Single Column or Double Column?

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible (16th Century Spain). From the Library of Congress,

Not that long ago, the vast majority of Bibles had more or less the same layout:  Two columns of text with each verse beginning on a new line.  These days, paragraph format is the norm for most Bibles, and single column Bibles are becoming more and more common.  So, here’s what I’m curious about:  Which do you prefer, a Bible with a single column text setting, or the traditional double column format? 

I won’t give my exhaustive answer here, but I’ll give a short answer to get the ball rolling:  In theory, I’ve preferred the single column layout ever since I purchased the New Geneva Study Bible about a decade ago.  In practice, however, a) there are some functional advantages to the double column layout, and b) given the unique design problems involved in cramming all of the Bible into a single book, the single column format faces some tricky hurdles, leading to certain problems in the execution that are very hard (if not impossible) to avoid.  Put more simply:  I prefer the single column, but I still appreciate the double column format.

So, what do you think?  I’m curious to see the various opinions of my fellow Bibliophiles on this subject! 

Side note–I still have several Bible reviews and notes on back-log.  In the coming week, I’m hoping to reduce that back-log by publishing my review of the Artscroll Stone Edition Tanach in a few days, with a few brief thoughts on the genuine leather HCSB Minister’s Bible a few days after that.

About hjimkeener

Education: B.A.: Moody Bible Institute GCTS: Knox Theological Seminary M.Div.: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Ph.D.: Baylor University Ministry Experience: I have served as a Youth Minister, Associate Pastor of English Ministry, and a pulpit supply preacher. Teaching Experience: In addition to teaching in various volunteer and professional ministry settings, I have taught as a University Professor (Teaching Fellow; Baylor University) and as a Seminary Professor (El Seminario de la Iglesia Presbiteriana de Bolivia). I have also given lectures and sermons in Spanish.
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15 Responses to Single Column or Double Column?

  1. I don’t think I even own a Bible that uses anything other than double columns. So apparently my consumer choices reveal my personal bias.

  2. Matt Morales says:

    I am a big fan of Single-Column paragraphed bibles. In a nutshell, I believe that Single Column bibles represent the best available format for how the scriptures should be engaged . My preference of formatting is also related to my belief that 90% of scripture should be read in chunks of ~8-10 chapters or more. For instance, books like Genesis, Nehemiah, Acts, Matthew, etc, etc, are narrative in nature and like any other book are best read to complete the immediate story. I think that the Prophets are better read in larger chunks as well.

    Fact is, how would one read any novel, etc? One-two pages at a time (the average length of a bible chapter)? NO…average readers may cover around 20-30 pages. The bible is designed the same way, but most readers only cover at the most two chapters…which feeds the desire for verse style double columns.

    I understand that verse fortmatting may speed the process of looking up verses, and double columns may make a more compact package, but I dont think that these arguments or similiar ones really make the case. I think verse formatting only adds to our proof texting inclinations…imagine not having verse numbers! Then when you would look up a certain passage you would have to know context!

    I think double columns, etc, have their place, but should not own 85% of the bible design market.

  3. Matt Morales says:

    Pardon my rant 😉

  4. Single-column, definitely. Facilitates reading, and that’s what matters, isn’t it?

  5. Mandi says:

    I prefer single-column, although you wouldn’t know it by looking in my Bibles. Part of the problem with most Bibles being offered in double-column only.

  6. Barry Barnard says:

    I love the pitt minion format with the centre column ref. My large print Zondervan uses the same format with the exception that it has the verses one below the other which is vilal for preaching from, single column makes no sense to me, but that is just my preference, Bible’s are not story books that one reads, bible’s are menu to be studied.

  7. hjimkeener says:

    I’m saving my complete thoughts for a future post, but I’ll offer this bit of peace-making input at this point:
    Might it be that the Bible is neither to be read *exclusively and only* as one reads a novel, nor to be read *exclusively and only* as a text to be slowly studied and digested? In other words, should not a dilligent student of Scripture *both* read the entire text for context, to get the “big picture,” *and* take the time to carefully study smaller portions of text, carefully examining individual chapters, verses, phrases, and even words? It seems to me that a diverse array of Bibles to choose from is a real blessing, so that students, teachers, professors, and preachers can have different tools at their disposal.

    What do you think?

  8. Chris Bloom says:

    Personally, I like them both. I find that the readability — for me, anyway — is less dependent on the number of columns and more on font choice and spacing. Merely putting everything in one column doesn’t make it any easier to read if the other design choices aren’t well-done.

