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The Cambridge Clarion: A Brief Review

I went and bought another Bible. But with good reason, I think.

Around the time I switched from the ESV to the NIV, I had to buy a Bible (we had not so much as an NIV in the house; I had been test reading it in digital format only). So I did. I bought a $30 Slimline NIV, one of the few text-only, black-letter NIVs available at the local Bible book store. It has a synthetic cover (a nice enough synthetic cover, but synthetic). I did not know if this would satisfy me long term. Needless to say, after carrying it for about a year and a half, I decided to buy something better.

Crossway, publisher of the ESV in the U.S., has done a mighty fine job of making sensible leather-bound editions of the ESV. Zondervan, publisher of the NIV, has not. I know it hasn’t always been that way, because my wife has an old, red, top grain leather NIV she kept at work. But searching the Zondervan website for an NIV Bible leaves your head swimming in a sea of specialty study Bibles. Their text-only Bible selection is lousy. I knew I would have to look elsewhere, but I didn’t know where to go. Maybe there were no high quality NIV Bibles! This was discouraging.

But a few Bing searches unlocked the gate into the world of premium Bibles. There are a lot of people who are serious about the quality of their Bibles. And you know what? I think the Bible deserves it. I would not think twice about dropping $200 on a mobile telephone which will be replaced in three or four years. Why budget just $30 for a Bible?

The premium Bible world, I discovered, is dominated by a few very good publishing houses that produce the best Bibles on earth. These include Cambridge University Press, R.L. Allan Bible, and Schuyler Bible Publishers. Crossway has also joined the fray with its Heirloom ESV, and they’ve done a good job. It is widely accepted that the best outlet for these is evangelicalbible.com.

I researched my options, and in the end I picked the Cambridge Clarion Bible. J. Mark Bertrand gave it a rave review over at his blog, an authoritative resource on Bible design, and it appeared to be all I wanted from a Bible. I had to save my pennies for two and a half months to be on budget (boy, it felt longer than it sounds), but my Bible has finally arrived. So excited. Here’s a review.

Binding and Cover

This Bible has a quality, sewn binding, as opposed to a glued binding. In a Bible of this price, a sewn binding goes without saying. It’s the cover that’s more exciting, and a lot more tangible. It’s black goatskin, hand-stitched around the edges. It is amazingly soft and pliable. More importantly, it is also durable, superlatively handsome, and gives it that new Bible smell. Just holding the Bible in your hand feels nice. The binding and cover flexion also combine to allow the Bible to be laid flat without pulling shut, even in Genesis or Revelation. The spine of the Bible features gold stamped lettering, while the front cover is beautifully blank.

Paper

The paper is also very nice. True, it is a bit thin (28 g/m² weight), but has surprising opacity. Nonetheless, there is some ghosting. To ameliorate this, Cambridge has used line-matched printing, meaning that a line of text on one side of a page precisely overlaps the line of text on the opposite side of the page. This reduces the ghosting effect so significantly, that it almost ceases to be an issue. Finally, the outside edges of the pages feature art-gilding, giving them the classic pinkish gold sheen.

Typography and Format

Since the main purpose of the Bible is for reading, the typography and format are of great importance. The text used in the Clarion is a typeface called Lexicon No. 1, in size 8.75. That may sound a bit small, but I was impressed by how clear it is. Besides, it is larger than the type in the NIV Slimline Bible I was using, so for me it is an improvement. Lexicon No. 1 really is a good-looking typeface, with wonderful lowercase “e”s and striking punctuation marks. The words of Christ are printed in black.
This is a cross-reference Bible. Often, such Bibles have two columns of text per page, with references positioned between them, as in my leather ESV cross reference Bible. The Clarion is set in a single column per page, more like a normal book, with references in the margins. It’s wonderful. I would say that this page layout was the foremost consideration for me that tipped the scales in favor of the Clarion over other premium Bible options. (Schuyler’s Caxton Bible, which comes in a few tempting colors, would also have been a major contender, but is, alas, only available in the NLT. Yes … the NLT.)

Features

The Bible comes with fifteen maps, a color-coded map index, a concordance with 2,474 word entries (I counted them … just kidding), and a weights and measures table—not necessarily in that order. Another feature: two long red ribbon markers.

Size and Weight

The Bible is small, at 19 cm long by 14.5 cm wide. But it is chunky at about 4 cm thick. I like it. This ain’t no skinny Bible. When you pick it up, though, it feels lighter than it should be. I don’t know if this is due to its blockish appearance (which makes it look heavy) or to a light coating of pixie dust.

