Books in Brief
The Washburn College Bible
King James Text, Modern Phrased Version
(Oxford University Press, 1980) 1808 pp. $65.00
This is the ultimate in family Bibles. Published by Oxford University Press in conjunction with Washburn College, protected by a sturdy slipcase decorated with a full color detail from Michelangelo’s Creation, illustrated with 66 full color photographs of religious masterpieces chosen by National Gallery of Art Director J. Carter Brown, bound in red cloth with gold stamping and gilded top edge, and hallowed by the solemnal cadences of the King James Version, this ten-pound, oversize Bible provides a suitable repository for time-honored records of family events. Four pages are provided for family inscriptions of personal history.
The original limited edition of the Washburn College Bible was printed in only 398 sets and sells for $3,500. As the preface to this more modest edition tells us, this “was too costly for the widow’s mite.” So this edition was created to sell for $65, less than 2% of the more expensive edition. But that’s still $65.
After reading the staff-prepared review printed above, BAR’s art director, Robert Sugar wrote the following counter-review. He then re-designed the issue to make room for his own persuasively argued opinions, proving once again that he is a man of many talents.
There are many editions of the Bible in English, so what could be the motivation for the creation of the Washburn College Bible, another example of the King James Version, costing $65 and featuring full-color reproductions of art masterpieces selected by J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC?
The answer has nothing to do with the way the Bible is written, and everything to do with the way the Bible is read. Usually, a new edition of the Bible is commissioned for the purpose of creating a new translation from the original Greek or Hebrew, or to appeal to the interests of scholars in a particular field of study. That is not true of the Washburn College Bible.
The Washburn College Bible is the work of Bradbury Thompson, one of the world’s foremost publication designers. It was his belief that the way the Bible looks can influence the way it is read, and that the modern typographic aesthetic, applied to the King James Version, would result in a Bible of increased readability and comprehensibility. It would also be a thing of beauty. Mr. Thompson was right on all counts.
The Washburn College Bible is a departure from all other Bibles not in what its says—not one word of the King James Version has been changed—but in the way it says it. When Johann Gutenberg created the first Bible with newly-invented moveable type, his book tried to imitate the look of the Bibles which were then being transcribed by calligraphers in a monastery near his home in Mainz, Germany. The aesthetic he chose to emulate was that of the calligrapher. The highest form of the calligrapher’s art, as practiced by these scribes, was to create two columns of closely-spaced Gothic characters which formed two even margins on both sides of each column, a process we call “justifying” the type. To see how difficult it is to do this, try copying several lines of this review so as to create lines of words that have even margins on both sides. Gutenberg’s Bible and almost every other classic edition of the Bible has followed this style.
Perhaps one reason for such conservatism of design is respect for the timeless quality of the text. Or perhaps the reading public has demanded this visual conformity in the mistaken belief that if a Bible looks different, its meaning must be different.
The Washburn College Bible doesn’t look like any Bible that has been printed before. However, Bradbury Thompson has succeeded in creating a design which is not just different but better, while still maintaining the classic dignity and tone which the subject demands.
The major problem with the classic Bible format is that it is too hard to read. In the case of the King James Version, this is partly because the English language has changed considerably since King James’ day. Thompson believed, however, that the difficulty lay not in the text, but in the typography. The major innovation of the Washburn College Bible is setting the text in lines which correspond to the way they would be spoken naturally, hence the subtitle, “Phrased Version.” What this creates visually is text that looks and reads more like poetry than prose. This poetic phrasing gives new meaning to the King James Version. At the same time it heightens our respect for the beauty and grace of the translation. To increase further the comprehensibility of the text, Thompson’s design called for a large 10 × 14 inch format, larger type and the elimination of italicized words. The result is a Bible which by modern standards looks beautiful, and, more importantly, can be read with greater ease and comprehension.
As for the $65 price tag, make no mistake that this is a designer’s Bible. The frontispieces in the original version were hand-signed lithographs by Josef Albers. The original version, by the way, is a three-volume leather-bound edition which is selling for $3,500. For the average layperson who appreciates the beauty of modern typographic design, and for those who wish to experience the poetry of the King James Version in a fresh way, this scaled-down volume is a reasonably-priced alternative.
