Picturing the Bible: Illuminating Scripture with Illustrated Bibles

Habakkuk climbs the watchtower, as depicted in my 1976 Good News Bible.

When’s the last time you read an illustrated Bible?

For the last two decades of my life, I’ve read regular, plain old text-only Bibles, with illustrations limited to the occasional map of Paul’s missionary journeys. But that’s changed (along with many other things) with the arrival of children in my life. Over the past year, I’ve spent many hours reading lavishly-illustrated children’s Bibles (currently the Children of God Storybook Bible, but there are others on the bookshelf too) with my toddler, and remembering the power and appeal of Bible illustrations.

The usefulness of Bible illustrations to children is easy to understand; even when paraphrased for children, many Bible stories are a challenge for young readers to process. Illustrations are less common in “grown-up” Bible translations, although interesting Scripture illustration projects like Makoto Fujimara’s “Four Holy Gospels” do exist.

My own Bible reading growing up was greatly influenced by an illustrated Bible—a Good News Bible (now the Good News Translation, available to read on Bible Gateway, albeit without illustrations). It was such a presence in my early life that I can still vividly recall the illustrations of specific Bible scenes. Its approach was unique: while it had a number of traditional depictions of famous Bible scenes (like the Habakkuk illustration above), the vast majority of pictures were bluntly utilitarian in function, rather than artistic. They were sparsely-drawn sketches that depicted Scriptural scenes with little detail or aesthetic flourish:

A depiction of David and Saul's confrontation in the cave.

What must I do to be saved?

As a result, they were very effective at visually explaining Bible stories without distracting from the Scripture itself. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but flipping through my tattered childhood Bible decades later, I have to admire the way the simple pictures illuminate the text for a young reader—very different in style than the elaborate manuscript illuminations of the medieval church era, but serving the same function.

Different illustrated Bibles take different approaches—some the informative but minimalist strategy seen above; others use abstract, atmospheric imagery; others present historically accurate drawings or elaborate maps. But all aim to help us engage with Scripture through the human eye for art as well as text.

Is there an illustrated Bible from your childhood that influenced your understanding of Scripture? Can you still picture those illustrations as you read the Bible today? Do you keep an illustrated Bible on your bookshelf? Share your favorite at the Bible Gateway page on Facebook.

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  3. Reading multiple Bibles in parallel

Posted by Andy

Filed under Bibles