Choosing and using a wide-margin Bible for spiritual growth

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“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” – Psalm 119:105 ESV

Among my most-treasured possessions are a small stack of wide-margin Bibles that I have been writing notes in for almost two decades. These Bibles contain much of what I have learned from my personal time of reading and studying God’s word, from numerous sermons and other messages I have heard, from books and articles I have read, and from interaction with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

One of my problems as a Christian is that I have forgotten far more than I remember. For instance, in the past forty years, I have listened to close to 2000 sermons on Sunday mornings. I still have notes for many of these, but I seldom go back through those notes. I know that the cumulative effect of all these sermons (and other inputs) has been significant, but there are things I have learned that I want to keep fresh in my heart and mind.

The solution God has led me to is to write notes in a wide-margin Bible. I do not keep these notes because I am smart but because I am forgetful, and need regular reminders of what God has taught me in the past. The advantage of using a wide-margin Bible instead of doing something such as a journal is that there is the potential that I will be reminded of the things God has taught me every time I read a passage. If something stood out to me, for example, in the second chapter of Ephesians back in 2001, I will conceivably see that note every time I read Ephesians 2 in that Bible. I am not downplaying the value of journals, but this is what works best for me.

I do not actually write down complete sermon notes in my wide-margin Bible. Usually on Sunday afternoon or evening, I will take a few minutes to transfer highlights from my sermon notebook into the margin of my Bible. That way there are key pieces of sermons that stick with me for the rest of my life.

Choosing a Wide-Margin Bible

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There are many wide-margin Bibles (sometimes called journaling Bibles) on the market. I use the two-column wide-margin Bibles from Cambridge University Press. Here are a few of the wide-margin Bible variations that are available on the market:

Translations — A quick search at a bookstore or online reveals that most major English-language translations are available as wide-margin Bibles: ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, NLT, CSB, and more. I alternate between using the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV 1984) for my reading and study, but of course your preference may be different.

One-column or two columns — The page layout can be a make-it or break-it factor for you enjoyment of your wide-margin Bible. There are editions with two columns of text with two columns for writing, two columns of text with one column for writing, and one column of text with one column for writing. Some wide-margin enthusiasts insist on the one-column option. I really dislike the two text columns with one writing column option, as this does not allow one to write right next to the verse.

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This Bible has two columns but no room to write in the gutter, so your note won’t be next to the verse(s) you are writing about.

Width of blank space — My NIV Cambridge wide-margin Bible has 1.25 inches of blank space on both the left and right side, and about an inch on both the top and bottom of the page. This gives plenty of writing room on the right, left, top, and bottom of the page. There is additional space on the title page for each book of the Bible, which gives room for introductory comments. My ESV Cambridge wide-margin Bible has only one inch of blank space along the gutter, which makes it a little difficult to write notes. I would not purchase a wide-margin Bible that has blank space along the gutter that is less than one inch, as it would be too difficult to write notes.

Style of blank space — Some wide-margin Bibles are printed with faint (or not-so-faint) horizontal lines for you to write on. I would never purchase one of these, as the line spacing is not how I would naturally space my handwriting. Plus, I really don’t think I need lines to keep my writing straight for one inch! In addition, if you are going to include artwork in your margin notes, the lines might interfere with the aesthetics of your drawings.

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The natural spacing of my handwriting does not match the spacing of these lines.

Hard cover or leather — My wide-margin Bibles have hard covers, which are cheaper, but I’m sure less durable, than leather covers.

Red-letter or black letter — This is your preference. I choose only black-letter editions, as I think they are easier to read, and all Scripture is Scripture, not just the words of Jesus.

Paper — My Cambridge Bibles are printed with a heavier paper, which reduces bleed-through of ink.

Tools for Marking a Wide-Margin Bible

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Tools I use with my wide-margin Bible include pens, a highlighter, a ruler, correction tape, and an ink blotter. I keep these together in an old coffee mug.

I have learned by trial and error what tools I need for marking in my wide-margin Bible.

