Selecting a Quality Bible
by Wayne Goforth
Many articles have been written over the years concerning various translations of the Bible available. Which ones are good and reliable, which should be avoided like the plague, the specific errors or positive qualities, etc. of each. This series, however, views the physical construction of Bibles and the pros and cons of them. This is the result of research, interviews with the publishers themselves, having a book binder to examine samples, and examining or even dissecting scores of various editions that were generously supplied to better understand the process of the manufacturing of Bibles in order to help others find the Bibles that meet their individual needs. Delving into this was limited to only certain translations, to insure a true comparing of apples-to-apples: KJV, NKJV, NASB and ESV.
There is a separate vocabulary when it comes to discussing the physical construction and features of Bibles. These terms are frequently used of the descriptions on the package, catalogs and on the website concerning Bibles. This will help to decipher what is meant as well as familiarizing one with what is available.
Common with the Bibles printed in the United Kingdom is the British spelling of some words differently than in our American-ized English, such as “baptise” rather than “baptize”.
As opposed to the standard gold gilt (sprayed on gold paint) we are used to seeing. In this, the edges of the paper are first dyed red; gold foil is then melted onto that. Thus the gold looks more orange gold and stays put longer. This is sometimes referred to simply as “red under gold.” Generally found on premium grade Bibles only. Due to the fact the gold foil is melted on, the pages often wil be slightly stuck together. Simply carefully pull the pages apart. This is not a defect. Carefully fan the entire bible with your thumb to break the pages loose. Some Bibles not art-gilted, as such, still have gold foil gilt.
The Bible has only the text without any references or notes helps, etc.
Shows where this subject may be found elsewhere in the Bible. References may be in the center, at the edge of a page, at the bottom or even under the verse.
Wider blank margins for placing your own notes. Usually the paper is thicker so it doesn’t bleed through as much when writing.
Containing various study notes, comments and helps. (My personal thought is that most study Bibles have a particular denominational slant in their notes. The “helps” are generally too brief to be of substantial help, and only help to make the Bible thicker and heavier. I would rather have separate helps that could be in depth enough to be beneficial).
Covers, Shells, or Bindings:
Waste scraps of leather that is ground and mixed with latex and made into sheets that resemble the texture and feel of leather.
Pig skin leather. This is what is most used when a Bible generically says “genuine leather”.
Least expensive of the premium leathers. Attractive, durable and will soften more with use.
Split cowhide made to look like goat. Not to be confused with true Morocco which is goatskin. Soft and supple out of the box, though thinner than other premium leathers.
Most supple and durable of the bindings, also the most expensive.
For the most part, the larger the Bible, the softer the leather will seem as the weight of the paper will be supported less and thus seem more “floppy”. Conversely, the leather of a smaller Bible will feel less supple.
up to 27 lb bond.
under 20 lb bond
Obviously, the thicker the paper, the thicker and heavier the Bible, but also less “bleed through” (ghosting) and better for note taking.
Text is arranged into paragraphs rather than each verse beginning a new line. May take some getting used to, but is becoming popular and seemingly liked.
Red Letter or Black Text:
Whether or not the words of Christ appear in red. In high end Bibles you tend to see the red letter editions less, as the fear that some would only consider the red words as important. Too, there are some verses where it is interpreting on the part of the red letters to say that it is Jesus or the Gospel writer who is speaking.
Bibles where the text uses the diacritical markings to aid in the pronunciation of words. More commonly found in the KJV.
Smyth (pronounced as “Smithe” with a long “I” sound) is the name of a particular brand of sewing machines for books. Smyth sewing will have the Bible printed in sections, called signatures, which resemble booklets that are then all sewn together. The most durable Bible will be sewn, not glued nor the hybrid “glued and sewn”.
The amount of leather on the cover that extends beyond the edge of the pages. This is to protect the paper from being dirtied by your hands when carried or the pages scuffed or creased against some object. Some offer "Full Yap" where the leather is long enough, that when you put your hand around it, the leather folds totally over the pages. This provides for its own Bible case this way. Generally this is only an option on higher-end Bibles.
Care and Preservation of Your Bible:
- Use mink or neatsfoot oil on real leather covers when you first get your Bible, then about once a year thereafter. Apply the oil and rub in with cloth and allow it to soak in overnight. It will feel sticky at first, but will be absorbed.
- To “break-in” a new Bible, lay it on a flat surface. Open to about the first hundred pages or so of the Bible and press firmly but slowly, running fingers up and down the gutters. This allows the stitching to stretch. Do the same with the last hundred pages of the Bible as well. Then the next hundred pages towards the front, the next in the back, etc. until you have gone through the entire Bible. This will add years to any book and is commonly done in libraries.
- Do not leave your Bible exposed to heat (i.e., left in your vehicle as is commonly done -- on dashboards no less!).
- To prevent your ribbon markers from fraying, with a match or lighter, burn the end of the ribbon then quickly pinch the ribbon with your fingers (if it is acetate). Some use Fray-Check on the end of the ribbon on silk markers.
If you had asked about vinyl Bible covers/bindings even last year, most Bible enthusiasts would have scoffed. However new manufacturing processes have allowed for a high quality variety of vinyl that feels very much like calfskin. Durability would probably be on par with bonded leather, but even less expensive. These can come in a variety of colors, even multicolor, duo-tone, etc. Amount of heat applied to this material will give it different shades and colors so that it is possible to have multi colors out of one uncut piece. Each company has its’ own name for the material, whether it be Kirkbrides’s “Kirvella” or Crossways’ TruTone. With this, you can get the high end Bible content but at a much lower price. Just make sure that it still specifies Smyth sewn. Since the man-made material cannot absorb oils, these will not last as long as genuine leather but are still quite durable and attractive and have a wonderful tactile feel to it.
Purchasing Bibles will naturally inhere certain tradeoffs. It will come down to what features you desire or need the most, in the price range you are willing to spend. For example, perhaps you want a thinline Bible, but you need large print. Chances are that’s not going to happen. Maybe the font size is fine, but you don’t like the thin paper that shows the lettering on the next page. Well, you’re not going to get a thinline that has thicker paper. Or, you want a wide margin but you need a personal sized Bible. Again, not likely. You want a lifetime Bible, but on a budget. Perhaps instead of the $200 premium Bibles you have to stick with a $50 Nelson that will wear out in five years but has a lifetime warranty. Decide what you need the most out of a Bible (be it size, price range, particular translation) and what features you are willing to do without.
Search the internet for prices that are better than the retail, since there is around a 40% markup on Bibles. The easiest way to do this is to find the actual ISBN number from the publishers’ website of the Bible you are interested in and google that particular ISBN number. You can frequently find “seconds” and clearanced at reduced prices as well along with various sales and discounts.
Having Your Bible Rebound
Many want to have their favorite Bibles rebound. Others may take new Bibles and have a special leather binding placed on it that was not available from the manufacturer. Make sure the Bible you want to have rebound is sewn rather than glued. If it is glued, the rebinder will have to stitch it first and you will lose Ľ inch of inside margin. In many Bibles, they would prevent you from being able to read the last of each sentence. In the very least, make sure your margin has ample room to allow for this if your glued Bible has to be rebound. You do not have to wait for a Bible to wear out to have it rebound. Perhaps there is a particular text type that you like but only available in bonded leather. You can have it rebound with any leather you like, including kangaroo!
Mass Market Bibles
Certainly not everyone needs (or wants) a Bible that will last a lifetime. Many enjoy getting new ones regularly. And if that keeps them excited about God’s Word then that is wonderful. There are always new covers and styles coming out. Some are engraved with your favorite sports team logos, or the insignia of a branch of the military. These can make thoughtful gifts and awards. Generally these are not as expensive and thus not as well made (what point if geared to those wanting a new one frequently?). The binding is usually glued with little to no stitching. But, not every tool is a screwdriver, and all bibles will not be used the same way. There are waterproof bibles for your tackle box; pink ones with butterflies for your 8 year old daughter’s birthday and a camo one for your son’s first deer. Thomas Nelson, and Zondervan, and others manufacture a wide assortment of this variety and are popular among many. I have to say that I was impressed with many of the new vinyl covers that have the look and feel of leather at a much lower cost. These can be embossed with various designs, logos, and colors not possible with actual leather. But, neither will vinyl last as long as leather. Bibles of this sort are readily available at most shops from Walmart to Waldens. The publishers also have online catalogs from which to select as well, simply google their names.
Thomas-Nelson has some of the most opaque paper available among Bibles (little to no bleedthrough or “ghosting” of the text). Their print tends to be clear and large enough to easily read. If they only took more care in the construction and binding they could have a very good Bible on their hands, but their interest seems to be more on quantity. For a short time, Thomas-Nelson produced the “Signature Series” of Bibles that offered Smyth sewing and calfskin bindings. These were snatched up very quickly and should have shown that there was a market for such. The Bible Publicist for Thomas-Nelson stated that they no longer have any high-end Bibles.
Most Bible publishers that print mass market Bibles also have a more select edition that would be considered right on the edge of being a premium Bible. Good format, attractive leather and usually a lifetime guarantee. Leather not typically as high a quality or as supple, binding not quite as sturdy, and most often paper backing on the leather. The leathers on some may even be very thin and glued onto cardboard. This, of course, will vary from company and model. These things are not all bad, but may decrease both the lifespan and feel of the Bible. Then too, price of the semi-premium Bibles often overlap with that of the lower end premium Bibles.
One exception to this is the Crossway Single Column Reference Bible (available only in the ESV). Generally Crossway bindings have been criticized as being glued and needing to be replaced regularly. Their premium leather (not their “genuine leather”) Bibles, however, are actually Smyth-Sewn. The print is a crisp and legible 10-point font, nice layout, and two ribbon markers. As the name suggests, a single column with the references being to the side. Good grade of soft, attractive, black matte calf skin. The leather is thick and very supple, feeling like a fine pair of elk skin boots I once owned (until the skunk incident, but I digress). The folded over leather edges on the back of the cover does begin peeling loose easily on my sample copy, but can easily be re-glued at home. It is lacking a few features that are common for other Bibles of the same price bracket, (things found on Cambridge, R.L. Allan, and Trinitarian Bible Society Bibles) such as a lack of art-gilt edging (but then, not everyone likes the red under gold), absence of stitching around the edge of the cover to prevent delaminating (which this does seem to need). These may not matter that much considering the other positive qualities of the Bible, but where there are so many positive things among this category of Bibles, little differences are to be noted. Too, the paper is rather thin for a wide margin that advertises 1 Ľ inch margins for note taking. This is not to say this is not a well-made or attractive Bible. It is. And it is guaranteed for life. It is by far and above higher quality than the others manufactured by Crossway I have examined. With some tweaking, they could have a true premium quality Bible here. For comparison purposes, for about the same price (retail of $195), one could get the R.L. Allan ESV1 Bible. R.L. Allan is using the bookblocks from Crossway, with printing done by HarperCollins on French India paper, and the binding done at the Queen’s bindery in London. But, Crossway does give free Bible software with purchase (either sign up online for the CD or download it from their site. You must download, however, for VISTA), and the Crossway Bible is much larger than the others in the comparison (6.5 x 9.25 x 1.75 inches for the Crossway versus 5.5 inch x 8.25 inch x 1.25 in the R.L. Allan). Paper weight on the Crossway would be about a 20 pound bond, and on the R.L. Allan between a 24-27 pound. The inside text of the R.L. Allan is identical to Crossway’s Classic Reference Bible. The Crossway Bible you can at least see in a store first before purchasing rather than having to order, though you can return R.L. Allan orders if not to your liking. This would really come down to a matter of personal preference, as one would be well served by either.
