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The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project

Reading God’s Word in a different translation, format, order and way

George P Wood on December 11, 2017


When I lived and worked in Southern California, I drove the 405 Freeway every day. A 2013 U.S. Department of Transportation study found the 405 to be the busiest interstate in the U.S. You can imagine how much time I spent looking at an endless line of bumpers in front of me.

I was talking about my commute with a friend, who asked if I’d ever noticed the cows on the east side of the freeway. I laughed. My commute from home to work and back again took me along miles of Orange County’s urban sprawl. “There are no cows on the east side of the 405,” I replied, with a high degree of confidence.

The next time I drove the 405, however, I noticed the cows. Apuleius said, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” and he was right. Thousands of trips up and down the 405 had accustomed my eyes both to see and not to see

Apuleius’ apercu applies to the Bible as much as to bumpers and bovines. Longtime readers of the Bible can become so accustomed to it that they stop noticing things. There are several ways to remedy that problem. In my experience, one can read the books of the Bible in

Longtime readers of the Bible can become so accustomed to it that they stop noticing things.
  • a different translation,
  • a different format,
  • a different order,
  • and/or a different way.

What I love about The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project is that it helps readers do all four.

Sola Scriptura uses the NIV (2011 edition), the aim of which is “to articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English to the global Engish-speaking audience today.” The NIV incorporates advances in the understanding of biblical Hebrew and Greek, as well as changes in English usage since the translation first appeared in 1978. The result is a version that renders the Bible’s original languages in good, idiomatic English.

The most revolutionary thing about Sola Scriptura is its format. Typical Bibles present the inspired text as a single volume in a two-column format with chapter and verse numbers, headings, footnotes and cross-references. Sola Scriptura, by contrast, spreads out the Bible over four volumes. It presents the inspired text in a single-column format and eliminates headings, footnotes and cross-references entirely. Also, instead of interpolating chapter and verse numbers within the text, it discreetly prints the chapter-and-verse range at the bottom of each page.

Bible publishers call this kind of formatting a “Reader’s Bible.” I find Reader’s Bibles easier to read than typical Bibles. Instead of being formatted like a reference work — two columns with scholarly apparatus (numbers, headings, etc.) — Reader’s Bibles are formatted like normal books. I can’t help but wonder whether the reason why so many Christians spend more time reading novels and biographies than their Bibles is because their Bibles are formatted like dictionaries, encyclopedias and textbooks.

Even splitting the Bible into four volumes helps readers. To get all of Scripture between two covers, typical Bibles present the inspired text on thin paper, in two columns over more than a thousand pages. Sola Scriptura uses a larger font and thicker paper, and each volume is about as long as a standard novel or nonfiction book. I have found that I am able to read Scripture for longer periods of time — sometimes an entire book of the Bible in one sitting! — because of the Reader’s Bible format.

Another great innovation is Sola Scriptura’s revised order of the books of the Bible. Typical Bibles follow the Septuagint’s order of Old Testament books. (The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Old Testament.) Sola Scriptura, on the other hand, revises the Hebrew Bible’s order of books.

Traditionally, Jews have organized the Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament— into three main sections: Law (Torah), Prophets (Nevi’im), and Writings (Ketuvim). If you hear a Jewish friend refer to Scripture as Tanakh, this is simply an acronym for the three major divisions. The Law encompasses Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Prophets are divided into Former Prophets (Judges2 Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi, minus Lamentations and Daniel). The writings include everything else (1 Chronicles–Song of Songs, plus Lamentations and Daniel).

Volume 1, “The Torah and Former Prophets,” follows both the Hebrew Bible’s and Septuagint’s order of books from Genesis to 2 Kings. It presents the story of Israel from creation to exile in one volume.

Volume 2, “The Latter Prophets,” uses the Hebrew Bible’s list of books but departs from its ordering of them. Sola Scriptura arranges the prophets according to the four historical periods in which they ministered: (1) “as the empire of Assyria was growing” (Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah); (2) “when the Assyrian empire was crumbling and the Babylonians and Egyptians were jockeying to become rulers of the region” (Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk); (3) “when the Babylonians conquered Judah and deported much of its population” (Jeremiah, Obadiah, Ezekiel); and (4) when the Jews “returned from Babylon to Judea under Persian rule” (Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, Malachi). This allows readers to read the prophets in roughly chronological order. (There are scholarly disputes about some of the dates of these books.)

Volume 3, “The Writings,” again uses the Hebrew Bible’s list of books but departs from its order. Sola Scriptura groups the books under four headings: (1) “collections of song lyrics” (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs); (2) “wisdom” books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job); (3) “historical books” (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther); and (4) Daniel, which is “half history and half apocalypse.”

Traditionally, the New Testament has been organized in several blocks: history (Gospels–Acts), Paul’s letters (RomansPhilemon, longest to shortest), general letters (HebrewsJude, longest to shortest) and Revelation. Sola Scriptura’s fourth volume, “The New Testament,” uses the four Gospels as its organizing principle. “The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of related books.”

So, Luke–Acts is paired with Paul’s letters, which are organized chronologically. Matthew is grouped with Hebrews and James. Mark, who early Christian tradition associated with the apostle Peter, is grouped with 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. And John is grouped with 1–3 John and Revelation.

Obviously, Volumes 2–4 depart from the traditional order of biblical books in significant ways. I personally found this helpful, however. For example, I read the New Testament every month. Doing so using Sola Scriptura’s New Testament order feels less repetitive than when you read the Synoptic Gospels sequentially. It feels more organic when you read Luke and Acts together than when you read John in between them. Reading 1 Thessalonians long before Romans shines a new light on the unfolding of Paul’s theology. Reading John’s Gospel and letters with Revelation shows thematic linkages between them all. I could say something similar about Volumes 2 and 3, but you get the point.

I’ve talked about translation, format and order, so let me close with a note about how Sola Scriptura provides a different way to read Scripture. I mentioned above that the Reader’s Bible format makes it easier to read long sections of Scripture in a single sitting. This is a key deficiency in most people’s Bible-reading habits.

Perhaps I can put it this way: We spend too little time reading the Bible, and we read too little of the Bible in the time that we do spend. We read verses instead of paragraphs, paragraphs instead of chapters and chapters instead of entire books. We focus on inspirational sayings — e.g., Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, Philippians 4:17 — rather than seeing the larger historical and literary context in which they are uttered.

By presenting Scripture in a different translation, format and order, The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project helps readers see God’s Word in a different way, one that connects the parts to the whole, the individual stories in the Bible to the Grand Story God tells us through the Bible in its entirety. 

Book Reviewed

The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible Project, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

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