Writing Within the Word?

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Ever since childhood I was always taught to treat the Bible with a certain amount of respect.  This included never setting it on the bare floor, but always on top of something; never tossing or throwing it around irreverently; generally avoiding stacking non-religious things on top of it; and not writing in it.  The Bible was God’s Word, and thus deserved a level of treatment above that shown to an average book.

When I was younger I never thought twice about not writing in my Bibles, as I was never prone to write in any of my books anyway and—typical of Catholics—no one I knew really tended to carry around a Bible regularly, much less mark in it.  When I spent my first two years of high school at a “non-denominational” Christian school, I met people who used the Bible much more often than Catholics, but also treated it with more familiarity.  Though their knowledge of the Bible was truly inspirational, often their attitude towards it was a little more casual than I felt comfortable with.  This only reinforced the reverent habits of younger years, and as friends in Bible class highlighted and dog-eared pages of their Protestant translations, I found myself jotting notes on sticky notes or in journals outside my Catholic translation instead, not able to bring myself to mark the sacred text.

Then I began to realize the benefit in owning various translations of the Bible, Protestant and Catholic, so that I could compare and thus better understand where other Christians were coming from based off of the footnotes in their translations, or the errors in word choices that led to misleading interpretations.  I also began to feel comfortable marking the Protestant translations, because after all I wasn’t studying them for religious reasons—only for scholarly ones—thus I did not consider the ESV, for instance, as worthy of as much respect as the Catholic RSV.  Though I was able to justify jotting down apologetic notes in the Protestant translations, I still felt like writing in the real Word of God would be disrespectful.


When I started taking Bible classes at my Catholic college, it wasn’t unusual to have a professor suggest underlining or marking a passage which was particularly important for the class lesson.  As I learned more about the Scriptures, I found myself becoming more attached to them, wanting to carry the Bible around more regularly.  As I studied them and started, thanks to our campus chaplain, practicing Lectio Divina, I often wished I had marked the passages that were meaningful or particularly insightful when my attempts to find them after-the-fact often ended in despairingly giving up the search.  But when it came to actually putting the pen on the page, I still felt like—in some way—by marking in the margins of the Bible I was not treating it with the reverence it deserved.  After all, who was I to mark alongside the inspired Word of the Creator of the Universe?  Yet as I quickly became “that person” whose favorite books could be determined by the amount of notes in the margins, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, marking biblical passages so that I could find and benefit from them again—just like I marked poignant lines in works by Chesterton or Tolkien—made more sense than I previously realized.

Many Catholics online have written about how marking in their Bibles is not a sign of disrespect, but rather a testimony to how often they turn to God’s Word.  One of my favorite bloggers writes about the way the Word of God has been a constant presence in her life, as is evidenced by the state of her favorite Bible, now falling apart with use and brimming over with bookmarks and marginal notes.  The Catholic Answers forum members chimed in, all encouraging a young person with concerns like mine to embrace the idea of marking up the pages, because it will help her connect better with the text.  Life Teen’s website encourages writing in the Bible in their post about how to start reading it.  I can see their points, but I can’t help but remain stuck on the question of reverence.

What do y’all think?  Is marking up Bibles a sign of particular devotion, or can it encourage an all-too-familiar attitude towards the Sacred Word of God?  Would you go so far as to make your Bible’s works of art in the spirit of religious fervor, or is there a line that can be crossed where marking it up hinders respect for God rather than encouraging it?  Does the translation make a difference?  Does having a “good Bible” that is treated with reverence and remains untouched by human additions to go along with the marked one preserve the reverence while also allowing for the devotional method?  What do you think?

Abigail C. Reimel

Abigail C. Reimel

Abigail C. Reimel is a budding Catholic author in love with her faith. Though her more immediate dreams include successfully completing college and securing an editing position, she ultimately hopes to live in a little beach house with her future family while writing books that present "the good, the true, and the beautiful" to the young adult generation in an exciting way. She has been published in the St. Austin Review and hopes to be published many more times in the future. She adores living by the ocean, but traded salty winds for mountain air to attend Christendom College, where she is majoring in English.

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9 thoughts on “Writing Within the Word?”

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    I think it’s a great idea. When I was in RICA, at the first meeting we were given a copy of the St. Joseph’s medium size edition and encouraged to highlight and make notes. I recently got interesting in “Bible Journaling” as it’s called – like the photo in your post of the painted page – but apparently there are no Catholic Bibles with the wide margins that would help in doing this. In my opinion, it’s the content of a Bible that matters, the paper and ink are just there to produce the Word. That’s not to say we should treat a physical Bible without respect, but taking notes, underlining, highlighting, drawing, painting, all those things can make us more familiar with the Word, and that’s the important thing.