In Closing, a Word About the Translation

The New International Version is not so new anymore. The full NIV Bible was published first in 1978 and quickly gained wide acceptance among evangelicals, eventually becoming the most popular English translation. By now, the NIV is in fact the Bible that many adult Christians grew up on and memorized. The publishers of the NIV (rather predictably) claim it to be “accurate, readable, and clear.” In the case of the NIV, it is my assessment that it does an excellent job in living up to its own promises.
When it comes to how to translate the Bible, we often hear about the spectrum between formal equivalence and functional equivalence. We know that this is not an either-or choice, but a continuum and that a translation can be the product of more or less of one or the other. However, we also often hear that the NIV uses the thought-for-thought approach of functional equivalence, while the NASB and ESV use the word-for-word approach of formal equivalence. That is, translations are often positioned as examples of one or the other method. This is a bit misleading. The NASB does tend to employ the strictest form of formal equivalence among the popular, evangelical English translations (NASB, NKJV, ESV, CSB, NIV, NET, NLT, CEV) and suffers for it. I will not comment on translation philosophies here. But I do want to point out that the NIV is not by any stretch far out on the idiomatic (as opposed to literal) end of the spectrum. The reason I said that the contrast between the ESV and the NIV is misleading is because the ESV and the NIV are really not that far from each other. This being the case, these are my two favorite translations—the NIV being my day-to-day preference because it renders so many passages much more gracefully than the ESV.

The Christian Standard Bible (CSB), which purports to be more conservative than the NIV, is in between these two, filling the already small niche between the ESV and the NIV in terms of formal equivalence. (One needs only read the marketing for the CSB to see that it puts a premium on adhering to something between formal equivalence and functional equivalence, which it calls … drum roll please … “optimal equivalence”!) This is a bit of smoke and mirrors since both the ESV and the NIV also land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and each translation team probably thought their own choices were optimal, given what they believed a translation should be. The NIV itself often retains formal equivalence, insofar as this will still result in natural-sounding English. Reading a more idiomatic translation such as the NLT will reveal just how traditional and familiar the NIV sounds. The CSB, I might add, tends not only to lose the NIV’s advantage of clarity but also fails to retain the traditional beauty of the ESV or the NIV.

The NIV was updated in 1984 and again in 2011. The 2011 update to the NIV is 95% the same as the 1984 text, but does have a number of positive changes. You can read about these in a paper by the current NIV translators explaining the 2011 updates. For one, the new NIV is more gender accurate in rendering pronouns and other referents. This increased accuracy is what caused the greatest hubbub over the 2011 update among conservative evangelicals (with whom I myself identify). The “neutral he/him” is seldom used anymore, and the NIV translation committee has the stats to prove it. The 2011 update seeks to use gender-inclusive language where, and only where, the original authors of Scripture intended gender-inclusivity. I think a convincing argument can be made that neglecting to do this is less faithful to the original text. The ESV goes a fair way in using gender-inclusive language (often using “the one who” instead of “he who” and things like that), but not quite so far as to be as accurate as the NIV. The CSB, though a newer translation than the ESV, does even more poorly in this area. The NASB? Forget it. It even uses the phrase “sons of Israel” to refer to the Israelites. That is an unclear translation.

I will mention a couple other changes since it might be assumed that any “modernizing” of the NIV would tend toward a “loosening” of the translation, making more idiomatic at every turn. Actually, some changes “tighten” it up a bit. For instance, the translators say that “for the sake of smoothness of style and facility of reading, a number of uses of the connective gar (‟for” or ‟because”) were left untranslated in the 1984 NIV. A select number of these have been restored where they seem particularly crucial to preserving the flow of thought.” Three cheers for “for”! Next, “the flesh” is now used in most places to translate the Greek word sarx where the 1984 text had “sinful nature.” “The flesh” is more literal and less interpretive, and although it most cases “sinful nature” does capture the right meaning, the 2011 team decided to change it. Also, “Translations that leave open important scholarly options have often been chosen. Thus, for instance, ‘righteousness from God’ in Romans 1:17 and related passages has been changed to ‘righteousness of God,’ and ‘observing the law’ (erga nomou) has been changed to ‘works of the law.’” In other words, in important places where a literal rendering leaves an ambiguity, the ambiguity has been reintroduced in the 2011, in verses where the ambiguity was previously eliminated by the translators’ interpretation. And as a final example, in 1 John 2:16, the previous NIV said “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world,” whereas the 2011 text brings back the old, familiar “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”―with the translators remarking: “Has anyone really improved on the KJV rendering of these three expressions, to which the updated NIV returns? […] The language still communicates, and the poetry and style to which the NIV has returned is magnificent.”

To close, I will just state the obvious. Having an expensive Bible has never made anyone a mite holier than they were before. A Bible is not like the open box of baking soda in the back of your refrigerator: its mere presence does not keep you cleaner. I think the apostle James said it best: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

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