a link to his on-line article:

Chapters and verses (pt. 3)

In two earlier posts I discussed where the chapters and verses come from in our Bibles and why in some cases The Voice translation deviates from standard practice.  In today’s post I want to show you an example of how chapter divisions actually can cause us to miss key moments in the Bible.

It is not uncommon for people to read their Bibles chapter by chapter, as if the chapters are always the correct way to divide the text.  So today’s reading may be Ephesians 1-3 and tomorrow’s Ephesians 4-6.  Now if this is your reading, that’s not a bad division.  Clearly, if you read carefully through Paul’s letter you see that chs. 1-3 stand together as a unit and chs. 4-6 do the same.  But what if your reading in Matthew’s Gospel and you come to the end of ch. 16; you should not stop reading at the end of ch. 16 or you are going to miss something important.transfiguration

Here is how Matthew ch. 16 concludes (Jesus is speaking to his disciples):

28 I tell you this: some of you standing here, you will see the Son of Man come into His kingdom before you taste death.

Unfortunately, if you quit reading at the end of ch. 16 you may think the Son of Man coming into his kingdom has to do with his second coming.  It is as if Jesus is promising to come back in the lifetime of at least a few of his disciples.  Some people have read it that way.  A few have decided since Jesus didn’t return in the lifetime of those disciples then the promise of his return cannot be trusted.  But that is to misread the text.  Jesus isn’t talking here about his second coming.

If you read through the chapter division in ch. 17 you realize what Jesus is actually talking about.  Some of those standing there with Jesus that day were present at a very significant event that happened less than one week later.  Here is what Jesus was referring to:

17 Six days later, Jesus went up to the top of a high mountain with Peter, James, and John. There, something spectacular happened: Jesus’ face began to glow and gleam and shine like the morning sun. His clothes gleamed too—bright white, like sunlight mirroring off a snowfall. He was, in a word, transfigured. Suddenly there at the top of the mountain were Moses and Elijah, those icons of the faith, beloved of God. And they talked to Jesus.

The story continues with Peter overwhelmed by the experience and a heavenly voice addressing them in the same words Jesus heard at his baptism.  The transfiguration of Jesus fulfills his earlier promise that some of his disciples would have the privilege of seeing Jesus, the Son of Man, in kingdom glory before they taste death. They got a preview of things to come.

Now this is just one example.  Here’s another. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul is answering a question posed to him by the Corinthian Jesus-followers regarding the proper use of spiritual gifts.  We don’t know their exact question but we do have Paul’s answer.  Often people excerpt ch. 13 as “The Love Chapter” and read it at weddings, funerals or other events.  When they do, they take it out of context. Paul ends ch. 12 with these words (quoting from the NKJV):

29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the best[d] gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.

The “more excellent way” is the way of “love” as the apostle described. Love then is not a spiritual gift at all.  It is the atmosphere in which the gifts are to be practiced.  Love in this context is not romantic love or feelings-oriented love.  Love is action-oriented.  To love is to will the best for another person regardless of the cost.  It is not to like them or to have warm, fuzzy feelings toward them.  It is to act in their best interest, again regardless of the cost.  All the gifts must be practiced, according to Paul, in love or else preaching, prophecies, or other divine utterances are just noise.

Now, if you excerpt the “Love chapter” from 1 Corinthians and read it at your wedding, you’ve not a blasphemer or in mortal danger.  It is an amazingly beautiful, poetic ode to the nature and character of love.  But not romantic love.  It is the love that is to be on display in every church toward every believer.

My point is that we read the Scripture best when we ignore the chapters and verses.  Remember, they are not original.  They were added in the middle ages to Bible reading easier.  Ironically, in making it easier, they may have made it harder.

Chapters and Verses (pt. 2)

In our last post we noted that chapters and verses were not original to the biblical books.  There were structures in place like acrostics (in Psalms and Lamentations) and there were superscriptions (in Psalms) which clearly indicated breaks but most books of the Bible were written without them.  Chapters and verses were added in the late middle ages to make it easier for people to find a particular passage.  It is much easier to say, “turn to John 3:16″ than to say “find the passage where the Scripture talks about God’s love for the world leading to everlasting life for all who believe.” papyrus rolls

Many of the chapter and verse breaks are useful but some seem to get in the way, break the flow of thought, and can cause us to misread the text.  We will consider a couple of those in the next post.

First, let me tell what we did in the Voice project.  Since the chapter and verse divisions are not original, rather than let artificial divisions dictate the structure we removed the chapter and verse numbers in many books as we were translating the text.  We didn’t want artificial structures to influence our retelling.  Once the translation was done we went back and put them in to make public reading possible.  In some cases that decision meant that the verse numbers are not always consecutive.  For example, in Matthew 2 verse fifteen follows verse eighteen:

14 So Joseph got up in the middle of the night; he bundled up Mary and Jesus, and they left for Egypt.

16 After a few months had passed, Herod realized he’d been tricked. The wise men were not coming back. Herod, of course, was furious. He simply ordered that all boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years of age and younger be killed. He knew the baby King was this age because of what the wise men told him.

17 This sad event had long been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 A voice will be heard in Ramah,
weeping and wailing and mourning out loud all day and night.
The voice is Rachel’s, weeping for her children,
her children who have been killed;
she weeps, and she will not be comforted.[b]

15 Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died. This fulfilled yet another prophecy. The prophet Hosea once wrote, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

When verses are out of sequence, we put a footnote in to tell why.   It doesn’t happen often but it does happen a few times.

