Text and Paratext

by | Feb 24, 2023 | Book Review

A Book Review

The Bible is full of words, which we expect because Scripture is a text. The Bible also includes many paratextual features that, by definition, are not the words of Scripture. Gregory Goswell, in Text and Paratext: Book Order, Title, and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation, discusses three such features as indicated in his book’s subtitle. Goswell explains how each of these features functions as commentary on the Word of God. How does this work? Consider the role each of these features plays.

Canonical Structure

In what order should someone watch the Star Wars films? Arguably, one could view them in sequential order by production date or chronologically. Each option offers a different experience. How should we arrange the books of the Bible? Goswell analyzes how these books were ordered in the Hebrew canon, Septuagint, and New Testament.

One example of canonical structure at work is the location of Malachi. Although this book appears at the very end of the Old Testament—and seems to do so quite fittingly—this is a sixteenth-century innovation without precedent in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin (34).

Book Titles

Children in the United States and Canada hunt for Waldo in Where’s Waldo? while British kids search for Wally in Where’s Wally? What we know as NBC’s Saved By the Bell was originally titled Good Morning, Miss Bliss by Disney. First and Second Samuel are known as the first two books of “Reigns” or “Kingdoms” in the Septuagint.

Goswell applies the word of Gérard Genette on title functions to the books of the Old and New Testaments. Titles can do the following:

  • Identify a work
  • Indicate general contents or theme (e.g., Judges)
  • Highlight the work (e.g., Song of Songs)
  • Indicate form or genre (e.g., Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations) (80)

Textual Divisions

John 3:16 comes after John 3:14–14. Jonah 1:17, in an English Bible, appears as Jonah 2:1 in Hebrew and the Septuagint. The Septuagint divides Psalm 147 into two separate psalms. Studying how a text is divided into sections, chapters, and paragraphs is known as delimination criticism. Goswell presents four functions of such delimination:

  • To separate
  • To join
  • To highlight
  • To downplay

Each function can affect our interpretation of Scripture.


This book sheds light on the overlooked implications of the paratextual features we largely take for granted. The author’s mission is not to find fault with book order, titles, and divisions. He challenges his audience to consider the motives for these decisions and how they shape our understanding of God’s Word. His task is not merely to identify differences between traditions, but to identify the significance of each paratextual decision.

Goswell has paved the way for others to study the importance of paratextual features. Most of the chapters in this book originally appeared as academic articles, indicating the author’s scholarly investment in his subject matter. He makes a compelling case that paratextual features are significant, and he provides an excellent introduction to their study. This is the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about the paratext of the Bible. Even after you read it through in its entirety, you will want to reference its data on individual books of the Bible and the helpful summaries at the end of each chapter.


Special thanks to Lexham Press for a review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I know. 


Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall