When I started writing about the design and binding of Bibles several years ago, I anticipated an audience of three. Surprisingly, my “Bible Design Blog” struck a nerve with readers who were frustrated with the declining quality of Bibles today and wanted to discover some better options. While most of my readers buy their own Bibles, let’s face it: The best way to receive one is as a gift. If you want to give a Bible as a gift this Christmas season, here are some recommendations.
1. The Best All-Arounder: Cambridge Clarion KJV, ESV, NASB, and (coming soon) NKJV
Over the past year or so, I’ve found myself recommending the Cambridge Clarion more than any other Bible. For readers, the Clarion offers an elegant single-column layout—in other words, it’s formatted more like a novel than a dictionary, which is what Bibles have looked like for centuries. One way to encourage Bible reading is to make the Bible resemble the kind of book people actually read. The Clarion’s overall dimensions resemble those of a thick trade paperback, so while the book has a little heft, it’s handy enough to carry around.
For the more scholarly, the Clarion includes cross-references in the outer margin, a concordance, and maps. In addition, while many nicely produced Bibles are available in only a single translation, Cambridge publishes the KJV, the ESV, and the NASB in Clarion editions, with an NKJV coming soon. This blend of features makes the Clarion a good fit for a variety of users, and therefore a great choice for gift-giving.
The Clarion is available in three choices of binding: black goatskin, brown calfskin, and black split-grain calf. The black goatskin features an edge-lined cover, which means there is no book board between the leather and the inner lining. This makes for an extremely flexible limp binding. The cover offers little or no resistance. Some people love this liquid feel, while others prefer more traditional cased covers, with book board underneath, such as the brown calf cover. The brown calf feels firmer in the hand, while remaining soft and flexible. At the opposite end of the limpness spectrum, the split-calf has a nice grainy texture with some backbone to it. Like a good pair of leather shoes, it breaks in with a little use.
More about binding styles at Bible Design Blog.
2. For Mainline Protestants: R. L. Allan NRSV
Glasgow’s R. L. Allan has been keeping the spirit of fine Bible binding alive over the years by sourcing book blocks from various publishers and giving them luxurious, old-school bindings. Under the direction of Nicholas Gray, the company continues to set the standard for quality leather binding. For readers of the NRSV, who in recent years have had to make do with rather pedestrian editions, the fact that R. L. Allan has released an edition of the NRSV bound in beautiful Highland goatskin, a soft, natural grain leather, is reason to celebrate.
The Allan NRSV offers an attractive two-column, paragraphed layout. The pages have art-gilt edges, a classic effect that appears red from some angles and coppery-gold from others. It has three thick ribbons, so you can easily use this edition with a variety of reading plans. The goatskin cover has semi-yapp edges, which means they overlap the page and curl over them like a protective shell. For traditionalists, R. L. Allan offers a black cover with stately navy ribbons, but I would recommend the chocolate brown with gold ribbons, which is a show-stopper. But then, every Allan Bible is a show-stopper, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
3. For Roman Catholics: The Knox Bible from Baronius Press
Despite a rich history of liturgical publishing, like mainline Protestants, my Roman Catholic readers often complain of having a dearth of choices in comparison to the editions available for Evangelicals. An exception to the trend is the Knox Bible from Baronius Press, a new printing of the twentieth-century translation by Msgr. Ronald Knox. I haven’t had the pleasure of examining one of these in person, but from what I have gathered from those who have, it would make an excellent gift for Catholics in search of a readable, thoughtfully produced edition.
The Knox Bible’s single column text setting is a plus for readers, and so is the fact that verse numbers are moved to the margin where they don’t distract from the flow of the text (a helpful practice seen in the classic mid–twentieth-century New English Bible, as well as the more recent Message Remix).
If you’re giving the Knox Bible as a gift to a literary-minded friend, it might be worth finding a copy of his biography, The Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox, by one of my favorite novelists, Evelyn Waugh, a lifelong friend of Msgr. Knox.
4. For Confessional Protestants: The Schuyler ESV with Creeds and Reformation-Era Confessions
The Schuyler imprint is new on the scene, the brainchild of EvangelicalBible.com, a leading distributor of high quality Bibles. Their first release is an English Standard Version that includes the ecumenical creeds and a selection of Reformation-era confessions of faith. As a short-run boutique brand, the Schuyler ESV is on the pricey end of the spectrum, but in return you get a top-notch binding, quality paper and printing, and a unique edition of the Bible.
The edge-lined goatskin covers are available in black or brown, each with three ribbons and art-gilt pages. Printing and binding takes place in the Netherlands at the same printer (Jongbloed) responsible for many Cambridge editions. The Bible text is presented in a roomy two-column layout that is easy on the eyes, with references in the center column.
5. For Anglicans and Other Prayer Book Fans: Cambridge BCP-KJV Heritage Edition
The Heritage Edition from Cambridge makes a unique gift during this 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In addition to a black split-calf cover and a hardback, Cambridge offers this combination edition of the Prayer Book and KJV Bible in purple split-calf. That’s right: purple. Finding one of these under the tree this Christmas would provoke a gloria patri in the Bertrand household.
6. For Note-takers: The ESV Single Column Journaling Bible
The price tag might lead you to lower your expectations, but the Single Column Journaling Bible is fantastic. The dark print on cream-colored paper proves very readable. For note-takers, the single column layout is a plus—no more confusion over which column of text you’re annotating. The Single Column Journaling Bible also opens flat the way quality-sewn bindings should. It’s available in classic black, but I recommend the scarlet red. You’ll look like a hipster bishop.
7. Some Quick Recommendations
I receive a lot of questions from people with very specialized needs, so here are some quick recommendations if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary.
“I want a KJV with Apocrypha.”
Cambridge offers its classic Cameo setting of the KJV in a black split-calf edition that includes Apocrypha. The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, a critical restoration of the KJV, also has the Apocrypha, not to mention a beautiful single column layout.
“I want a compact ‘luxury’ Bible.”
R. L. Allan offers an edition of Crossway’s Deluxe Compact ESV bound in limp Highland goatskin with three ribbons, semi-yapp edges, art-gilt pages, and extra notepaper bound in back. It’s a miniature version of their larger high-end editions, perfect when you’re on the go.
“I want a nice edition of the RSV.”
While I’m not aware of any good RSVs in print now (perhaps a reader will chime in, if I’ve overlooked something), it’s still possible to find copies of Oxford’s 50th Anniversary Edition of the RSV. You can even have one rebound, as one of my readers did.
“I want a Bible bound in a specific color or leather.”
If you can’t find what you’re looking for on the market, you can have a Bible whose insides you like professionally rebound. This summer, I had a Cambridge Clarion rebound in dark brown English calfskin by Leonard’s Book Restoration, with wonderful results. Give them a try.
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of several novels, including the 2012 Christy Award finalist Pattern of Wounds. He writes about Bible design and binding at BibleDesignBlog.com.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.