This essay adapts material from Dr. Gibson's article "The Holy Book Which Is a Book", which appears in the Winter 2022 issue of the journal Religion and the Arts. We thank the journal's editor, James Najarian, for graciously allowing us to share the material with readers of the Victorian Web.

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n A People of One Book, the historian Timothy Larsen argues that though the Victorians were "awash in texts," they were nonetheless a "people of one book," that book being, of course, the Bible (1). Larsen's claim is that "the Bible loomed uniquely large in Victorian culture," its "dominance, presence, and reach" attested by (so Larsen goes on to show) its currency among leading figures of every stripe of religion and irreligion in Victorian society. Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, atheists, Methodists, liberal Anglicans, Unitarians, Quakers, agnostics, evangelicals, Jews: their theological disagreements were enormous, especially when it came to the nature and purpose of the Scriptures, but they all believed that the Bible was important, and in their writings assumed everyone else did too.

Exactly because the Bible occupied so central a place in Victorian culture, commentators across the period worried about whether people were actually reading it and, in turn, how the form and text of the English Bible could be improved to keep ordinary readers in contact with the "one book." A representative statement on this score issued from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson regarding the Gospel of Matthew in 1887: "I believe it would startle any one if they could make a certain effort of imagination and read it freshly like a book, not droningly and dully like a portion of the Bible" (278). Stevenson was a famous doubter, and so it may be tempting to brush the remark aside as mere needling of the faithful. Yet his juxtaposition of Bible-reading and book-reading gave voice to a familiar anxiety in the era. Scripture, it was feared, had become ornamental furniture in many households. The pious admitted (quietly) to finding certain passages in the Authorized Version (aka the King James Version) difficult to follow. Voices across the religious spectrum were agreed that the English Bible needed a makeover.

But how could the Bible be redesigned to afford the kind of reading experience that Stevenson describes? This was a problem on which a number of commentators--including clergyman, statesmen, lay persons, and publishers--weighed in across the nineteenth century, and though their complaints and proposals for correction were myriad, they all hovered around two principal themes: the condition of the Bible as a printed book and its condition as an English text.

Harness's "State of the English Bible"

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representative document on both scores is a lengthy report on “The State of the English Bible” composed by the Rev. William Harness—-man of letters and friend of Lord Byron. First published in the Edinburgh in 1855, it was issued the following year as a stand-alone pamphlet by the London publisher Longman and would be referenced for decades to come. Surveying the contemporary book market, Harness observed editions tailored to every price point, some "dear" and others "cheap," some printed on fine paper and others on paper that dissolved in one's hands (6). And yet, Harness lamented, despite these “innumerable and variously diversified editions,” “no Bible has been hitherto produced which can be read with as much ease and comfort as any ordinary book. There is no such thing as a readable Bible” (italics in original). But Harness didn't just throw up his hands. His report goes on to diagnose several ills plaguing the English Bible with an eye toward correcting them.

His critique of the physical condition of the English Bible begins with the practice of printing all of the Bible's sixty-six books in a single volume (and sometimes the fifteen books of the Apocrypha as well). To Harness, the format was best suited to those who need to consult multiple books quickly and easily, i.e. theologians and pastors. For the average lay person, the format seemed unwieldy, and its bulk a deterrence to casual reading. He imagines a man who “would fain take his evening walk into the fields with the Prophecies of Isaiah as his companion,” but who ends up leaving the book at home once he realizes that he also has to “carry along with him at the same time the Law of Moses and the History of the Jews; the Psalms of David and the Proverbs of Solomon, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles; the Epistles and the Apocalypse" (8).

Figure 1: Sample page from The Holy Bible (1849). Click on images to enlarge them.

Harness saw, moreover, that the effort to squeeze the Biblical books into one volume led to other infamous aspects of Bible design, which can be seen in Figure 1, a typical midcentury Bible printed in 1849 by the London publishers G. E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode (holders of a special license for Bible-printing). Harness's first complaint concerns those conspicuous double columns, a technique that was (he laments) largely reserved for the Bible, and which he characterizes as “puzzling to the sight” and “disturbing” to one’s attention (8). Then there is the problem of type size (also clear from Figure 1), which he frames as a catch-22: “when the type is large enough to be easily read,” the book becomes “so big and heavy” that “no hand of moderate strength can hold it;” while printing a book “of moderate weight and dimensions” demands that the “type be so minute as to be only legible by eyes of youthful strength and microscopic power” (9). To Harness the answer to these problems is simple: the Bible should be broken up.