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    I appreciate your inclusion of my photo and link to my post, “Welcome to my Journaling Bible: heART in the margins.” I applaud you for asking the questions you are and also inviting conversation on the subject. As I shared in my post, I think the decision of whether or not to write (or paint!) in your Bible are a very personal decision. I personally learn best through doodles and note-taking. I’m really viewing this Bible as one specifically for art journaling to help me engage with scripture in a fresh new way. So, I decided to intentionally break some of the rules that I might have set for myself with other Bibles I own (like getting the pages “messy”). Also, I know I haven’t been this excited to dive into Bible reading in a long time…and if that’s through art journaling on the pages of my Bible, then to me, that’s a good thing! But someone else may have a completely different perspective, and that’s okay! Just love that you’re open to different viewpoints! Cheers!

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    I own many Bibles in many English translations and even in other languages. Together, they provide more insight than one, single translation can offer. Several years ago, I decided to study Greek so I could read the New
    Testament in the most original language available. Studying Hebrew is on
    the horizon as well.

    Sometimes a word that has been mis-translated in one version sends me researching until I determine “what is really being said.” Then, upon rereading the same passage a few years later, some other word or phrase will grab my attention and I discover, once again, that even more is being said than I had previously thought.

    When I was a child, I didn’t write in my Bible. But as I began to take classes and realized I needed my notes to be before my eyes as I read, I began writing and highlighting and using post-it flags. Eventually, a Bible will be so full, I buy a new translation and begin again. For example, I must replace my Catholic RSV (which is the best English translation available) because I was searching for references to beauty and clothing and marked so many pages and wrote so many notes, it’s rather difficult to read that Bible with any other purpose than clothes and beauty.

    For me, reverence is not keeping my Bibles safely on a shelf though I certainly don’t just toss them around. Reverence is diving in and getting to know salvation history — what God is doing with and in us. Then, I repeat and repeat again and again… Notes, highlighting, and post-it flags are all part of the process. I want to know God and His Church as well as I possibly can. The Bible is one of the means He has given us to accomplish that. And, it’s always possible to keep one pristine version to read without notes.

    Drusilla Barron

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    I have three bibles and only one I mark when teaching CCD classes for now 12 years. The other two are blessed and I never mark….DOUAY RHEIMS VERSION and my family bible.

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    Although I see nothing wrong with it — paraphrasing one of the other commentators, it’s the Word of God that is being conveyed rather than so much the words of man on the printed page by which it is being conveyed that is important — I rarely write in my Bibles. Partly it is my Southern Baptist upbringing which greatly reverenced the book itself, and to a degree I see nothing wrong with that as long as the preceding point is remembered, but partly it is because I just do not write in many of my books at all. I do use post-it notes pretty liberally, however. As far as writing goes, though, there are a couple of major exceptions: 1) To this day my major study Bible of choice is the old New Oxford Annotated Bible (Expanded) RSV, non-Catholic but pretty traditionally orthodox in its annotations, which thirty-years ago I emended to the readings of the RSV-Catholic Edition (you are right — the best English translation there is, for study purposes), as well as made a pocket in the back in which to insert a photocopy of the RSV-CE notes (meagre though they be). 2) Notwithstanding my opinion that the RSV-CE is the best study translation, my favorite reading Bible is what was my first Catholic Bible when I was drawn toward Holy Mother Church, the Jerusalem Bible. I was recently able to resume using it after years in which my annoyance at the translators’ retention of the Divine Name Yahweh rather than the near-universal substitution of “The Lord” prevented me, when I discovered a new edition out of the Catholic Truth Society in England that emends all occurrences of “Yahweh” to “Lord,” in order to conform to Pope Benedict XVI’s directive of a few years ago. Which is a bit beside the point except that in that, my daily reading Bible, I have made three penciled emendations: Luke 1:28: “Hail, full of grace,” Matt 24:28: “Where the body is, there will the eagles gather,” and Is. 7:14: “the virgin is with child.” I consider all three of those to be corrections to faulty translation, which incidentally bring the JB in line with the RSV-CE. Other than those kind of rare instances, I tend not to write in my Bibles … although, come to think of it, I have also made some pretty considerable marginal notes in the grossly misnamed “Catholic Scripture Study Bible RSVCE” from St. Benedict Press (there are virtually no “scripture study” aids to be found except for a number of catechetical insert pages).

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    Such an interesting topic to ponder! I’ve never been one to write/highlight books, but as I’ve gotten older, the more open I am to doing that (but always in pencil). I do notate in my Bible, and it has helped me when I’ve gone back months or years later and come across something that stood out to me then and stands out to me in a different way now. I do think that anything done should be done respectfully – I don’t think I would want to mindlessly doodle or scribble in my Bible, but only really underline or write some small notes next to things.

    I do find the art Bibles really interesting – not sure it’s for me, but I do have a prayer journal that I write and draw and paste things into.

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