Pen (or pens) — It is best to give some thought to the type of pen you will use in your Bible. You certainly do not want to use a pen that will bleed through the page, and in general this means a ball-point pen rather than a felt-tip pen. Before using a new kind of pen in my Bible, I make some text marks in some obscure place in the concordance or map index in the back to make sure it does not bleed through. I prefer to use a fine ball-point pen, as opposed to medium. More specifically, I use a Pilot B2P blue fine ball-point pen, and have bought a whole box of them.

Highlighters — If you do highlighting in your Bible, I recommend testing the highlighters in someplace like the concordance or map index to see how much it bleeds through the paper. Some people prefer dry Bible highlighters that can be purchased at Christian bookstores or online. My experience is that the lead breaks too easily on these, but maybe you will have a better experience.

Ruler — I use a flexible 6-inch ruler so I can underline with straight lines. This, of course, is optional.

White-out tape — If you are at all like me, you will make mistakes, such as typos, as you write in your margin. I used to use white-out liquid, which was a real pain, but now I use the correction tape dispensers, which are ideal for this sort of work (unless you buy a Bible with off-white pages).

Blotter — Ball-point pens tend to get little globs of ink accumulating near the tip while underlining, and this can result in a smudge of ink on your page. After underlining a verse, I will blot the ink off the tip of the pen with a facial tissue or paper towel that I keep with my other supplies.

Wide-Margin Strategies

This is how I do my note taking, underlining and highlighting, and other things:

Notes — I write kind of small, which allows me to put a lot of notes on the page. I write a verse number to start the note, as it is not always possible to put the note right next to the verse if I have a lot of notes on the page. My notes might be from my personal meditations, copied in part from study Bibles (such as the ESV Study Bible) or from commentaries; things I have learned from books I am reading, or from sermons. I have a lot of notes in my Bible related to apologetics and the doctrine of creation, as those are two of my deeper interests.

Underlining — I am more of an underlining guy than a highlighting guy. I underline words, verses, or longer passages that are especially meaningful to me. I use blue ink, but that is entirely your preference. You may come up with some sort of color code instead.

Highlighting — In my current wide-margin Bible, I have used a yellow highlighter to mark verses I have memorized. This makes memory review easy, as I can just flip through my Bible rather than through a stack of index cards. In previous Bibles, I have used a color-code scheme, with red or pink marking the works of Christ and benefits of salvation, green marking the attributes of God, and so forth.

Topical marks — I put one- or two-letter marks in red in my Bible to mark verses for certain topics. A few of these marks include B (baptism), C (communion, or Lord’s supper), DC (deity of Christ), P (prayer), CR (creation), EV (evangelism), M (missions, God’s heart for all nations), and W (Word of God).

Additional Remarks

I am on my fourth wide-margin Bible. The first one was sort of a trial-and-error project in which I developed my wide-margin style. I do some note-copying between these four Bibles, and I’m pretty happy with how the most recent ones are going. I am hoping that these will be a blessing to my descendants somehow until Christ returns.

I am not an artsy guy, so you will not see any drawings or sketches in my margins. I have friends who love to express their insights from the Bible as illustrations. My Bible probably looks like it was produced by an engineer to them.

The purpose of taking notes in a Bible, of course, is not just to make us smarter (or make us look smarter to impress someone) but so that we would grow in our knowledge of God, and in our service to him as workers in his kingdom. My prayer is that your markings in a wide-margin Bible would accomplish these things in and through you.

Grace and Peace

Kevin Nelstead, GeoChristian.com


Notes

The NIV 1984 Cambridge Wide-Margin Bible is out of print, but unused copies are available:

I affectionately call the 1984 NIV the Old International Version (OIV).

My ESV Cambridge Wide Margin Reference Edition:

There are, of course, many additional options for purchasing a wide-margin Bible.

Back when I was in grade school through high school, an activity the first day of class was to put book covers on our textbooks to reduce wear and tear. I have started doing the same thing on my hardcover Bibles. My NIV Bible is now covered with a “Lands of the Bible Today” map from the December 1967 National Geographic magazine, and my ESV Bible is covered with a print of “The Garden of Eden” painted by Izaak van Oosten in the 1650s or 1660s.

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Putting a cover on your hardcover Bible will greatly reduce wear on the cover and spine.