Yet these issues are minor on Harness's reckoning compared to the “most grievous injury to which the sacred text has been subjected by editors and printers”: the system of chapter and verse numbers introduced into the Bible in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries (9). As Figure 1 shows, in its traditional setting, the Authorized Version was organized around the verses, each of which--whether poetry or prose--was presented as a stand-alone unit. Paragraph breaks were marked with the pilcrow (¶). It was a useful presentation for reading aloud (and the title page of standard printings indeed explained that the book the was "appointed to be read in churches"), but, as Harness and many others pointed out, it hampered the fluid silent reading of the text. That is to say, all of the interruptions to the text for chapter and verse made it hard to read the AV "like a book."

On this point, Harness issued a litany of complaints. He argued that numbering systems subordinate the Biblical text to the concordance, when it should be the other way around. The numerical divisions, moreover, chop up the text in odd ways. Unlike a normal book, in which “the paragraph ends where the sense pauses, in the Sacred Scriptures, whatever the sense may be, every third or fourth line brings the reader to the end of the paragraph” (11). Worse still, the verse system “insulates” sentences and phrases, giving them “a kind of independent character” and thereby encouraging readers to treat them as distinct maxims rather than as the building blocks of complex stories, codes, and arguments (12). As examples of the consequences of these schemes, Harness cites the breaks between the fifth and sixth chapters of Joshua and the ninth and tenth chapters of Isaiah. Each of these breaks interrupts a continuous text, yet the chapter divisions make them appear to be separate events in Joshua 5-6’s case and separate prophecies in Isaiah’s. And it’s not just a problem for reading the Hebrew Bible. “A very intelligent friend of ours declares,” Harness writes, “that he never could comprehend the drift of the Epistle to the Romans, till he read it, without the interruptions of chapter and verse, in Shuttleworth’s translation” (20).

Figure 2: Sample page from The Paragraph Bible (1851)

Now, before proceeding any further, I should acknowledge the official occasion of Harness's report: the publication of so-called "Paragraph Bibles," such as the one seen in Figure 2. As the name suggests, the format prioritizes the integrity (and readability) of the paragraphs over the chapter and verse numbers, which in Figure 2 have been pushed to the margins (as Shuttleworth had in fact done in his translation). This printing, released in 1851 by the aforementioned Eyre and Spottiswoode, shows that what Harness was looking for--a cleaner reading experience--did exist at the time of his writing, and indeed had existed in some form since the first experiments with the format by the printer John Reeves forty years earlier. But, as all readers of the Edinburgh Review knew, the number of "Paragraph Bibles" printed yearly was still dwarfed by the myriad done in the traditional (verse-centric) style. And as Harness noted, the improved reading at the level of the page didn't resolve the problem of the book's awkward dimensions. The book still wasn't designed to be a delight to read.

Yet even the most shapely Bible, Harness goes on to argue, won't address the problems of the text. About midway through "The State of the English Bible," Harness asks rhetorically:

Does the translation itself present that full correct and distinct expression of the sense of the original, which all Christian people who look to the sacred volume as their paramount religious authority, would be desirous of possessing; and which all who entertain a pious reverence for its contents would be anxious to afford them?" [2]

The answer is obviously no. In this respect, Harness was lending his voice to a growing chorus calling for a revision to the Authorized Version--not, and this should be emphasized, an entirely new English translation.

The concerns of this chorus--which Harness echoes--pertained to both the source text and style. Regarding the source text, biblical scholarship--textual and archeological--had over the previous generations unearthed what were deemed to be superior readings of a number of verses in the Old Testament and the New. Thus, revision had to be made to the Authorized Version to address the errors that crept in due to "corruptions" in the source text. Regarding style, opinions varied on particulars, but everyone seemed to agree that the AV was becoming harder to follow due to its antique phrasings and obsolete meanings. On the latter point, Harness includes an illuminating list, including these entries: carriage, in the Bible, signifies the things carried, such as baggage; with us it means the vehicle. Prevent, in the Bible, signifies to help by anticipation; with us it means to hinder. To let, in the Bible, often signifies to obstruct; with us it means to permit. Pitiful, in the Bible, signfies full of pity; with us it means contemptible. Meat, in the Bible, signfies food; with us it means the flesh of animals."

