3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated

The Bible, book of books. But few people who aren’t already deeply believing have really read large parts of it. Some phrases from it have entered our culture and common vocabulary, but because of its length the Bible can intimidate. Even those who would acknowledge that they should have read it already, if only for its significance for the western world.

If a complete reading is out of the question (and I don’t want to deter anyone, but practice shows that this is only interesting to a small part of the population), the question is: how to approach it.

A quite incomplete, but even more fascinating possibility is this book, “3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated” by Donald E. Knuth.

Professor Knuth may be the most famous computer scientist, with innumerable profound contributions to his field, as to neighbouring fields. And he is a devout Christian.

This book follows the method he used in structuring a Bible course he first led many years ago.

Instead of reading the Bible cover to cover he selected single verses to talk about those more deeply.

So far nothing unusual, the time constraints of a Bible course already forces this.

But he didn’t just select his favourite verses. or the best known verses, or the central verses of the big books (the Evangelists, for example). No, he let chance govern the selection. He took random samples, respecting the higher-level groupings (the books).

The Bible contains about thirty thousand verses. A selection of sixty of them should give interesting and more or less representative insight into the whole. Sixty totally random verses would have been fine, but sixty verses, one of (almost) each book, should be even better, because in this way every book (and thus every author) should be represented.

And as the title says, his selection fell on chapter three, verse sixteen of every book (with the well-known verse from John as the basis), modulo some obvious modifications of that rule, for books with third chapters that are too short or don’t have three chapters at all. All in all ninety-five books remain.

The presentation of all these books and their verses 3:16 is always the same on four consecutive pages:

First the book of the Bible is described. What is it about? What story is being told, if one is told? In which time does it sit? What were the circumstances in which the people of Israel found themselves?

Followed by a page that is central: The verse 3:16 from this book, interpreted in calligraphy, by varied artist. Those calligraphies are beautiful and are being sold separately on a poster.

The third and fourth page repeat the verse in the margin and contain Knuth’s thought about the verse. This is the interpretative part.

My conclusion: Worth a read. But especially worth a look.

Knuth is an amateur theologian, at best, even spending lots of time in libraries. You cannot expect special discoveries of theological nature. But he succeeds in establishing some understanding for those times and in placing biblical stories in historical context.

The calligraphies are book’s real climax. And this unorthodox approach to the Bible focusses the eye on verses that wouldn’t find much attention otherwise.