More often, it means that we combine certain verses because the content of those verses go together in a way that does not disrupt the narrative flow.  For example, Act 27:33 and 37 are combined into the same paragraph.

33, 37 We wait. Just before dawn, Paul again gathers everyone on the ship—all 276 of us. He urges everyone to eat and encourages us not to lose hope.

Well, I can hear someone ask: why didn’t we retain the original chapters and verses?  Because, they aren’t original.  They were added in the 13th to the 16th centuries—more than 1000 years after the Scriptures were written–by well meaning scholars and publishers.

Today most translation committees attempt to structure the biblical materials in paragraph form like other modern books.  Paragraphs are sense units that set out a distinct section of a writing usually around a single theme or subject.  We show paragraphs by indenting the first by 3 or 4 spaces.  Visually that sets the paragraph apart.  Some translations, like the New American Standard, format every verse into a paragraph.  But since that practice makes it hard for readers to understand the sense units and since chapters and verses are artificial divisions, most modern translations have abandoned that kind of approach.

In the end every translation is an interpretation.  Every chapter number, every verse number, every paragraph is an interpretive decision made by someone when the translation is being prepared.  Next time we’ll consider how chapters and verses can cause us to misread a text.

Chapters and verses (pt. 1)

Two prominent features in modern Bible translations are the chapters and verses.  People often ask me how they got there.  Some think they were there from the beginning but they weren’t.  When Paul wrote the book of Romans, he didn’t divide it into sixteen chapters.medieval bible

One of the things we hoped to do with The Voice project was to help people understand that the Bible is not actually a single book.  It is a veritable library of books, sixty-six in all, written over a period of more than 1000 years.  The current configuration of the Bible didn’t just happen.  The order of the books and the collection itself represents a driving theological force which Christians believe was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.  But what about the chapters and verses?

When the many authors, co-authors, and secretaries wrote their respective books, they didn’t include chapters and verses.  They composed their books from beginning to end without putting in breaks.  Now this doesn’t mean there were not structures in place which became breaks.  For example, the book of Psalms is composed of 150 hymns which had an introduction or superscription describing who the author was or to whom it was dedicated along with other directions for how it was to be chanted or sung.  Clearly, these were breaks but they weren’t the same as our chapters and verses.  Likewise, the book of Lamentations is written in an acrostic style which is discernible only in the original language (Hebrew).  The Voice translation tries to replicate that acrostic style in an English translation.  So clearly these superscriptions and acrostic forms provide structure, but structure is not the same as chapters and verses.

There were early attempts to provide a convenient structure to the books of the Bible but the one we use today goes back to the 13th century.  A fellow named Stephen Langton divided the Bible into chapters in 1227.  He was a professor at the University of Paris.  Later he would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The verses we use today were added centuries later by a French printer named Robert Estienne.  In 1551 he divided the Greek New Testament into verses.  Since the official Bible of the Catholic Church in those days was the Vulgate—a Latin translation—the first programmatic use of chapters and verses for the whole Bible was published in 1555.  The first English New Testament to make use of these chapters and verses was a translation by William Whittingham (1557).  The first English full Bible to use chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible (1560).  Since then Bible translators and publishers have adopted and standardized the use of chapters and verses.  Some editions of the Bible have been published without them, for example, Richard Moulton’s edition The Modern Reader’s Bible (1907).

Chapters and verses are handy because they make it possible for people to find the same book, chapter, and verse for public reading or study.  Otherwise, we’d have to say, “Go to the passage where Luke tells us the early Christians were devoting themselves to the teachings of Jesus’ apostles.”  Now which book would you go to, and which part of the book would you find that passage in?  The answer is Acts 2:42.  Much easier, right?

While chapters and verses are a handy way of indicating specific places in the Scriptures, they sometimes cause us to disregard the narrative flow of a text or in a worse case scenario misread it altogether.  We will consider these in the next couple of posts.

Locusts and Honey

I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll start there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.0417locusts

For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6).   Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all.   Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.

So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.

Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.

My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.

So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).

So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):

Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,

And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God

And there is no other;

And my people will never be put to shame.”

Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.

So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy.   John could have simply spoken the message, but by dramatically acting it out, his message stayed with them and had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.

Now as I said above.  This is only a proposal.  It is not a full-fledged argument.  I welcome your thoughts and comments.

The Church and Early Christianity

We are only about 5 weeks out from the start of our theology conference at HBU.  The theme is “The Church and Early Christianity.”  The conference is scheduled for April 16-18, 2015.  While it is too late to propose a paper for the conference, it is not too late to plan to attend.  Ben Witherington, John Barclay, and Everett Ferguson will offer plenary addresses.  We will have dozens of other papers from regional and national scholars.

Here is an announcement with all of the details you’ll need:

Theology Conference at HBU

Houston Baptist University is sponsoring a theology conference April 16-18, 2015.  The theme of the conference is “The Church and Early Christianity.”  Our keynote speakers include Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary), Dr. John Barclay (University of Durham), and Dr. Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University).  If you would like to attend, please follow the link here and plan to join us.

If this link fail, please copy and past the following into your web browser:

Papers and Abstracts
We are inviting papers representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students in this area of study.  We are particularly interested in the relationship of early Christian communities within their wider theological and cultural contexts. This includes theological developments related to ecclesiology as well as the social relationships with Second Temple Jewish practices and institutions (e.g., the Synagogue), the relationships within early Christian communities, and the relationship of early Christian communities with the wider Greco-Roman society. Participants will have 25-30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A).  Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell at by February 15, 2015, with notification of acceptance by March 2.  Registration by March 23 is required for those who will present at the conference.


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