Essay / Theology

What was the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge?

The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge was, and still is, a Bible reference work first published around 1830, created by the London publisher Samuel Bagster (1772-1851).

It is a deluxe set of cross-references. That is, the TSK consists entirely of a book-length listing of cross-references, showing only the chapter and verse citations, without any accompanying text. About the size of a complete Bible, the TSK is also organized like a Bible, beginning at Genesis and ending at Revelation. Any verse you consult in the TSK will send you to a generous selection of verses elsewhere in scripture which are most relevant to a full interpretation of the verse.

How it Works

For example, at Genesis 1:1, the phrase “in the beginning” is cross-referenced to six other passages: Proverbs 8:22-24; 16:4; Mark 13:19; John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:10; 1 John 1:1. Take the time to consult each of those, and you will build up a theology of origins that includes: God’s wisdom present with him before all his works; the fact that God made everything for its purpose; the coming tribulation which Jesus said will be worse than anything since “the beginning of the creation which God created until now;” the Word who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were created; the Father calling the Son the creator of all things in the beginning; and the Word of life whom the apostles saw and heard and knew in person, who was from the beginning.

That is not a bad overview of what “in the beginning” means in the Biblical doctrine of creation. It does take a few minutes to look up all six of those references, even if you are biblically literate enough to recognize some of the passages instantly from the citations (“Oh yeah, John 1:1, of course. Hmm, Mark 13 I’ll have to look up.”). When you have them all in your mind at once, you have the raw materials for a biblical theology of “creation in the beginning.” You still have plenty of thinking to do, but the TSK jump-starts your canonical memory.

But if you move on to the next phrase, “God created the heavens and the earth,” the TSK provides not just a half-dozen cross-references, but well over fifty! It takes considerably longer to look up all of those, needless to say. And at that volume, the physical presentation of them is intimidating: Ex 20:11 31:17 1Ch 16:26 Ne 9:6 Job 26:13 38:4 Ps 8:3 33:6,9 Ps 89:11,12 96:5 102:25 104:24,30 115:15 121:2 124:8 134:3 Ps 136:5 146:6 148:4,5 Pr 3:19 8:22-30 Ec 12:1 Isa 37:16 40:26 Isa 40:28 42:5 44:24 45:18 51:13,16 65:17 Jer 10:12 32:17 Jer 51:15 Zec 12:1, etc.

Whew! An unrelieved column of book abbreviations and chapter-verse citations is visually exhausting, even if you’re what they used to call a “Bible moth.” But frankly, only Bible moths would be interested in any of this. The Treasury was created, promoted, and eagerly used by a Christian culture that loved the Bible and loved to study it. And if you really want to charge up your mind with everything it takes to have a well-rounded understanding of what the entire Bible means by “God created the heavens and the earth,” fifty cross-references seems rather modest. At a glance, you can see that the Psalms and the later part of Isaiah has a lot to say about it, and if you know those books well, you can quickly call to mind why that would be so.

It sounds implausible to us now, but looking up all fifty references is well worth doing. And then you can meditate on the full biblical meaning of the verse in the context of the entire canon. And then you can move on to the next verse: Four cross-references suggested on “without form,” and five verses on “the Spirit of God was moving.”

The TSK has traditionally been advertised as having half a million cross-references in it. Bible number-cruncher Stephen Smith tells me that the number 500,000 is an exaggeration, and I’m going to have to take his electronic word for it. He suggests 380,000 cross-references as the real content of the TSK.

Since the Bible comprises about 31,000 verses total, that means the TSK provides, on average, about 12 cross-references for each verse of the Bible. And yet the TSK isn’t trying to be exhaustive: it is not simply a concordance indexing every occurrence of the word “created” or the phrase “heavens and the earth.” Behind every cross-reference listed in that wall of citations, there is a thoughtful decision. It was not generated by a computer, but by a Bible interpreter who has made a judgment call about which passages of scripture you ought to consult for further insight.

Torrey’s Endorsement

Who made these 380,000 decisions?

