The greatest story ever sold

The Bible comes in every size, color, and translation. But before you get to the check-out line, check out our guide on how to find the one that’s right for you.

If you haven’t perused the Bible section of your local bookstore recently, it might be time to visit. But prepare yourself. While the traditional black leather tome with “Holy Bible” stamped in gold on the cover is still available, these days you’ll also find the Good Book wrapped in metal, rubber, and duct tape. Pictures of Jesus or crosses adorn some, but just as many are decorated with funky bumblebees or ladybugs or frilly flowers. Chic color combinations let you coordinate your Bible with a favorite hot pink outfit or chartreuse purse.

But it’s still the same Bible, right? Same Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus? Same Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? If you can’t judge this book by its cover, how can you judge it?

“When a customer walks into a bookstore with the intent to buy a Bible, there’s tremendous confusion,” says Wayne Hastings, senior vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson’s Bible group, one of the industry heavyweights. “Our research shows that half the people leave without one because of that confusion.” And it’s not just confusion over the cover. Add in translations, sizes, typefaces, and other features, and there are literally thousands of combinations to choose from.

Still, annual Bible sales are somewhere in the $500 million range, Publishers Weekly reports. And while it might not be at the top of the bestseller charts alongside The Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002) or The Da Vinci Code (Bantam, 2004), the Bible stands above it all. “When you add up all of the formats and translations that have sold year after year after year, there’s not anything that would come close,” says Brian Scharp, vice president of marketing for Zondervan’s Bible division.

Scharp says the number of Bible translations has increased 42 percent since 1999, while the number of Bibles on bookstore shelves has increased 58 percent. And the look and feel of those Bibles has changed radically. “Six years ago Bibles came in basic black leather or burgundy or bonded leather,” he says. “They looked about the same as they did 100 years ago.” In 2001 Zondervan, the Grand Rapids, Michigan publisher that issues half the Bibles sold in the United States, introduced new “Italian duotone” bindings that feature dozens of colors and stitching patterns. They were an instant hit. “It put Bibles in kind of a fashion fold,” says Scharp.

All that makes the bookstore Bible section a lot more interesting, but also a lot more confounding. How can you tell which Bible is right for you? Publishers, Bible scholars, bookstore owners, and catechists want to help clear up the confusion and suggest three key criteria: purpose, translation, and features.

The purpose-driven Bible
It seems there’s a Bible for every demographic: men, women, students, graduates, soldiers, archaeology buffs, people in recovery, brides, couples, families, teenagers, police, surfers. But don’t be tempted to purchase a Bible based on the title alone. Experts say that instead of choosing one based on who you are, it’s far better to decide by what you want to do with it.

Rita Sebastian Lambert doesn’t know exactly how many Bibles she has, but as she ticks off at least a dozen different translations and editions, it’s clear she has a passion for scripture. “My favorite is The Catholic Study Bible,” says Lambert, who serves as spiritual director at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Chicago. The second edition was published just last year by Oxford University Press, and Lambert can’t praise it enough. “The reading guide is wonderful. It’s 530 pages in addition to the standard footnotes, and it covers the themes and history and context of each book.”

Five years ago Lambert and her husband, Tom, a deacon at Mount Carmel, started a unique ministry: buying Bibles to have in case someone asks for one. “Every once in a while someone would ask,” she says, and now she has about half a dozen different Bibles on her shelf, available to give out as needed.

At Chicago’s Mustard Seed Christian Bookstore, one of the most popular Bible offerings is the $8.95 St. Joseph edition paperback (Catholic Book Publishing). With maps and an index, it is a good choice for Bible study and RCIA groups.

But even Catholics not in formal groups are buying Bibles for personal study. While compact Protestant Bibles have long been available, the first compact Catholic Bible was released by Oxford just a few years ago and proved popular enough to be reprinted, says Donald Kraus, executive editor for Bibles at Oxford. Philip Bujnowski, Mustard Seed’s owner, says the slim 4?-by-6-inch edition is popular with Catholics who want to read the Bible during their commute or when they’re traveling. “There’s definitely a market for that, and publishers are noticing.”

