05/09/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Judging THE Book By Its Cover

Gerard Genette's "Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation" (1997) calls attention to an aspect of reading not often considered, namely those elements of books separate from the text proper that contribute to, and even shape a reader's experience of the work. He coins various terms to help identify extra-textual items found on the "threshold" of books. For instance, by peritext he indicates such things as book titles, dedications, chapter titles and prefaces, whereas epitext includes such things as author interviews, marketing descriptions and reviews. The titular term paratext encompasses all of these extra-textual matters, which in various ways infdluence readers.

If it is true that we judge books by their cover, that in some ways paratexts shape our reading, does this also apply to the Bible? Copyists and interpreters have always supplemented the canonical writings in one form or another, from explanatory margin notes by translators, to the Masoretes adding vowel pointing and Qere and Ketiv (notes) to aid Hebrew pronunciation, to the brilliant illuminations of medieval manuscripts, to the addition of chapter and verse numbers centuries after the original compositions. Modern publishers add all kinds of paratextual features as well. Flip through any translation or edition and there is a title page, publisher information, a table of contents, and page numbering. Modern Bibles usually have running page headings with book, chapter and verse references. We are also accustomed to subtitles, to the point that those reading the Bible in public often include them in their performance. And so it is we might hear in a reading of 1 Kings 11 in The New Revised Standard Version the subheadings "Solomon's Error," "Adversaries of Solomon," "Jeroboam's Rebellion" and "Death of Solomon" alongside the text, as though it were part of the Scripture passage itself. Modern Bibles often include margin notes identifying discrepencies in the manuscript traditions and alternative translations for disputed or uncertain Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms and phrases. All of these are late additions.

Though for the most part innocuous, we do well to remember that paratextual elements, perhaps especially study aids, guide our reading, and the quality of such contributions are only as good as the editors and translators involved in preparing our edition of choice. The presence of concordances in many modern Bibles, for instance, is frought with possible exegetical confusion, raising a number of questions. Is the English word in question used to translate only one term in Hebrew or several? Or, is a Greek term consistently translated with the same English equivalent? Is appreciation for the semantic range of ancient and modern terms lost in this kind of word study? What about authorial creativity and complexity, which might involve a writer using the same term in different ways? Are the nuances of the ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) flattened when a single English term applies to all, given that concordances gather English equivalents from both Testaments? We also need to remember that languages and the use of individual words develop and change over time, and that the biblical writings span centuries. And most importantly, since concordances in Bibles are necessarily selective, who decides what terms and verses are included, and which ones excluded? Editorial decisions inevitably involve assumptions and reflect certain presuppositions and values.

The paratextual content in modern Bibles goes far beyond these basic features, of course, and there appears to be no limit to the marketing creativity of publishers who continuously repackage the Scriptures. Many editions target particular audiences (children, youth, men, women, couples, seniors, etc.), provide interpretation aids through footnotes (consider the endless array of study Bibles), and supplement the text with dictionaries, maps, charts and the like. Others include artistic representations of biblical scenes, from the very simple (e.g., Today's English Version/Good News Translation) to the elegant and profound (e.g., the strikingly beautiful, handmade St. John's Bible).

Some Bibles are explicit about their interpretive and ideological tendencies, presenting the Christian Bible through a particular hermeneutical lens. One odd example is the Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible (2000), which in some respects is a theological descendent of the influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. This particular Bible is dedicated (do any other Bibles include dedications?) to "the millions of readers of the LEFT BEHIND series of end-time novels." The cover alone is intriguing. In the edition I have in front of me, the words "Co-author of the best-selling 'Left Behind' series" appear at the very top, with "Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible" in the largest font in the middle, taking up about half the page, and "King James Version" significantly smaller and at the bottom. (A cynical onlooker might suggest this edition is more about Tim LaHaye than about the Authorized Version). The editors explain the history and purpose of this edition in the Preface: "For nearly ten years, the members of the Pre-Trib[ulation] Research Center have discussed the need for a comprehensive prophecy study Bible that was faithful to the pretribulational view of Bible prophecy and easy to understand."

There is a list of contributors who represent a wide swath of evangelical ministries and educational institutions (e.g., Southern Evangelical Seminary, Master's Seminary, Institute for Creation Research, Liberty University, Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Jack Van Impe Ministries). Not represented, needless to say, are scholars from public, mainstream religious studies departments. This edition of the Bible includes more than 80 short articles, most focused on end time themes (e.g., "The Future Roman Empire"; "The Glorious Appearing of Christ"; "The Rapture Compared to the Return of Christ"; "The Battle of Armageddon") along with study notes scattered throughout.

Paul S. Karleen, author of the Foreword to The New Scofield Study Bible (1989), asks and then answers a provocative question: "Can a study Bible take a particular stand and not be accused of bias? Yes, if it seeks to allow the Bible to demonstrate its own teachings." This is a debatable claim. Another possibility is that our presuppositions, interpretive preferences and reading communities help us see what we want to see, meaning we impose a reading on the text. It is also possible that paratextual elements added to the Bible by tendentious editors and publishers reinforce those preferences.

Obviously, our religious affiliation (or lack of it) also contributes to our experience of the ancient Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and often our choice of translation and edition reflects and reinforces our faith perspectives, even in subtle ways. The Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic), The New World Translation (Jehovah's Witnesses), the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh, The New International Version (evangelical), to name but a few, represent very diverse reading experiences. Some translations and editions also reflect certain religious and social values, such as the use gender-inclusive language in The New Revised Standard Version or Today's New International Version, or the promotion of a biblically and theologically informed environmental concern in The Green Bible.

Even something as simple as font color has implications for the experience and interpretation of the Scriptures. If Jesus' words are red, as is the case in many editions, does it mean other passages are less significant? And with respect to the use of red letter editions, does it matter that Jesus spoke Aramaic, meaning the Greek Gospels are mostly translations of his teachings, not the actual words? Would it better to use red font only for those occasional Aramaisms that occur, as in the phrase "Talitha cum" (Mark 5:41)? There are other ambiguities in red letter editions too. For instance, I'm inclined to think the red-fonted phrase "let the reader understand" in Mark 13:14, as it appears in The NIV Study Bible, is Mark's and not something Jesus said. It seems like an odd thing for a preacher to say.

There are other interesting examples of font choice. According to the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries website, the organization's study Bible features "Rev. Swaggart's commentary notes ... in red." These are not footnotes. The commentary appears along side the (black font) verses of the Bible. Why red, given the editorial tradition of putting Jesus' words in red? This might appear rather self-aggrandizing to some. The Green Bible uses green font to highlight the varied ways "the books of the Bible speak directly to how we should think and act as we confront the environmental crisis facing our planet."

Much more could be said on this topic. The intent here is not to be irreverent or flippant about Bible reading, but to recommend thoughtful consideration of one's choices. There is likely value in reading and comparing many translations and editions, exploring the strengths and nuances offered by each. And yes, Bible covers matter. I can't resist closing with an incident reported by Mark Allan Powell in his Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. Apparently the Christian Broadcasting Network "unwittingly used an image of Bob Dylan in a design for a Bible cover. The picture was a publicity photo from Dylan's 1976 Hard Rain TV special. The CBN marketers did not recognize the photograph as a picture of Dylan; they used it because they thought the person 'looked like Jesus.'" As one who judges books by their cover, I'd buy that one in a heartbeat.