Headlines and Titles of Works

Q. An author of a book I’m copyediting wishes to italicize the books of the Bible (Genesis, etc.) on the grounds that the convention of using roman type for sacred works is based on the assumption that these texts were divinely inspired rather than authored by humans (an assumption this author is challenging). The author would add a note explaining this style choice.

I cannot, however, find anything about the basis for the rule that the titles of “highly revered works” (from CMOS 8.103) should not be italicized. Do you know the original rationale for the convention?

A. The lack of italics for the Bible and its books probably has less to do with divine inspiration than with the fact that the word “bible” comes from Greek biblia, meaning “books.” “The Bible,” then, is the proper name for a special set of books rather than the formal title of a publication.

The same might be said of the Koran, or Qur’an, a title that in Arabic means “recitation.” Other sacred works have similarly generic or descriptive titles.

As for Genesis, Exodus, and so on, had the Bible been published as a book for the first time today, it would have been called The Bible (in italics), and each major “book” therein would have been treated as a titled chapter or section and put in quotation marks: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” etc.

Ultimately, it’s up to the author how to style such names. But you might ask your author to consider the idea that the stylistic conventions for referring to the Bible and its books predate modern publishing (and its style guides).