Kirkbride, the manufacturers of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, is virtually in a league by itself. A small Indiana company of eleven employees who turn out some 100-120,000 Bibles per year. Their Bibles are Smyth sewn, good 20 pound smooth paper, gold foil gilt edged with legible 8 point font. The genuine leather, vinyl backed cover is rather thin and stiff, however, well made. The inside of the covers have a gilt line (embossed gold line framing the inside of the cover) which is almost a non-existent feature now (attractive, but purely for aesthetics). The fold over edges on the inside of the cover show no desire to come loose (delaminate) due to a special machine that only Kirkbride uses for Bibles called a Freeman case maker. Even with this, you’re paying less than half of what you would on the premium Bibles with a current retail on genuine leather of $89.99 (though hardcover, imitation leather and bonded are also available and less expensive. It is to be noted that the hardcover is glued, however, rather than sewn). Layout is interesting. There are two columns side-by-side with references on the left and right margin. It does have a nice wide long black ribbon marker, although two would be nice and three would be fantastic. Kirkbride prides itself on constantly tweaking their Bibles to try to find best combinations of leathers, papers and linings. For a period of time the text was printed in Korea with some complaints about the quality of printing. These are now only printed in America and are still assembled by hand. These are not lifetime warranted, but does have a manufacturer guarantee against defects. The only thing I found that I did not care for is that the red lettering is a pink and harder to read in my opinion. I generally do not recommend study Bibles, but this one points you to a chain of other passages on the subject rather than man’s comments. This allows the Bible to be its own commentator.
The advantage of the semi-premium Bibles is that these are more readily available at bookstores and in a wider variety of styles, translations and colors. Again, these are generally guaranteed for life, so if one is not concerned with having to find a new Bible in 5-10 years, then these may well fit the bill. While there are some bad translations to be sure, there do not appear to be bad Bibles as such, simply different options available depending on needs and use. So there really is some truth to the old joke that country preachers carry around big family Bibles to have something to protect them with when the dogs come running after them from under the porches while visiting members!
There are many people who delight in getting a new Bible every year or two. A new style, color, format, etc can be a nice change. Others, though, like being able to use the same Bible for many years, or even a lifetime. It becomes personal, an old friend. After all, one gets use to which side of the page a particular passage is located on, or how far over to open it to get to the book you’re about to cite. Only a very few companies are trying to fill that niche. Like many preachers, I go through a new one about every five years. Not by choice, mind you, but because of falling apart from low quality and heavy use. If there is such a thing as “preacher Bibles” these would be the ones.
So for those of us who like the traditional, simple but well-made Bible, what is there available and where do we go? These are not to be found on the shelves of Walmart or even that of most religious bookstores. For the most part, we return to the land that gave us the Bible in English to begin with, to England. Here we can find beautiful, dignified, understated simplicity. Not even all of these are red lettered or have paragraph headings, lest it introduce commentary in so doing. These are Bible purists with a proud heritage. The companies in this category here reviewed are Trinitarian Bible Society, Cambridge and RL Allan. All three manufactured in the UK.
One of the great things about sewn Bibles is the fact that right out of the box, they stay open, and lay completely flat (calfskin may need some breaking in to do this). When you open a sewn Bible, you can see all the way into the “gutter” sometimes seeing even the stitching.
