Not long ago, a student took issue with my suggestion that the class should highlight a particular verse in their Bibles. “I used to work in a Bible bookstore,” he said, “and I was really bothered by the way some people treat their Bibles. I think people should have more respect for God’s Word than to mark in their Bibles.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Jefferson described Jesus’ teachings as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals,” but he rejected what he called the “artificial scaffolding” that surrounded those teachings. In other words, he didn’t believe in miracles. “The Jefferson Bible” is his attempt to tear down that scaffolding. In the White House, “after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day,” he used a razor to slice Jesus’ teachings out of a couple of King James Bibles, then grouped them by subject (e.g., “false teachers”) and pasted them into a scrapbook. Jefferson preserved Jesus’ life story and his teachings, but he removed anything that strained reason — the walking on water or Lazarus’ resurrection. “The Jefferson Bible” ends with Jesus’ entombment, and Jefferson seemed happy to take the book to his grave. When he mentioned it in letters to a small circle of friends, he cautioned them to keep it a secret. Even his family didn’t find out about it until after he’d died.
In my judgment, these are two different examples representing two different attitudes. Take the first case of the student who complained about people who mark in their Bibles to improve their understanding and retention of the text. This isn’t abusing God’s Word. Writing marginal notes and highlighting important phrases is very beneficial to the learning process.
The leather, paper, and ink are not important. The important thing is the words they carry. God wants to write his law on our hearts (Heb. 8:10). If marking in our Bibles helps that happen, I see no reason why we shouldn’t do it.
What about Jefferson’s Bible? Clearly, the author of the Declaration of Independence didn’t care for certain parts of the New Testament. We mustn’t add to or take away from God’s Word (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:5-6; Rev. 22:18-19). The sum of God’s word is truth (Ps. 119:160); all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16).
Faithful people are shaped by the Word of God. They spend a lot of time with their Bibles. To them, God’s Word is a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Ps. 119:105).