Why are Bibles Printed With the Text in Two Columns Instead of One?

Louis R. asks: Why do they always print bibles with two columns on the pages instead of like a normal book?


The practice of using two columns with compact texts dates back to at least the fifteenth century, which in turn was just a continuation of an older tradition of narrow columns in horizontally opened scrolls. Both the Gutenberg Bible and the original King James Version (see: How the King James Bible Came About) used two columns, and many Bibles are still printed this way today. But why?

In part, this is simply tradition, as mentioned first being borrowed from the scrolls which the Biblical text was copied from. Today, many people have come to expect Bibles to have two columns and can’t imagine one with any other layout. But there’s a little more to this formatting choice than just tradition.

The decision of how to format a book depends highly on how that book is intended to be read. The single column format with larger fonts in a novel limits distractions and creates a good readable flow of text, allowing an individual to read a story from beginning to end with limited fatigue. On the other hand, reference books, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, break up the text by using multiple columns and providing pictures, annotations, and a numbering structure that help improve efficiency when using a book for perusing various specific topics.

Clearly the standard two column layout of the Bible more closely resembles that of reference books than novels. One can see how this might have appealed to clergy who, historically, were the ones who actually read/studied the Bible, with many among the laity unable to read anyway, even if they had access to such a physical text. The two column approach allowed for more easily starting each numbered verse on a new line so it could be quickly referred to and identified. In addition, some Bibles also contain page by page reference guides, allowing readers to skip through the text to find similar passages that could potentially help them gain a deeper understanding of the original verse read.

But there are actually much more practical reasons reference books go with the two column approach, namely using as few pages as possible. The…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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