Cambridge has been printing Bibles since 1591, beginning with the Geneva Bible, predating the King James. In the USA, these are distributed through Baker Books. Cambridge still does some of their own printing, others are sent out to Jongbloed in the Netherlands. Cambridge also produces less expensive Bibles, and these too are sewn, even including their paperbacks. Their high-end Bibles are hand-stitched. Cambridge has two editions, in a variety of covers, of the NKJV, ESV and the NASB available: the Pitt Minion is a compact personal size and the Wide Margin. Same text, but larger Bible. In fact, even the page numbers correspond. The Pitt Minion is a beautiful and handy sized Bible measuring 7.5 x 7.25 x 1, what a pity the text is somewhat small (6.5 sized font) and not as crisp a print as might be desired, but still a fantastic Bible (even at the retail of $129.99 for goatskin and $79.99 for imitation leather). The name Pitt is derived from the fact that Pitt is the name of the printing building at Cambridge. If you’re looking for a thinline Bible, then this may well be the ideal choice of what you’re looking for. If readability is your main concern, this may not be your first choice. The letters and words are also placed closer together to save space, but at the expense of words running together if you have the least amount of astigmatism. It’s an effort to make it more compact, so that’s the tradeoff. The paper is so smooth and light that it feels like silk. The Cambridge Bible Production Manager attributes this to the fact that they use best quality PDL/Bollore or Tervakovski paper. So particular are they that they even print in the correct grain direction of the paper. Printing presses for high end products are cold-set Timsons - no heat drying process which cockles paper. The Wide Margin has a slightly larger font, about an 8, and of course, wider margin for notes. Because of that, it is printed on thicker paper so as not to bleed through when writing. This Bible measures 7.5 x 9.5 x 1.75. The goatskin retails for $229.99, though less expensive covers are also available including hardcover. Do remember that virtually no one sells these at the full retail price though. The average price I am seeing for these are in the $190 range. The NKJV and the NASB in the Pitt and Wide Margin are in paragraph format rather than verse (where a new verse begins a new line) which can make it tricky at first to locate passage if one is not used to it, but should be able to adapt in time. Their KJV’s have many more options available besides just the Pitt and Wide Margin (though it is available in these too). In fact, I keep threatening to go back to the KJV just so I can have the binding and layout design that I want.
These same text types, Pitt Minion and the corresponding wide margin, are also available from both R.L. Allan and Trinitarian Bible Society (KJV only) as well (therefore much of the information given here about the Cambridge Bibles will apply to these as well), but originated with Cambridge. Cambridge would be the “standard setter” in this category of Bibles and would be that with which to compare all others. Both Cambridge and Trinitarian publish the Concord Edition KJV (and is ONLY available in KJV). This is a beautiful Bible of elegant simplicity. It comes in the Pocket, Personal, Wide Margin and Classic Reference Editions (the later is my sample edition in goatskin and retails for $199.99. Though a bit pricey for many, they have an excellent Personal Edition of it in the leather looking and feeling vinyl that retails for an affordable $49.99). No paragraph headings, but does have detailed concordance, dictionary, maps and center column references. The Personal Edition is about the same size as the Pitt Minion. The Classic Reference is about an inch in each direction larger. The Classic Reference is probably the finest King James Bible currently published. One could only wish that other translations were available in this style.
R.L. Allan is a family owned business that has been in existence since 1863. Located in Scotland, their specialty is fine leather outer shells. Some are “natural leathers” which means that the leather has not been molded and still bears the unique characteristics of that animal… including bite or sting marks, and where they were cut on barbed wire! As their website states, R.L Allan actually bills your credit card in pounds, but your card will reflect it in dollars (if in the USA). Their text is often the text of other manufacturers such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harper-Collins, etc. They then select their own binder and premium leather covers. The best of all possible worlds. According to Nicholas Gray, director of R.L. Allan, the Bible publishing community is a close knit family who aid and share with one another. Because of that, there are many similarities between publishers. Mr. Gray compared to work of a publisher to be like unto that of a conductor of an orchestra, pulling the best crafts of other specialists together. Perhaps the same text (bookblocks) and format with only the cover being different between some manufacturers. R.L. Allan is recognized as the best made Bibles to be found. I am examining a copy of the ESV1 in goatskin, retailing for $210. I have never seen a Bible with such a beautiful cover, milled paper that has little to no bleedthrough, and such a quality appearance. Opening the box smells like you are in a western boot store. The leather is just the right combination of softness and support. I cannot vouch for any edition other than this one, but if this is any indication of their others, one couldn’t go wrong. If Cambridge is the Cadillac of Bibles, R.L. Allan must be the Rolls Royce. Unfortunately this is not available in a NKJV and does not appear to be plans in the near future due to copyrights. One small difference between Allan vs. Cambridge is that Allan has two marker ribbons (three on some editions) in complimentary colors, vs. one red one in the Cambridge. Small difference I know, but with so many similarities, each difference should be noted. These Bibles are virtually works of art, and what Bibles should be.
