Paratext: A Neglected Tool for Bible Study

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What is “paratext”?

In short, paratext is everything in the Bible apart from the words. That statement sounds distinctly odd, for most people would simply equate the Bible with the words it contains, but there is, in fact, more in the Bible than the inspired words produced by prophets, apostles, and other authors chosen and guided by God.

There is, for example, the order in which the books have been placed, the titles assigned to the individual books, and the various ways in which the books are divided up into chapters, paragraphs, verses, and the like. None of these features are the result of the work of the authors. What this means is that these ways of packaging the text of Scripture are not, strictly speaking, part of the inspired biblical text. The paratext provides guidance and prompts for readers to assist their understanding of the text, so that it is not improper to suggest that “every Bible is a study Bible.”

Paratext is everything in the Bible apart from the words. … Ways of packaging the text of Scripture are not, strictly speaking, part of the inspired Bible text.

How does paratext guide our reading of the Bible, whether we are conscious of it or not?

Paratext provides helpful guidance for reading the Bible. For example, the four Gospels have been placed next to each other (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), with this arrangement suggesting the value of comparing (and contrasting) the different ways in which they present the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The names of the Bible books give indicators of the content or genre of the book. For example, “Genesis” suggests that it is a book of origins, the origin of the world and the origin of Israel. As such, it lays the foundation for the subsequent story of salvation history.

The divisions within books—for example, the medieval chapter divisions with which we are now so familiar—often package the text into units of thought and thereby assist understanding.

The paratext influences how people read the Bible, whether they are conscious of that influence or not.

For example, by making Paul’s famous comments about love in a distinct chapter (1 Corinthians 13), this has led to these words often being sentimentalized and seen as the “lovely chapter about love” to be read at weddings—instead of being read and interpreted in the wider context, where the words of the apostle are, in fact, a withering criticism of the Corinthian Christians for their lack of love, espe-cially in the way they exercise their spiritual gifts.

Could you give a specific example of a paratextual feature that, when recognized, gives new insights for Bible study?

An example early in the pages of the Bible is the placement of the chapter division at Genesis 2:1. This break in the text is often viewed as a mistake, for it interrupts the flow of the seven days of the first week of creation and puts the seventh day in a different chapter from the first six days. On the other hand, this division may provide a valuable exegetical insight: it may help the reader notice that the seventh day is very different from the previous six. There is no work of creation on the seventh day.

Paratext provides helpful guidance for reading the Bible.

Instead, the seventh day is an ideal day of rest, with the remainder of Genesis 2 depicting the ideal relationships that existed between God, humanity, and the animals before the entrance of sin. The break at Genesis 2:1 indicates that 2:1–3 primarily belongs with the verses that follow, not the verses that precede.

The division indicates that rest is all about the right relationship, and true and lasting rest will only come when the created order is freed from the effects of sin. These are insights that would enrich anyone’s study of the fourth commandment.

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This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Gregory Goswell

Gregory Goswell is the author of the new book Text and Pratext: Book Order, Title, and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation. He sat down with Lindsay Kennedy of Lexham Press to talk about the “paratext” in your Bible.

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Written by Gregory Goswell
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