To this Harness adds words found in the AV that are no longer commonly used, such as ouches, taches, habergeon, brigandine, knops, neesings, mufflers, wimples, and tabring. "Harness derives a valuable lesson from this: "however desirable it may be to secure permanency to the English tongue, that end can never be attained by leaving the translation of the Scriptures in an unimproved condition, and setting it up as an immovable standard. The standard may be kept immovable; but the language will be sure to run away from it" (36).

In light of the English language's unstoppable movement, and thus ongoing need for revision to the English Bible, Harness concludes his essay by proposing a "Permanent Commission" for the maintenance of the (and it is important to note that Harness only imagines one major English Bible) translation, the members' office being that of "guarding, superintending, and perfecting the text of the Inspired Writings, both in the original languages and in their translation" (43). As Harness imagined it, the commission would stay abreast of new developments in biblical scholarship in order to possess the original in its purest form and, "above all, to publish, from time to time, and at no long interval ... improved editions of the Hebrew, Greek, and English Scriptures." With the concluding words of the article, Harness expresses his hope "that The Book--powerful in its own incomparable wisdom and beauty--would conciliate itself to readers from all classes of society." In other words, he hoped that a renovated AV would allow English readers to remain a People of One Book.

The Revised Version

Figure 3: Sample page from The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ... Being the Version Set Forth A.D. 1611, Compared with the Most Ancient Authorities and Revised A. D. 1881 (Revised Version)

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Fueled by calls like this one, a commission would indeed be established for a one-time revision of the Authorized Version, its products being a New Testament edition in 1881 and a complete Bible in 1885. The Revised Version (as it is known) is striking for present purposes because it addressed both elements of the critique of the Authorized Version that I have traced using Harness's article as an exemplar. On the material side, the RV's major shift happened in the formatting of the page. Figure 3 shows an octavo edition of the New Testament (roughly two inches longer and wider than an ordinary hardcover book now) in which--just as Harness hoped--the text is printed in a single column, in paragraphs, and without the constant interruption by verse and chapter numbers. (Harness might still grumble about the intrusive numbers for notes and, in turn, marginal glosses.) That was the deluxe presentation of the text. Smaller editions--and even larger editions of the whole RV once it was ready in 1885--still employed double columns and various layers of notes and references. Yet the difference between the RV and AV reading experience is still evident in Figure 4, which shows a representative page from an 1882 parallel printing of the two versions. Of note here too is the clear differentiation between verse and prose in the RV, another theme on which Harness and others had long criticized the AV (which effectively treated the entire Bible as a series of verses, blurring the distinction between modes of writing).

Regarding translation, the Revised Version was a deliberately conservative undertaking, which was entirely in keeping with the widespread reverence for the AV (which the scholarly David Norton aptly dubs "AVolatry" and sees as reaching its high point in the nineteenth century). There is no better evidence of this than the first charge in the official instructions to the RV translators: "To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness" (x). The key word here is "into": the task of the translator is not to make something new but to make amendments to the existing text. In effect, the RV was the Re-Authorized Version.

Figure 4: Sample page from The Parallel New Testament (1882)

The passage that appears in Figure 4 shows that modest operation at work. Consider Matthew 4:4, Jesus's famous rebuttal to the devil, which appears at the top of the page. The RV preserves the AV's phrasing verbatim, the only changing being the removal of a comma after "answered": "But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." In that sentence, too, we see the RV's retention of the third-person suffix "eth" in "proceedeth," that form having fallen out of English usage generations earlier. In some cases, as the ensuing sentences in Matthew 4 show, the RV will amend it (setteth, for example, becomes "set" in verse 5), but for the most part the archaic phrasing remains, alongside the otherwise obsolete pronoun "thee" and its possessive form "thy." The only substantial change on the page appears in verse 12, where the RV describes John the Baptist being "delivered up," leading Jesus to "withdraw," in contrast to the AV describing John as being "cast into prison," causing Jesus to "depart."

