When I first started learning about fine Bibles, Cambridge quickly rose to the top of the list of publishers that I wanted to get to know better. And based on the Cambridge Bibles I’ve looked at, they have yet to disappoint. Cambridge just about has the market cornered on fine editions of the NRSV at the moment. This is good news for fans of the NRSV as Cambridge has done a great job with their newest editions. Cambridge has a new NRSV reference Bible available in three options: a burgundy goatskin binding with apocrypha, a brown cowhide binding without apocrypha, and a black French Morocco leather without apocrypha. The brown Cowhide NRSV Reference Bible is the subject of this review.
Better than Goatskin?!
Goatskin is the gold standard for Bible covers. I have now had the opportunity to handle many different goatskin covers. And I have liked every single one. I was close to deciding there was no need to consider anything else. And then I got my hands on this Bible. It is not goatskin. And it is amazing! The leather is ridiculously soft and supple. I really like the color of the leather and the way the grain changes when you bend it one way or another. I am also a fan of the interior leather lining which is black and has an attractive grain.
The Bible is edge-lined, which means that the cover has maximum flexibility. I even think the writing on the front cover works nicely, though I typically prefer a blank cover. I also think the amount of text on the spine is exactly right. And I love the raised bands on the spine, which are the most elegantly executed of any Bible I’ve seen so far. To my surprise, this is hands down my favorite cover of all of the Bibles I currently have. And it isn’t close.
This Bible completely addressed the concerns I have had about the hinge on edge-lined covers. To explain this concern I need to first give a bit of background information.
There are two main ways that the book block (the pages of the book itself) is attached to the cover. Paste-off covers have thicker pages at the end, where the last page is pasted to the cover itself. The cover is attached to the book block by glue with a board of varying thickness between the leather cover and the book block itself, which makes the cover less floppy and flexible. Paste-off book bindings are generally less expensive.
Edge-lined covers attach the cover directly to the book block without gluing anything to the cover itself. This is accomplished by a tab that is part of the inside cover that is inserted and glued into two thick pages at the front and back of the text block. If this does not quite make sense, check out this excellent post, which has very helpful pictures.
The tab that is inserted into the text block is often referred to as a hinge. The hinge is what has perplexed and frustrated me. The hinge is often extremely stiff. With the pages glued together, it can extend far enough toward the edge of the page that it mitigates the floppiness of the cover. Let me put it this way: Edge-lined covers are usually two pieces of leather sewn or glued together. They are marvelously limp and flexible. You can roll them up and they spring right back into place. One practical thing that a flexible cover makes possible is one handed reading. You can roll the front cover back around the book and roll the pages with it and read the book with one hand and not damage to the binding. This flexibility is one of the functional things that really differentiates this quality of Bible from bonded leather or genuine leather paste-off Bibles.
So what is the problem? The hinge is often so stiff and inflexible that for an inch or two you cannot move the pages around the hinge itself. In effect, the hinge of edge-lined Bibles makes the pages less flexible than the cover, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect in a reading experience. You can roll the cover right around the back of the book. But you cannot roll the pages back with the cover because of the rigidity of the hinge. All of this had left me feeling some ambivalence about whether edge-lined covers were really all that much better than paste-off covers.
And then I encountered the perfect hinge.
The Cambridge NRSV has the best hinge I have ever seen. The hinge succeeds in providing a durable attachment of the book block to the leather cover, without making the text less flexible than the book. (See photos above.) I do not have any other edge-lined Bible where the pages conform nearly as closely to the cover as they do with this Bible. This may not seem like a big deal, but after handling multiple edge-lined Bibles, the hinge has been a consistent disappointment to me. It has often felt like a mitigation of the primary advantage of the floppy covers you get on edge-lined Bibles. This Bible makes the hinge a non-issue for me.
The paper feels a bit thicker and more opaque than other similar Bibles. I found the text to be readable, though it is certainly not a large print Bible. The layout is double column and the cross references are in the center column. The use of small dots to divide the cross references from the text is attractive and more subtle than solid lines would be. I recently said that ribbons weren’t a factor in considering Bibles. After writing those words, I was surprised to find how much I loved the width and color of the ribbons in this Bible. I was also surprised to find myself wishing there were three ribbons instead of two.
Aside from adding a ribbon, there were two things I would change if I could and one that I was unsure whether I would change or not. First, I would add room in the gutter. The text feels a little cramped to me in the middle of the book. Second, I would number the entire book consecutively. The page numbers start over in the New Testament and in the back matter. I think this is probably more of a feature that is typical of the NRSV than Cambridge, as neither of my other Cambridge Bibles restart page numbering.
This Bible comes with a glossary instead of a concordance, which means that each entry has a short description or definition followed by a few references. I could not find concrete information on the number of Scripture references in the glossary, but I suspect that there are less references in the glossary than there would be in a concordance. On the one hand, I think I would prefer the most exhaustive concordance possible in a one-volume reference Bible. On the other hand, of all the reference Bibles I have acquired, this glossary is a unique feature and I can imagine being surprised at how much I use it.
One of the most interesting things to me about the time I’ve spent on high quality Bibles has been learning how varying the support is for different translations. If I had had to guess at the outset which translations would have the widest array of options, I’m pretty sure I would have guessed that the NRSV would be in the top two. In reality, the NRSV is one of the least supported translations in “fine” editions. This has been a surprise because the NRSV is the most popular Bible in mainline theological education and many mainline churches. If the NRSV is your favorite translation, you should give serious consideration to purchasing this Bible. You will not only get a great Bible, you will be investing in the translation itself and encouraging publishers to make this translation more available in a wider range of editions. After the time I have spent with the cowhide Cambridge NRSV Reference Edition, I am confident it will last and you will be glad you bought it. It is a great Bible with an exceptional cover.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post. Cambridge generously provided a copy of this Bible in exchange for my honest review.