I’ve already said it was publisher Samuel Bagster, about whom there is more information below. But the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is usually described as being the work of R. A. Torrey. Most editions you can buy these days have Torrey’s name on the cover, and sometimes in the title: R. A. Torrey’s Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. To my knowledge, Torrey did not specifically try to claim authorship of the reference book, but he did become one of its chief promoters, and as his own fame rose, his endorsement of the book mattered to more and more people. Inevitably his name ended up on the cover. But if you read his introduction to the book, often printed inside, you see that he describes having first encountered it “some twenty years ago.” Torrey was world famous in his day, and his endorsement was ringing:

There is no book in existence of which I know where the references are at all adequate, or even remotely approach adequacy, excepting The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. Many people around the world, ministers, laymen and other ordinary Christian people (that is, ordinary in natural ability) have come to me and written me and thanked me for recommending to them “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.” But to get the good out of it means work, and you must always work hard in Bible study if you wish to get satisfactory results. It takes hard labor to get the gold, but gold is worth all the labor that it costs to get it.

If we still use, or have even heard of the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge today, we probably owe that to Torrey’s influence. But he was not its inventor.

Samuel Bagster’s Brainchild

Samuel Bagster (1772-1851) was a London publisher (first in the Strand, then at Paternoster Row) whose company specialized in producing multilingual Bibles, or polyglot editions with several languages printed in parallel. Aside from the TSK, his greatest publishing success was the Biblia Sacra Polyglotta Bagsteriana (1817-28), which apparently included up to 8 languages side by side, but could also be purchased with any two languages you liked interleaved on facing pages. That was an important resource for scholars. Bagster’s most popular work for ordinary people, however, was Daily Light, which was for decades the world’s best-known book of daily private devotional readings taken entirely from the scriptures. It’s still in print, still worth using, and available electronically as well.

When the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge was first published, its sub-title boasted “Consisting of Five-hundred Thousand Scripture References and Parallel Passages from Canne, Browne, Blayney, Scott, and Others, with Numerous Illustrative Notes.” This list of names points to editors of previous study Bibles that emphasized the value of cross-references for profitable Bible study. Bagster’s big idea was to harvest the best insights from all of them, and produce the most comprehensive set of judicious cross-references ever. So the half-million decisions do not represent the work of one student: They are a collection from many sources, and each of those sources in turn encoded decisions made by previous generations, reaching all the way back to patristic commentaries in many cases. I have followed TSK cross-references to surprising texts, only to discover that the same pointer had also been given by the Book of Common Prayer, by an ancient liturgical usage, or by a second-century church father like Irenaeus.

Bagster’s goal was to present an “entirely new Selection and Arrangement of References, in which it has been endeavoured faithfully to exhibit the Scripture as its own Expositor.” He goes on, “The greatness of the advantages that must accrue to a sincere and diligent reader of the Sacred Pages, from having constantly before him a reference to similar and illustrative passages, carefully investigated, and suitably applied, must be obvious to every one; and has been well understood by many pious and able men, to whose diligent and useful labours the Public is unspeakably indebted.”

But previous cross-reference Bibles had taken the form of marginal references. Bagster promoted the cross-reference system to a book in its own right:

References, however, have hitherto been printed, almost exclusively, in the margins of Bibles of a large size; and the benefit resulting form them has, in consequence, been very much restricted, the only small Bibles with References in the English languages being that published by Mr. Canne, the defects of which are many: for though he was diligent student of the Scriptures, and his work was at that time eminently serviceable, yet, as he was not in possession of those helps for the accomplishment of the task which he had undertaken, that are now afforded by many valuable editions and documents, which have been printed in different languages, his references are often only remotely applicable; he seems frequently to have been guided more by similarity of expression, than by illustration.

Bagster waxes quite poetic about the value of studying the Bible by cross-reference. For him, it was the obvious step to take if the Bible is in fact a single, unified document designed by God to teach everything we should know about him. Indeed, at one point Bagster comes close to having a vision of the Lord enthroned on the wings of cross-references:

It has appeared an object of the first magnitude, that the reader of the Holy Scriptures should be assisted by references from text to text, to have constantly in view the connexion of all the divine attributes, and the holy uniformity of God, in his government, both of his Church, and of the world. A display of the true character and perfections of God is, without dispute, one chief design of the Inspired Volume. Here, as in Isaiah’s vision, may Jehovah be seen, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; his train fills the temple, and the Sacred Writers, like the Seraphim, cover themselves and cry one to another, and say, HOLY and Glory. It is this which gives Scripture its superlative grandeur. By it, God is known; his will is promulgated; his purposes are revealed; his mercy is announced; and he is every where exhibited as worthy of the supreme adoration, love, service, and praise of all his intelligent creatures. Little do those who neglect their Bibles think what refined delight they lose, by this turning away their eyes from the most sublime, the most glorious, and the most beatifying object of contemplation, that the whole universe affords.

