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Death to Bible headings

We need to renew the way we read the Bible. I’ll be writing more about this in the months to come, but tonight I was particularly struck by one of the reasons why.

In the story of King Solomon (1 Kings 1–12), we read about a mighty ruler with the world at his feet. If you open a Bible, you’ll find that this story comes with headings, a bit like chapter titles. Helpful, right?

These headings are supposed to be descriptive, so that we can find our way around. [Character] + [plot event]. Straightforward, isn’t it? And at first glance, that’s how it sounds: “Solomon’s other activities”, “Solomon’s splendour”, “Solomon’s wives”, and so on.

In effect, however, these headings put a certain spin on the story. In this case, they lead us to imagine that Solomon’s reign was the glorious climax of Israel: a king who was shrewd and busy and powerful and, we imagine, worthy of celebration. Maybe that is still the Solomon you think of!

Yet this runs against the grain of the story itself. According to the story (1 Kings 9–11), Solomon’s wisdom and wealth is wrapped up with rottenness. In the passage innocently titled “Solomon’s other activities”, we find this wisest of kings using slave labour and selling off his own townships! Meanwhile, “Solomon’s splendour” is a story of filthy luxury and power-grabbing — there’s a reason the king’s annual income of gold is numbered at 666! And “Solomon’s wives?” No, Solomon’s gods — gods who demand child sacrifice. This king is totally crooked. His million marriages are just the final nail in the coffin.

The story of Solomon is not a detached reporting of the facts. It is a thoroughly theological narrative with a thoroughly theological point. Solomon’s wisdom has deserted him because Solomon has deserted God. At the pinnacle of its might, the nation of Israel has become exactly like the surrounding nations — and, more to the point, exactly like Egypt, the land of slavery, the symbol of oppression.

And it’s not as if this meaning is hidden in some web of interpretation. It’s quite plain.

But to get at the meaning, we need to get past those infuriating, “helpful” headings. Tonight, for my friends and I, the meaning was clear — yet not because we had Bibles in our hands, but because we did not. It took a retelling of the story, a spoken performance, for the message to be communicated.

The disturbing thing is that these “helpful” headings turn up, in more or less the same form, in pretty much every current English translation.

We have the greatest access to the Bible in history — but our Bibles are obscuring themselves.

Have you had any similar experiences?

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

10 replies

  1. I was hearing the other day how verses and chapters were added in the 1600’s(?) to make the reading easier. I think we get sucked into the way things are now and it can warp our view of what the Word actually says.

  2. and also bibles with notes … if it’s your first and main bible. Best to read first then go see what other people have to say.

  3. You can definitely tell the theological angle of a translator by the headings. I have a copy of the TNIV with no verse numbers or chapters. Refreshing to read and makes you rely way more on context. Cherry picking becomes much harder when you look at a text as a complete work and can’t rely on quick pickings.

  4. Do you have a link for that TNIV, Joey? I’d love to see it. There are a few useful things out there, but they’re few and far between, and not always properly accessible: the Pocket Canon is beautifully produced, but uses the KJV.

    Stay tuned for my little project, folks!

  5. The headings are helpful for finding the section you’re looking for. I also used to mentally link a lot of passages with a picture appearing on the same page in the Good News.

    The introductory notes normally say that the heading are not to be read in a public reading and I always cringe when someone makes that mistake.

    In electronic form, it’s easy to find something via a search, so I’d argue that in that format, the headings are no longer necessary.

  6. Cheers Eric. The headings are indeed useful, but my point here is that they’re not neutral. And even if they were, well, that might leave us treating the Bible like some sort of encyclopedia or reference book. My big point, really, is that the forms in which we publish our Bibles will always come with certain side-effects, limitations, and risks (along with all the useful things!).

    Digital and mobile Bible reading is a fascinating new development — if you’re using it, I’d love to hear your reflections on the experience.

    Annie Vallotton’s Good News artwork — I love it!!

  7. I don’t yet have a 21st c mobile device, but I rest assured that by the time my eyes can no longer read the small print in my backpack NIV, I’ll have a convenient mobile device for that.

    Interesting the ways the packaging of scripture can influence how it is read. The notey bits are more obvious in that regard, the section headings I’ve noticed could do that because almost every edition has them, but I’d never thought they ever put any spin there.

    The only Good News picture I can recall with interpretive spin was a hippopotamus drawn for Behemoth in Job 40 :)

  8. Eric, one example off of the top of my head is from Mark 13. My TNIV labels the first part of that chapter, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times.” The difficulty here is that there is no reference to “the end times” or even “the end of an age” and a lot of scholarship points to a likely fulfillment of these words by Jesus taking place in A.D 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem. Of course, the translators believe that this is not a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem but a diatribe about the final days of earth as we know it. Just one example of a theological bent that influences the subject headings. I’m not saying it is wrong, only that it is obviously theological and interpretive and not very neutral.

  9. Joey, I’ve been following up on that resource (and bought myself a copy, too!), and the results are very exciting! I’ll be writing more about it soon!

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