Praying the Bible
Catholics don’t just read the Bible to learn more, of course. They’re praying with it, too. “We believe that scripture is the living Word of God, so we believe that God can and will speak to us through these biblical books,” says Irene Nowell, O.S.B., of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas and immediate past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.

The Bible is first and foremost a community book we listen to during Mass, she says, but “there is no better source for private prayer and no better way to prepare for our community prayer in the liturgy.” Choosing a Bible that helps you to pray is important.

Nowell recommends lectio divina, or sacred reading. “Read a small section of scripture and think about it, read it again and see what catches your attention, and read it a third time and consider what God might be saying to you through these words. Read it one more time and consider what you are called to do. Read it again and talk to God about it—in other words, pray.”

Reading the Bible straight through isn’t always the best plan. “Sometimes it’s better to begin with a shorter book such as Ruth or Jonah or one of Paul’s letters. Sometimes it’s good to read the gospel that is being proclaimed in the Sunday liturgy for the current year,” she says. Nowell doesn’t find titles like The One Year Bible (Tyndale) and The Bible in 90 Days (Zondervan) particularly helpful. “There’s no prize for finishing the whole Bible in a set amount of time,” she says. “The point is to listen to the Word of God.”

The perfect gift
Two thirds of Bible purchases are intended as gifts, according to research by Nashville-based Nelson. And while Bible sales are steady throughout the year, certain events and holidays, including Christmas, Easter, graduation, and Mother’s Day, produce a noticeable spike. For Catholics, springtime brings another boost: “First Communion is a huge Bible occasion,” says Zondervan’s Scharp.

Buying a “real” Bible for a 7-year-old first communicant—or even for a baby who’s just being baptized—might seem like too much. But Linda Kaiel, a catechist at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School in Portland, Oregon, says it’s worth considering.

“It’s important that we share rich language with young children just as we would share good literature with them as a bedtime story,” said Kaiel. “We would encourage an adult Bible as a gift to be shared with the child until they can read it on their own, and perhaps accompanied by some illustrated texts.”

For 6- to 12-year-olds, Kaiel recommends The Children’s Illustrated Bible (Dorling Kindersley, 2002) because it “appeals to the research mind” of that age group. But Kaiel is wary of some Bible storybooks. “Precious Moments-type Bibles are, to me, a marketing tool, more of interest to the adult than to the child,” she says.

Still, Bible storybooks are popular, and the right ones can be a good introduction to the real thing. Lambert says her 3-year-old grandson loves My First Bible (Pauline Books & Media, 2003), and she knows The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories (Zonderkids, 2005) has been a big hit with other young children.

Of course children aren’t the only ones receiving Bibles. Plenty of milestone events, from birthdays to new jobs, are commemorated with a Bible gift. The venerable leather-bound, family Bible with gold-edged pages and a ribbon placeholder is still in demand, not just as a wedding gift but also by people who have never had one and want a copy of their own, says Mustard Seed’s Bujnowski. These typically include family tree information and a register for births, deaths, First Communions, and marriages, as well reproductions of paintings by master artists.

Catholic or not?
Picking a translation can prove intimidating, says Kate Spencer, marketing coordinator of Viva Books, a San Antonio store that’s specialized in religious books for Catholics and Episcopalians for more than 30 years.

“Very seldom do people know which particular translation they want,” she says. She tries to steer them in the right direction by asking a few questions: Do you want to be able to follow word for word at Mass? How exact a translation do you want? Do you prefer more straightforward or more literary language?

Eight translations have received the imprimatur from the Catholic Church (see sidebar on page 14), and they can be loosely divided into two groups. “Word-for-word” translations—including the Revised Standard Version-Catholic (RSV), New Revised Standard Version-Catholic (NRSV), Douay-Rheims, and New American Bible (NAB)—aim for a close literal translation from the original text, while “thought-for-thought” translations—the Good News, Jerusalem, New Jerusalem, and Christian Community Bibles—highlight the intended meaning.

The Catholic Comparative New Testament (Oxford, 2005) offers a unique perspective on the scriptures by running all eight Catholic translations side-by-side so readers can spot differences. The publisher is considering a complete comparative Bible after revisions to the NAB translation of the Old Testament are released, Kraus says.

Of course, dozens of other translations not sanctioned by the Catholic Church are available and used by other churches. When most people think of Bible translations they think of the King James, which is still the second most popular, according to Scharp. The New International Version (NIV) is the best-selling translation in the United States, accounting for 40 percent of all Bible sales. Spencer points out that evangelical publishers typically are “much better” at marketing, and that many of the NIV covers are particularly “glossy and shiny and pretty. That can influence some customers.”

Does it matter if you opt for a non-Catholic translation? The biggest distinction is the exclusion of several books that are part of the Catholic canon: Judith, Wisdom, Tobit, Sirach, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The books of Daniel and Esther also have additional material in the Catholic Bible. Still, many non-Catholic Bibles (typically labeled “with the Apocrypha” on the cover) do include these books, albeit in a different order from the Catholic one.

Additionally, a Catholic translation like the NAB—even if it’s swathed in fuchsia leather or published by a Protestant or secular publisher—is required by the translation’s copyright holder (for the NAB, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) to include the complete text and translator’s explanatory notes. Although annotated (“notes added”) versions of Protestant translations like The Oxford Annotated Bible or The New Interpreter’s Study Bible are available, notes aren’t automatically included. Plus, “every publisher of an annotated Bible adds different notes,” says Nowell. “Even versions from the same publisher have different notes. So The Oxford Annotated Bible with the NRSV published one year may have different notes from The Oxford Annotated Bible with the NRSV published a few years later.”

Most standard translations, including the NAB (which is used during Mass) and NRSV (which is used by many different denominations), included both Catholic and Protestant translators on the team, so differences are usually subtle, Nowell says.

“There’s no such thing as a word-for-word direct transfer from Hebrew or Greek to English,” says Nowell. “Every translator makes choices about word selection and grammar. Fortunately most translations are made by groups, so the individual preferences of one translator are balanced by another.”

Interestingly, loyalty to a particular translation is eroding among Bible-buyers of all denominations in the United States, says Scharp. For Catholics, that means a certain percentage “are now picking up the NIV and NLT [New Living Translation] and KJV [King James Version],” translations that are more familiar to evangelical Protestants.

It can be worthwhile to explore, but it’s also crucial to understand the perspective of a particular translation. “Translators from different denominations will be sensitive to different emphases,” says Nowell. “Catholic translators will be aware of how a text is used for various sacraments, for example.” Translations made for different religious communities—fundamentalist or evangelical Christian, for instance—are less likely to be helpful to Catholic readers.

The bells and whistles
San Antonio’s Viva Books stocks about 100 different Bibles, while about 60 different Catholic Bibles are on the shelves at Mustard Seed. Bujnowski says a good Bible can be had in nearly every price range, from under $10 to more than $75. The differences are often in additional features. Nelson’s research found “readability”—all the elements that go into making a book more accessible and easier to read—is a high priority for Bible-buyers, and often these extra features contribute to that.

One readability element is type size, which ranges from teensy in some of the compact formats to “large type” and the even larger “large-print.” Another element is the book’s size. Just because a Bible is smaller doesn’t mean it costs less, but it may mean you’ll carry it with you and read it more often.

Maps, timelines, and glossaries help readers place the scripture in context. Extra material like commentaries or devotions may help some readers delve into the text more deeply but may distract others. The goal is to pay attention to all the “added attractions” and determine what makes you want to read a particular Bible.

Chances are the cover will play into that choice, too. So after you’ve decided on all the other criteria, you can finally judge a book by the cover. And that just might be the easiest judgment of all.

Heather Grennan Gary is a former associate editor at U.S. Catholic. She now writes from Indiana. This article appeared in the September 2007 (Volume 72, Number 9; pages 12-16) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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