The Washburn College Bible has a contemporary heart and a classic soul. But perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Bradbury Thompson, and the one he would most appreciate, is that he has created a Bible that is a joy to read.
Commentary on Romans
(William B. Eerdmans, 1980) 428 pp. $22. 50
More than any other piece of early Christian literature, Paul’s Letter to the Romans has decisively influenced the history of Christian thought, especially since the Reformation when Luther declared Romans to be “the chief part of the New Testament and the clearest gospel of all.” To appreciate this assessment, we have only to remember the debt ascribed to Romans by Luther, Calvin, Wesley and, in the twentieth century, Karl Barth. Indeed, the letter has exercised a revolutionary influence on Christian life and thought since the days of Augustine.
Now Ernst Käsemann has given us the most important commentary on Romans thus far produced in our century.
Valuable commentaries have been produced by English and American scholars in the last four decades, such as those by C. K. Barrett, C. E. B. Cranfield, C. H. Dodd and John Knox—to mention but a few. Käsemann’s commentary, however, surpasses 009them all in thematic consistency, breadth of knowledge, discussion of scholarly literature, and religious intensity.
The English translation by G. W. Bromily of this new commentary is quite readable—which is no mean feat when one considers the difficult, succinct style of the author in the original German. The German edition was also hampered by the rules set for the commentary series Handbuch zum Neuen Testament, which do not allow footnotes. Therefore the author decided to use parentheses in the text in order to comment on secondary literature. This procedure makes it difficult for the reader to grasp the sequence of the sentences; unfortunately, the translator has chosen to follow this awkward method in the English translation.
Käsemann is interested not only in what Romans meant in the past, but also in what it means today. He writes: “The circle of my theological work closes logically as I now seek to show in my own commentary what the apostle says to me and what is the result of my preoccupation with the towering mountains of scholarly production” (p. vii). Thus historical and present meanings are continuously correlated and one easily perceives the challenge the Pauline gospel presents to the modern reader.
Käsemann’s outline of the letter reveals a clear structure and indicates what he views to be the central theme of the letter. It is to be found in 1:16–17, which “speaks of the God who brings back the fallen world into the sphere of his legitimate claim” (p. 29). One wonders, however, whether Paul was as systematic in this letter as Käsemann posits and whether Romans is indeed “a summary of Paul’s theology” (p. 390).
Käsemann writes in his preface: “Until I have proof to the contrary I proceed on the assumption that the text [of the letter] has a central concern and a remarkable (the German reads, ‘perhaps peculiar’) inner logic, that may no longer be entirely comprehensible to us” (p. viii; italics added). Such statements reveal an interpretive method which assumes (perhaps on confessional grounds?) a systematic focus in the letter, rather than demonstrates it. The danger of this procedure is that Romans is treated as a theological treatise rather than as a letter. Moreover, this approach posits, as the heart of Paul’s theology, the theme of justification by faith which Paul subsequently supposedly delineates in logical fashion. But what if the character of Paul’s thought proves to be instead a mosaic of perspectives within a field of correlates, especially in his most “systematic” effort, i.e., the letter to the Romans?
Käsemann focuses so intently on the theological center of Romans in its challenge to all times, that he does not take into account sufficiently the specific, historical context of Romans. Käsemann should have paid far more attention to the framework of Romans (1:1–15; 15:14–33), to the question of its intended audience, to the situation in which it was written, to the particular function it was intended to perform, and to the intended result of the letter. In my opinion, no dogmatic conclusions about humankind in general can be posited, unless the particularity of the letter and its particular purpose have been demonstrated—that is, to convince the Roman Christians that both Gentiles and Jews may participate on an equal basis in the universality of God’s salvation.
However, these observations should not detract from my conviction that this commentary is indeed indispensable to any modern student attempting to penetrate the mysteries of Romans.
The Washburn College Bible