The fortunes of Harness's specific complaints about the AV's language are also telling. Carriage indeed became baggage (1 Samuel 17:22: "And David left his baggage in the hand of the keeper of the baggage"), and pitiful became compassionate (1 Peter 2:8: "Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren"). The outmoded "wimple" was replaced by "shawl" (as in Isaiah 5:22: "the festival robes, and the mantles, and the shawls, and the satchels") and habergeon by coat of mail (Exodus 39:23: "as the hole in a coat of mail"). Yet several archaisms remained. For example, the neesings--meaning sneezing--is retained in Job 41:18: "His neesings flash forth light," and knops, an ornamental loop, appears repeatedly in Exodus 38. As these examples suggest, the RV translators were not overhasty to fiddle with the language, though they would intervene to prevent misunderstanding. In the preface to the 1885 edition, the translators so far as to argue that certain obsolete words (such as "bolled," meaning "podded for seed") should be retained as there is no fitting synonym: to use "a less accurate or paraphrastic expression would have been to impoverish the language" (viii).

Despite the RV translators' efforts to maintain a light touch, it still seemed heavy-handed in some quarters (and too delicate in others); thus, its reception can be, at best, called mixed. Norton observes that its historical significance lies, alas, not its translators' achievement but in "its effects on opinions of the [AV] and, to a minor extent, its role in generating the multitude of twentieth-century versions" (218). Plainly stated, the RV reminded many why they liked the AV so much, and set in motion the process of ongoing revision that Harness imagined yet without constraining it to a single standing committee.

One of the quarters from which criticism came was the Edinburgh Review. In an 1881 response to the publication of the RV NT, the anonymous author recalled Harness's piece and observed at the outset that many of the material problems that so troubled their correspondent a quarter century earlier had been resolved in the ensuing decades:

Since that period a vast improvement has been made to the publication of the Old and New Testaments in numerous editions which leave nothing to be desired in point of typography. The poetry is distinguished from the prose, and the sense is no longer broken by obtrusive divisions of chapters and verses, useful only for the purpose of reference. [157]

Regarding the translation, though, the author laments that "there are grave reasons to believe that the Revised Version will not command the undivided reverence of the world, and will certainly not replace the immortal language fo the English Bible." While the reviewer credited the revisers' "undoubted learning and almost incredible industry," he felt that they had gone too far in attempting "to reproduce the very order and turn of the words, the literal force of each tense and mood, and the rendering of each Greek term by the same English equivalent as far as practicable" (170). "They have obtained their ends," the reviewer argues, "but at too great a price" (173). The English fell flat, and the problem was compounded by the fact that any reader of the RV would have the AV's phrasing in the back of his or her head. The fate of the RV, the author concludes, is to be a reference book.

While the reviewer's judgment may have been a tad severe, he was right that the RV would never supplant the original. The AV would remain the "one book" for the late Victorians just as it had been for their parents and grandparents. And for all of the concerns about Bible design that Victorian commentators like Harness aired, the average Bible published at century's end closely resembled the average one printed at the century's beginning. It was printed as single volume, in double columns, with chapter and verse numbers, and references running down the margins and notes at the bottom of the page--just as one finds when scooping up an average English Bible today. Nonetheless, many of their experiments would be repeated (likely unknowining) by later designers. The recent wave of "reader's Bibles," for example, has delivered just what Harness requested: printings of the Bible as a sets of multiple smaller volumes, often on finer paper, with numbers banished to the margins (or removed entirely), and few, if any, notes. The legacy of the Victorian period was thus to identify the need for a "readable Bible" but not to solve the riddle of the Bible's proper modern shape and sound. Those questions remain very much alive.


Harness, William. The State of the English Bible. London: Longman, 1856.

Larsen, Timothy. A People of One Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Norton, David. A History of the Bible as Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

The Holy Bible. London: G. E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, 1849.

The Paragraph Bible. London: G. E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, 1851.

The Parallel New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1882.

"Preface." The Holy Bible ... Being the Version Set Forth A.D. 1611, Compared with the Most Ancient Authorities and Revised A. D. 1881. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1885. v-x.

"Preface." The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ... Being the Version Set Forth A.D. 1611, Compared with the Most Ancient Authorities and Revised A. D. 1881. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881. v-xxi.

Rev. of The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ... Being the Version Set Forth A.D. 1611, Compared with the Most Ancient Authorities and Revised A. D. 1881. The Edinburg Review.. Vol. 154. Edinburgh: Longmans, 1881. 157-188.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Books Which Have Influenced Me". The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vol. III. Edinburgh: Longman, Green, and Company, 1895. 276-285.

Created 2 April 2022