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In college, I took an exegesis class in the Pauline Epistles. The class required students to translate the apostle's letters on sight from their Greek New Testaments. Our professor's eyes were failing, and the temptation to crib from an English Bible was just too much for some of my friends.

One day, as a student faked a translation on the fly, the professor looked up and said, "Mr. H---, is that an RSV on your desk?"

Sure enough, H--- had been reading aloud from a black, leather-bound Revised Standard Version. Nervously, he said, "Y-y-yes, sir."

"Why," quipped our professor with a big grin, "it almost looks like a Bible."

Back then, the default meaning of Bible for Christians in my group was the King James Version. The default physical form was a black leather binding.

The physical form of the Bible matters because it influences the way Christians use their sacred book. In the countercultural 1960s, for example, publishers shucked the black leather uniform in favor of more contemporary dress. The aim was to reach those who might not otherwise pick up the Scriptures. The American Bible Society's Good News for Modern Man resembled a mass market paperback, and Tyndale House's Reach Out: The Living New Testament looked just plain "groovy."

Three centuries before Luther's New Testament first came off the press in 1522, workshops in Paris produced one-volume Bibles called pandects. Unlike the large multivolume Bibles that sat in churches, monasteries, and rich men's libraries, these could be conveniently carried by Sor-bonne students and mendicant preachers. Thus began the revolutionary shift from communal reading of Scripture to its private, ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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January 2012

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