This analysis is by Daniel Silliman, an instructor of American religion and culture for the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University.
So why do Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for Christian scripture?
A new study Bible out this week underscores how simmering questions about the accuracy and authority of translations drive demand for new versions of an old text. A mix of firm authority and breezy accessibility seems to be key to the commercial success of many study Bibles.
No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year — probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.
The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles — from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”
The proliferation of Bibles underscores the anxieties people have about whether or not they are reading the right Bible. Concerns over accuracy and interpretation are especially true among religious traditions that distrust secular scholarship on the Bible.
One of the Bible’s most popular translations is the NIV (New International Versions) and newer versions, like the ESV (English Standard Version) also sell remarkably well.
With a list price of $49.99, the New International Version Study Bible has about 20,000 verse-by-verse notes, plus introductions to each book, overviews of sections of scripture and 28 articles on topics such as “Sin” and “Shalom” written by Reformed and evangelical scholars.
The new Bible is designed to compete with the English Standard Version study Bible, which had 100,000 pre-orders when it first sold in 2008. The “ESV Study Bible,” which retails for about $25 hardback, has since gone on to sell more than 1 million copies.
The “ESV Study Bible” is actually only one of 19 Bibles that have sold more 1 million copies in the past decade. The editors behind Zondervan’s new offering are undoubtedly looking for the same sort of sales, and there’s reason to believe they will get them.
The robust market does not alleviate anxieties about the Bible’s accessibility, though. There are persistent concerns that despite being so widely available, people struggle to understand the Bible. In a recent report from the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 44 percent of people who read the Bible said they needed help with interpretation.
That’s one reason footnoted study Bibles, as opposed to the kind of Bible you might see in a hotel room, are so popular.
“My aim is to help people read their Bibles with more understanding and self-application and more ability to read themselves and their culture and their churches in the light of God’s most holy word than they might otherwise be able to do,” said D.A. Carson, the general editor of the new “NIV Zondervan Study Bible
The anxiety over kinds of Bibles — aggravated by the market — creates a demand for new, more authoritative works. Some of the most popular study Bibles are designed to reassure readers of the text’s accuracy and authority, while at the same time promising to be easy to read.
The “Holman Christian Standard Bible Study Bible,” for example, is currently one of the best-selling study Bibles on Amazon.com. Most of Holman’s contributors either graduated from or taught at a Southern Baptist seminary, and the work is committed to the conservative Southern Baptist understanding of the Bible. It preserves traditional theological terms such as “justification” and “sanctification” and rejects gender-neutral language.
[Amazon.com’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.]
The Holman study Bible’s introduction makes clear that the translators and commentators started with fixed theological commitments and reassures readers the text is orthodox.
Advertisements for the Holman study Bible also note that it has been market tested, however. Extensive audience research went into the development of the book, with focus groups around the country determining the most appealing presentation of the information. The book is promoted as being easy to read, even by those not familiar with the Bible.
One edition of the Holman study Bible that color-codes the text according to 12 important theological themes, including “God” and “sin,” has sold more than 1 million copies.
The authority and accessibility can be seen in the “ESV Study Bible.” John Piper, a prominent voice in evangelical and Reformed circles, endorsed the work as “a dream come true” because of this balance.
“It combines a kind of balance between accuracy, faithfulness, readability and dignity in an unusually good proportion,” Piper said. “This is going to be a phenomenally useful tool for the church.”
The “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” is appealing to the same market of people who want a reliable, traditional text that’s easy to read.
The theological profiles of the the ESV and NIV study Bibles are very similar. Editors of both volumes are connected to the Gospel Coalition, a network of Reformed churches. Many of the contributor to the two volumes have common affiliations at evangelical and Reformed institutions. A few scholars even worked on both study Bibles. The new work is also endorsed by a prominent pastor, Tim Keller. In a promotional blurb, Keller calls the 63 men and 3 women who contributed to the NIV study Bible “the best assembly I’ve seen of faithful, international scholars.”
Like the “ESV Study Bible,” the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” affirms clear evangelical commitments. According to the subtitle, the Zondervan study Bible is “Built On The Truth Of Scripture And Centered On The Gospel Message.”
Zondervan is touting the new work as “unique,” in part because it is based on a more popular translation of the Bible. The NIV is the second most-read version of the Bible in the United States, after the King James. In America, where the Bible is still big business, that means big sales potential.
“I hope,” Carson said in a promotional video for the new study Bible, “it will help many many millions of believers around the world understand the Bible better and therefore God better … . This current NIV has huge potential for helping English-speaking Christians around the world. Not only those for whom English is their first language, but also for millions and millions and millions of people around the world for whom English is their second language, to understand the Word of God in a way that is translationally faithful, but at the same time contemporary and not too technical.”
From a certain perspective, the Bible market might look glutted. From another, a new study Bible with the right profile is a very hot commodity.