    Done right, a single-column Bible is a joy to read and study from. Done wrong, it’s just frustrating to use. With respect to Matt and Barry, the Bible is a book that is to be studied, but also one that should be read purely for the pleasure of doing so. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but combining both purposes just adds to the amazingly difficult task of Bible design.

    And for the record, I do most of my Bible reading and study these days on a Kindle, so I’m pretty much all single-columns at the moment.

  9. R.K. Shipley says:

    I can’t put my finger on why…but it seems that most single-column paragraphed bibles I’ve run into seem to have each line too long for “comfortable” reading. Oddly enough, I prefer a middle ground, paragraph format/double column for reading, and a single column, verse-per-line for teaching/studying.

  10. Fernando Villegas says:

    Great post! I prefer single-column in theory, for reasons that others have mentioned. But I agree with Chris; it has to be DONE RIGHT! The Crossway ESV PSR had the right idea, but the execution just wasn’t right. The font was too small. The column felt too stretched out. As a result, I haven’t used it as much as I thought I would. On the other hand, the HCSB Minister’s Bible gets it as close to perfect as I’ve seen. As far as double-column is concerned, I don’t know that there is really any legitimate reason FOR them other than they make the book thinner and people are used to them. I’m not a die-hard advocate either way, though.

    As an aside, I agree with you wholeheartedly that the Bible must be read BOTH broadly for the larger context, AND slowly for study and meditation of the details. I tell this to my church members constantly. But I don’t think verse divisions are inherently needed for slow, analytical reading. It makes it easier, perhaps, because that is what we are used to. But people have been studying and analyzing books other than the Bible just fine for a long time, without those books having to be divided into verses.

  11. hjimkeener says:

    I agree with elements of what Chris, R.K., and Fernando all have said. Re: the PSR, I totally agree that it missed the mark–“so close . . . yet so far,” as they say. I am very excited about the forthcoming Cambridge Single Column Reference Bible which looks to be about the same size as the PSR, but done with Cambridge qualty type-setting, paper, etc.

    As for the question of “why have a double column format at all?” while I favor single column, I can see several reasons why a double column can still be advantageous. I’m thinking to save that all for another post, but I’ll highlight one reason others have touched on: The words-per-line issue. For many people, the overly-long lines of single column settings make it hard to read for extended periods, b/c they are constantly loosing their place, skipping a line, etc.–and they find the shorter lines of a wide-ish double column setting to be less distracting and easier to follow. I’m guessing that’s why R. K . prefers double column for extended reading. Am I right, R.K.?

  12. Matt Morales says:

    I agree with what Chris said here “Done right, a single-column Bible is a joy to read and study from. Done wrong, it’s just frustrating to use.” I also find that I am very open to double columns that have 8+ words per line (eg some holman editions)…so it can almost have the same effect as a single column.

    To clarify, I agree that scripture is meant to be studied word by word as well as read in longer sections…and I think both are equally as vital to understanding details and concepts in the Bible (eg Romans is a letter in which every phrase can be chewed on, but that is also great to read straight through). I mention the issue of “genre” to support the fact that the bible is filled with stories, poems, and letters… and the most commonly used format for such is single columns…designed well of course 😉

    I am also excited to see 90% (my guess) of Bibles in electronic form coming in single column format that can be adjusted for font size, etc…awesome!

  13. hjimkeener says:

    @ Matt–I agree with much of what you say, and I would add two considerations to what you said that weigh somewhat in favor of single column and very heavily in favor of paragraph style format:
    1) It seems to me that an understanding of the “forest” usually ought to come before a close examination of the “trees;” reading through books (again and again) to get the big picture and context has priority over chewing over words and phrases. Of course, this may not be an absolute, as one accounts for genre (e.g., Proverbs).
    2) It also seems to me that popular level study of the Bible in Western Christian Culture has overemphasized the “trees”–and paragraph style Bibles (even more so when in a single column) encourage readers to move beyond the trees to the forest. So, I think the Thompson Chain Reference Bible was a great tool, especially before the modern computer age; yet, it’s entire design reflects an orientation that could easily lead readers to neglect the “big picture” and get caught up in the atomistic bits and pieces. The newer paragraph format Bibles (and even more so single column editions) are a healthy corrective, imo.

    • Matt Morales says:

      Agreed. I like the Trees/Forest analogy. It seems to me that a word by word (“trees study”) study can use almost any format (maybe a wide margin would be preferred), but it is by reading say a handful of chapters at a time that formatting tends to become most important imo.

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