And he quotes the classic sermons of Horsley on the subject of letting scripture be its own interpreter by this method:

It were to be wished that no Bibles were printed without References. Particular diligence should be used in comparing the parallel texts of the Old and New Testaments. It is incredible to anyone who has not made the experiment, what a proficiency may be made in that knowledge which maketh wise unto salvation, by studying the Scriptures in this manner, WITHOUT ANY OTHER COMMENTARY, OR EXPOSITION, THAN WHAT THE DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE SACRED VOLUME MUTUALLY FURNISH FOR EACH OTHER. Let the most illiterate Christian study them in this manner, and let him never cease to pray for the illumination of that Spirit by which these books were dictated, and the whole compass of abstruse philosophy and recondite history shall furnish no argument with which the perverse will of man shall be able to shake this learned Christian’s faith.

Why You Should Use It Or Something a Lot Like It

This nineteenth-century tool, promoted by R. A. Torrey and especially popular among the early fundamentalist movement (but also beyond it), is still in print. Perhaps more to the point, it is widely available online in free electronic editions. Like concordances, the TSK seems to be perfect for hypertext. The TSK is also available along with all sorts of Bible study software, and is linked in multiple ways to other tools. I can’t advise about which ones are good, and I have not yet seen a truly elegant implementation of the TSK on screen, something that would be as inviting as the column of citations is intimidating. Stephen Smith has one of the best options here.

It’s tempting to say that the remarkable thing is that TSK was invented before hypertext links were. But in fact there were probably more people committed to the serious study of cross-references back then than there are now. Perhaps our love affair with neat gadgets will entice us back to the serious study of cross-references. The ipad app for the ESV Study Bible is pretty fun, and makes it easy to pull up cross-references. Take up and cross-reference!

But the current wave of new technology is not the first wave we’ve experienced. Cross-references of the kind the TSK tracks were themselves a technological achievement, and were based on prior tech advances. For example, the chapter-and-verse system, while sometimes distracting, is a brilliant device for locating passages with precision. The chapters weren’t standardized until the thirteenth century, and the verses weren’t specified until until the age of printing.

But even before that, for good cross-references you need a book, a bound volume, a codex. Allan Jacobs has pointed out that a codex is fundamental for cross-referencing, especially for complex typological arguments that move between authors. Peter Leithart summarizes Jacobs’ argument:

The book has a fixed order, which encourages sequential reading. At the same time, the book allows one to read back-and-forth. You can put your finger in Jeremiah, check Hebrews, and flip from one to the other quite readily. Try that with a scroll. So, the book encourages sequential reading, but a complex zig-zag, reading-forward-and-back reading that is characteristic of Christian typology. The book, Jacobs said in an arresting formula, is the technology of typology.

As the internet pushes us back toward scrolls, will Christian readers become better or worse at typological theological reading? Nobody knows yet. In the paragraphs above, I did indulge in a flurry of link-enabled cross-referencing, but whether you followed the links is another question.

In our time, Christian theologians are praising canonical readings, the theological interpretation of Scripture, and lectio divina with varying levels of excitement and trendiness. Richard Hays has argued persuasively that a resonant canonical memory is necessary for the proper interpretation of the Bible. The TSK was a tool for carrying out all of these projects at the level of Fundamentalist Bible readings. Christians of our day can hardly claim to have advanced beyond what our grandparents were capable of doing with the TSK in hand. The TSK is for serious Bible students without specialist training; it presupposes, validates, and reinforces the twin theological claims that the canon is the most relevant (and the only mandatory) context for understanding scripture, and that scripture is self-interpreting.

R. A. Torrey was serious when he said you should get a copy of the TSK and look up every cross-reference for the book you are studying. Try it with a short book. Once you’ve glimpsed the possibilities, you might want to back down from the austere majesty of the TSK to a normal Bible with judicious marginal references. Since I dipped into the TSK with its boasted half-million references, I have developed cross-referencing muscles that are still in good shape. It has helped me to become much more fluent with the (paltry!) 80,000 cross-references in my classic reference edition of the ESV. Eighty thousand is a good high number, and it’s amazing how often the key that unlocks a hard Bible verse is right there, about two inches from the verse itself, in the tiny marginal cross-reference of the Bible I’m already looking at.

The Bible may be self-interpreting, but it’s not self-studying. Consider using TSK methods, and a little page-turning, to take your study to a higher level.

(Note: This post was originally made on April 8, 2010. I updated it on June 2, 2011, mostly to correct some errors in the numbers, and to elaborate on a few remarks.)

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