Trinitarian Bible Society is a London based society since 1831 devoted to the circulation and advancement of the KJV as the best translation, as well as study into the various questions of translations. The society states that they are not “KJV only” but that the KJV is simply the best English translation. They distribute everything from mass market to Cambridge Bibles made just for them with their name and logo embossed on the spine. They have both the Concord and Pitt Minion edition for which Cambridge is famous, but in calfskin, along with many other editions and styles. Cambridge does not market calfskin Bibles under their own name, so with these, you can have a well-made, sewn Bible with Cambridge text at a much lower cost. The TBS Pitt Minion retails for $56.40 and the Concord for $99 and the personal sized reference for $45 compared to $79.99 for Cambridge (both being in the French Morocco). The binder I asked to examine the TBS Pitt Minion Bible remarked saying, “not quite as prettied up as the others, but better made.” The calfskin is very durable and attractive, though not quite as supple as the goatskin or French Moroccan. In time it will break in, but until then, the Bible does not stay open on its own as readily due to the stiffness of the leather, but will in time. After handling it sporadically over a couple of week’s period for this review, the Bible now stays open flat no trouble! On the full-sized Concord, the Cambridge does include a detailed dictionary that the TBS does not. This makes the TBS about 1/4th of an inch thinner which is a welcomed tradeoff. The TBS retailing for $99 and Cambridge in the French Morocco for $139.99. Both have a good concordance, and two ribbon markers. Both the personal and full-sized reference edition have an attractive flat matte black binding that also begins a little stiff. If Cambridge is the Cadillac then this is the Chevy of the premium Bibles… same chassis just different body. Another positive note on TBS is that they will not outsource the printing to China due in part to the persecutions of believers. It is rather ironic that many Bibles today are printed in China, yet their citizens can be imprisoned for owning one copy of what they produce. If one wants a KJV, this may be the best choice for the money. Lower price, quality Bible, attractive appearance, a company with integrity. What’s not to love?
Whichever Bible you may choose, read it, love it and live it. Bibles are not lucky rabbits feet to keep around for luck, or a press for birth and death notices and 4-leaf clovers. It is God’s Word to you and me. While we are searching for individual copies of God’s Word that will last a lifetime, remember that though paper and leather are consumed by time, God’s Word will stand forever.
"For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you." (I Peter 1:24-25)
The Bible -- Yet It Lives
by Willard L. Johnson
Generations follow generations -- yet it lives.
Nations rise and fall -- yet it lives.
Kings, dictators, presidents come and go -- yet it lives.
Torn, condemned, burned -- yet it lives.
Hated, despised, cursed -- yet it lives.
Doubted, suspected, criticized -- yet it lives.
Damned by atheists -- yet it lives.
Scoffed at by scorners -- yet it lives.
Misconstrued and misstated -- yet it lives.
Ranted and raved about -- yet it lives.
Its inspiration denied -- yet it lives.
Yet it lives -- as a lamp to our feet.
Yet it lives -- as a light to our path.
Yet it lives -- as a guidebook for Heaven.
Yet it lives -- as a standard for childhood.
Yet it lives -- as a guide for youth.
Yet it lives -- as a comfort for the aged.
Yet it lives -- as food for the hungry.
Yet it lives -- as water for the thirsty.
Yet it lives -- as rest for the weary.
Yet it lives -- as light for the heathen.
Yet it lives -- as salvation for the sinner.
Yet it lives -- as grace for the Christian.
To know it is to love it.
To love it is to accept it.
To accept its Christ means Life Eternal.