The Gospel according to Mark printed

I’ve recently finished a setting of the Gospel according to Mark, with photos on the Design page of this site. Here’s some of the thinking behind this project.

What is a ‘Reader’s Bible’? For many this will mean a collection of the Christian Scriptures, probably but not always bound in one volume, with text arranged in paragraphs of prose and lines of poetry, and offering little or none of the apparatus we usually associate with Bibles in the modern age.

Fair enough. Such an arrangement of text, for example, is, for smooth silent reading, to be preferred over the verse-paragraphing found in the Geneva and King James Bibles and thenceforth enshrined in English-language Bibles until the turn of the twentieth century (and still found often enough today). The ‘Reader’s Bible’ so defined is also more likely than others to be bound in more than one volume, which I think is largely to its advantage as well, reflecting both the anthological nature of the Bible and the physical limits of book-making and of human strength and size.

But although I share with many of the advocates of the ‘Reader’s Bible’ a concern for a clear layout and readable text – and a dismay at the scarcity of such on today’s shelves – I don’t think that the kinds of annotation we’ve come to expect from a Bible are necessarily unfriendly to the reader, who is likely to need all the help he can get understanding very old and sometimes elusive texts presented in translation. Nor are these kinds of helps as rare as some protest; many roughly comparable texts are quite likely to bear some or most of the kinds of apparatus usually found in Bibles: chapter, act, scene, and/or line numbers in fiction, drama, and verse; section letters in classical and medieval texts; glosses and perhaps running commentary or summary in Middle and Early Modern English texts; explanatory notes in many kinds of difficult texts; source or redaction notes in even more kinds of texts, even in editions of literature of fairly recent vintage; maps in stories or histories involving travel; glossaries in translated works; name lists in works dealing with many personages; introductions in anthologies... Nor need any of this create the cluttered and chaotic pages we’re all too familiar with in contemporary Bibles; notes and numbers carefully handled – and there are many ways to do so – can enliven a page, creating a kind of counterpoint or ornamentation against the cantus firmus of the text block.

If complete cross-references, or copious notes on the text, or even complete verse-numbering aren’t required in all Bibles, nevertheless aids to understanding the structure of the text and one’s place in it at any given point ought, I think, to receive more attention from designers and editors. Various modern versions handle this issue in greater or lesser detail and consistency. Rarely, if ever, is a complete outline given at the beginning of the text and then reflected consistently thereafter in whatever manner of headings, though some sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century versions (some Vulgates, Geneva, kjv, Douay/Rheims) come close, giving an ‘argument’ at the beginning of each chapter and/or each book, sometimes further labeling pericopes or sections in the margins, and usually articulating the text itself in some ways.

Thus this project: an example setting of a Biblical text that not only accommodates the annotation given by the translators but also provides the reader a clear sense of the text’s structure and the reader’s place within it – while at the same time keeping these two sets of apparatus and their flags out of the text itself, so that they can be easily ignored but relatively easily found.

The text chosen is the Gospel of Mark (shortest and simplest of the four canonical Gospels) in the asv (the American version of the Revised Version of the end of the nineteenth century, the newest revision old enough to be out of copyright). This translation is characterized by modest annotation (mostly to do with alternative construals or readings of words or phrases, occasionally supplying spurious verses not included in the main text; very rarely cross-references); lack of quotation marks for dialogue; the use of italics to denote words not, strictly speaking, found in the original but supplied to make the sense flow in English; and, in other parts of the Scriptures, by the setting of poetry line for line as well as by the use of ‘Jehovah’ for the Divine Name.

All of these characteristics invite certain design decisions – firstly, as is often the case for me, the choice of type. Though italicized words are not plentiful in the asv, there are enough of them to make the typographer wish not only not to disrupt the texture and the flow of the line, but to downplay the italics entirely – which (unlike many other situations) suggests an italic face that is not only subordinated to the roman (that is, not very cursive in form) but also not very starkly distinguished from it (that is, neither particularly narrow nor particularly steeply inclined). Given the way I wished to mark sections in the text (see below), this translation’s particular use of italics also required italic small caps, which restricted the choices for the most part to fairly new faces. The need to set both footnotes and expanded running heads, each one containing three kinds or levels of material needing to be distinguished, suggested that a matching sans, itself with an italic fluent enough for considerable use and a bold but not too heavy companion, would be welcome. Of the typefaces in my library, Gandhi Serif and Sans best met these criteria as well as the overall concern for a handsome and readable text face. Christel Display was chosen as a crisper companion for slightly larger titles.

The notes, as is common in today’s Bibles, are set as footnotes (though I moved the very few cross-references to the side-margin). Given the modest number of notes and their relatively even distribution (most spreads have at least one line of notes and none have more than five lines) and my desire for a tidy and open page, I chose to start the notes from a common hangline – keeping an even bottom margin for the main text – rather than building the notes up from a common bottom margin. Though the notes are flagged by superscript letters in the original, in order to declutter the text I chose intead to flag them by small points adjacent to the lines containing text to be glossed. This less specific way of flagging means that the lemmata must be repeated in the footnotes, and they are there set in bold type to make them stand out; alternative readings are then in ordinary roman and editorial comments in italic type.

As for the navigation, I adapted a four-level outline (three levels of section headings plus pericope titles) from some commentaries, provided this outline in full in a multi-page table of contents, then repeated, as expanded running heads, the parts of the outline pertaining to each spread. These levels of running head then correspond to the articulation of the text itself: section breaks, page breaks, large initials, small caps, and hanging numeration. Though headings and note callers have been taken out of the text itself, I have chosen to leave verse numbering within the text, as I find numbers in that location less disruptive and easier to find than midpoints or other marks corresponding to marginal numbering; they are set in full-sized old-style figures of the text type, which I find both easier to read and easier to read past than the much more commonly found superscript figures.

There are many ways to approach the design of both the Bible as a whole and its individual books, just as there are many ways to translate and read the texts. We need strong design, strong translation, and strong presentation in forms both traditional (pandects designed all of a piece; scholarly translations sponsored or adopted by large religious bodies; liturgical chant, formal reading-aloud, lectio divina) and experimental (individual volumes designed to reflect the structure and style of their texts; literary and imaginative renderings; dramatic enactment and a variety of interpretations). I hope this project might contribute to the conversation.