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National Bible Week: Learning with Don Kraus, OUP Bible editor

To celebrate National Bible Week, we sat down with our long-time Bibles editor, Don Kraus, to find out more about his experience with publishing bibles at Oxford University Press.

How long have you been at OUP, and have you worked on Bibles the whole time?

I have worked at OUP since 21 February 1984, and yes, I’ve been Oxford’s Bible editor for that entire time. In fact, one of our former OUP-US presidents used to joke at the annual employee party that “We have an editor with us for [5, 10, 15] years, and he’s only published one book in that entire time.” I think the third time it was less funny!

Don Kraus, OUP's Bible editor.
Don Kraus, OUP’s Bible editor.

What can you tell us about the history of Bibles publishing at OUP?

Oxford isn’t the oldest Bible publisher in the world, but it’s been in the business for a long time — since about 1575. (That was before I came to work here.) In the 19th century Oxford Bibles were sold all around the world, and those sales helped finance other Press activities, including the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford was the first Bible publisher to develop really thin, strong paper; to include many cross-references (internal links between one Bible verse and another on the same topic or using similar wording); and to publish a Bible with commentary on the same page as the Bible text. The last one is what we know as the original Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909 and the first publication by OUP in New York — the New York office opened in 1896, but it started as a sales operation and only developed into a publishing center with the Scofield Bible.

What do you think is one of the biggest differences about publishing Bibles rather than other kinds of books?

I think there are two main differences, one physical and one that you might call meta-physical. The physical one is that Bibles are much longer than most books — the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is about 500,000 words, and the New Testament is almost 200,000; if you add the Apocryphal Books you will have a total word count of nearly 900,000 words. A major trade book, like a blockbuster novel or a best-selling biography, is rarely longer than a couple of hundred thousand words. So Bibles are long, and in order to keep them in bounds they are published on very thin paper, which is not used for anything else. That makes Bible production something of a specialty. Then there are the leather-bound editions, the ones with ribbon markers for keeping your place, and other special features, and the production process can get really complicated.

Study Bibles, our mainstay, get even longer, of course. Our biggest ones are more than 2400 pages, and can amount to 1.4 million words, which is about the limit for something that can be bound in one volume and still hold together!

The “meta-physical” difference in Bible publishing is the incredible fussiness of members of the Bible-readership. A typographical error is a major crisis for some of our readers, and we regularly get mail (or nowadays e-mail) from anguished readers who basically say, “How could you publish this Bible with an error in it?”

How long can the process be for publishing a Bible, start to finish?

A major new study Bible will take five to six years, from the time we plan it to the time we publish. This is not an “insta-book” business! We carefully review a proposal for such a resource, sometimes including research into the student or religious readerships, and work closely with the editorial board to plan the contents and the contributors. When the submissions begin to come in, we edit them carefully so that they are appropriate for the intended audience. We also supply supplemental materials in the back matter, including a glossary of technical terms and guidance about where to find English translations of ancient writings (other than the Bible) that the biblical authors might have known. We also have the whole text copy-edited, and the study materials and Bible text proofread.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve found about working on Bibles?

I think the one aspect of this job that I did not expect was the way in which we could keep developing new publications in such a limited area. There always seems to be something new or different to say about the biblical text, and some new way of presenting it. I would never have imagined when I started in this job that we would have published so many different kinds of Bibles.

How have the changes to publishing and shift to digital affected Bibles publishing at OUP?

Bibles have been available in electronic form for some years now, starting actually back in the time of floppy disks (yes, there were Bible texts on floppies — and they were very awkward to navigate). Later, with CD-ROMs and now with web-based publishing, you can find a wide array of translations at least for reading, if not downloading. And specialist publishers offer subscription services that provide a range of translations, original language texts, and loads of reference tools for researchers.

So far, this hasn’t impacted our sales of print versions very much. There is still a sense that “the Bible” as a printed book is something that people want to have, even if their regular reading is in another medium. As time goes on, however, and as our student population increasingly turns to web-based learning and digital resources, I would expect that our Bible sales will gradually migrate onto the web. And we will then have to decide about the extent of the materials that we will make available: as mentioned above, we’re now about at the limit of a bound, one-volume print edition in our study Bibles, but on the web there is no limit other than the reader’s/viewer’s fatigue!

Any interesting stories to tell concerning working on Bibles?

I think the book that we published that made the biggest splash — though not, I’m sorry to say, on the sales end – was the Inclusive Language New Testament and Psalms, which came out in 1995, when Bill Clinton’s presidency was first dealing with the Republican takeover of Congress (this political background is relevant, as you’ll see below). The inclusive language version was an adaptation of the New Revised Standard Version that avoided male-gendered language not just about human beings, but about God. Terms such as “kingdom” were rendered “reign”; “Father” became “Father-Mother”; even the devil, who in standard translations is male, was not referred to in gendered language.

The reaction was virtually instantaneous, and although some people liked our version, many more were very angry – and they let us know it. My favorite “fan” letter, from a detractor, began, “To Satan’s Right Hand Man (and Clinton supporter).” Another one told me, “You are the scum of a cesspool.” (My thought about that one was, “Well, better scum than lees.”) It was a novel experience for someone who had been in the backwater area of Bible publishing, and who was suddenly Exhibit A in the culture wars. I’ve since receded to the backwaters again.

Don Kraus studied Greek and Hebrew as an undergraduate (Trinity College, Hartford) and Hebrew and biblical studies at the Harvard Divinity School.  He has worked in publishing since 1978 (before that he was in bookselling) and has been Oxford’s Bible editor for nearly thirty years.  He is the author of three books: Choosing a Bible, about the differences among Bible translations and the readerships for which they are intended; Sex, Sacrifice, Shame, and Smiting, about how to understand difficult or repellent passages in the Bible; and The Book of Job: Annotated and Explained, a translation of Job with an introduction and annotations intended for general readers. He is married (to Susan, an Episcopal priest who is the Rector of St. Giles’ Episcopal Church in Jefferson, Maine). He lives in Maine. He likes murder mysteries, preferably British and not too gory.

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