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Online Edition - Vol. III, No. 1: March 1997

The Power of Babble

More Simplified Bibles Hit Bookstores. What Hath They Wrought?

(This article was published in Time Magazine, September 1996, and is reprinted with permission.)

by Paul Gray

Yea, verily, English-speaking Christians in search of Scripture suffered, not long ago, few perturbations. Protestants reached for the Authorized, or King James, version of 1611. Roman Catholics consulted the Douay-Rheims translation, first issued in 1609 but revised during the 18th century to resemble or duplicate in most particulars the memorable cadences and phrasing of the King James. For some two centuries, readers of either of these Bibles could feel that the word they sought was the Word, that they had access to the linguistic unity enjoyed by humankind before the Tower of Babel, "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech."

No longer. The first modest assault on the long dominance of the King James version came in 1952, when the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S. released the Revised Standard Version. Thanks to 350 years of discoveries in archaeology and philology, the Revised Standard more accurately, if rather less poetically, reflected the original documents than did the King James. It quickly became the authorized text for most mainline Protestants. And after that trickle: the floodgates opened.

There are now in print, according to Publisher's Weekly, some 450 English translations, paraphrases or retellings of all or parts of the Old and New Testaments. There is a New King James Version and a New Revised Standard Version, plus the New International Version, the New American Standard, the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, Today's English Version -- also known as the Good News Bible -- the Contemporary English Version and, well, the cup runneth over. These widely, wildly diverse texts chase the estimated $400 million that Americans spend each year on Bibles. And this proliferation of Bibles has in turn begotten a growing cottage industry in printed guides and videotapes intended to help both booksellers and customers sort through the many different choices. The age of so-called niche Bibles arrived.

A major new competitor for all that cash appeared in bookstores this summer: the New Living Translation (Tyndale House: 1,289 pages; $19.99). It comes with an initial print order of 950,000, a $2.5 million promotional budget and a fail-safe, back-cover blurb from Billy Graham. The book is handsomely bound and printed and contains, at the end, a useful series of maps of biblical places. And anyone who remembers the King James will find some pretty startling things inside.

The New Living Translation is actually a revision and updating of The Living Bible (1972), Kenneth Taylor's loose, breezy, paraphrase of the Old and New Testament (Samuel 20:30: "You son of a bitch."). It was frankly intended for readers who found Scriptural translations tough sledding, and those readers responded gratefully. The Living Bible has sold 40 million copies to date.

To put together this latest version, a team of 90 specialists checked Taylor's paraphrase against the original documents. The result thus carries more scholarly authority than The Living Bible, but it remains remarkably similar in language to its popular predecessor. And its radical difference from the King James is apparent from the outset. In Genesis, when God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, the King James conjures up a roar of rebuke:

"And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou has done?" The Deity in the New Living Translation sounds like a parent scolding a child who has just tracked mud into the kitchen: "How could you do such a thing?"

If a certain loss of majesty has transpired here, as it does throughout, the editors remain unapologetic. "The translators have made a conscious effort to provide a text that can be easily understood by the average reader of modern English." They write, "The result is a translation of the Scriptures written generally at the reading level of a junior high school student." Since poetry is harder to grasp than prose, the poetry is rendered prosaically. Thus the King James version's "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Ecclesiastes 2:3) must become, "There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heaven."

A defense of this practice might be that the editors of the New Living Translation are hardly alone. Most of the new Bibles flooding the market display a keen solicitude for their target readers, protecting them from tricky phrases that might call for a moment's reflection or, in some instances, from politically incorrect sentiments. Thus the 1995 The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version renders God as "Father- Mother" and portrays Christ as ascending to sit at "the mighty hand" of the Father-Mother rather than "the right hand", thus keeping left-handed readers from feeling slighted.

The desire to make money is one reason to undertake a new biblical translation, but it is not, some observers believe, the only one. "Yes, there are commercial motivations because Bibles are big business," says John Wilson, managing editor of the Evangelical journal Books & Culture. "But the overwhelming motivation behind all these versions is the conviction that this is the Word of God and people should be able to read it." Henry Carrigan, religion book-review editor of Publisher's Weekly, thinks the current spate of simplified Bibles "could be compared to what the King James Version did when it came out. It gave the people the Bible in their own language."

But what a language it was, the Renaissance English shared by a contemporary named Shakespeare, bursting with the energies and inventiveness of the just-ended Elizabethan Age. The 54 scholars who compiled the King James version strove for accuracy and directness and produced, in the process, some of the greatest poetry in the language. That Bible inspired, among so much else, John Wesley's hymns, the Book of Common Prayer, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the prose rhythms of Ernest Hemingway. It became the great resonator, the shared reference uniting English-speaking peoples around the world.

Will such religious and social influence be achieved by any of the new, simplified Bibles? The publishers' stated ideal of providing a text suited to the individual needs of each reader repudiates any such ambitions. The Bible must strive for democratic diversity, so the current thinking goes; the day is past when a dominant incarnation of it could, or should, exert a centripetal, unifying force on religious and social discourse.

How many of those now flocking to see the film adaptation of John Grisham's novel A Time to Kill know that the title comes from Ecclesiastes 3:3 in the King James? Should they know, or care? If no one any longer reads the same words on the same page, on what basis will people talk to and understand each other? Will easy-read Bibles, rendering ancient mysteries and miracles in sitcom terms, inspire awe or channel surfing? Are many Good Books too much of a good thing?

(This article was published in Time Magazine, September 1996, and is reprinted with permission.)

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