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Introducing the Bible

The Bible remains a bestseller. According to research by the Barna Group, 92% of all American households own a Bible. And of the households that own a Bible, the average number in the house is 3. A majority of Americans also say that they read their Bibles at some point during the year.

            The Bible itself is not one book, but a collection of 66 writings sacred to Christians. The poems, histories, letters, and recorded prophecies were written over a large period of time and later collected into one edition.

The works now referred to as the Old Testament by Christians are also revered as sacred scripture by Jews around the world. While Jews may use the term Bible, their scripture is known as the Tanakh. The name TaNaKh comes from the Torah (law), Neviim (prophets) and Khetuvim (writings) which make up the divisions of the Jewish Bible. But the writings of the Tanakh are the same as those found in the Christian Old Testament, though the order of the books is different in each.

The New Testament contains the four descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and ministry we refer to as Gospels. These are followed by a history of the early church, written by Luke who wrote the Gospel name for him. The remainder of the New Testament consists of a collection of letters sent to churches and church leaders by the early leaders of the Christian faith—Paul, John, Peter and a few others.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, the language of trade in the Mediterranean world of the first century. For most of Christian history the Bible was known through a 5th century Latin translation created by the Christian scholar Jerome.

            Jerome created three versions of the translation, refining his work on later reflection, particularly in the Psalms and some other parts of the Old Testament. His translation was called the Vulgate as rather than using the Greek of classical learning, Jerome used the Vulgar (meaning “common” or “popular”) Latin of the people.

            During the 16th century Reformation of the Christian church, Reformers wanted to put the Bible back in the language of the people, rather than in the Latin of the church hierarchy and other elites. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. John Calvin translated the Bible into French. The primary English translator was William Tyndale who was put to death in 1536 for his English Translation of the Bible.

            Soon after Tyndale’s death, reform came to the Church of England. The religious reform was made possible by the political wrangling of Henry VIII to have a male heir to the throne. But those political changes did allow real religious reform to come to England. The main goal of the Reformation in England was to put the Bible and the worship of the church in the language of the people of Britain.

            The immediate means of doing this was the Great Bible, printed by the crown and placed in every church in England just three years after Tyndale’s death. The Great Bible was chained to the pulpits in many places so that no one could remove it from the church. There was still a strong desire to improve the hastily put together work and William Tyndale’s translation became a major source for the teamwork to follow.

When the King, by then James, authorized the translation of a Bible an incredible team of scholars was put together for the work. It was perhaps the only time in history when a committee created a work of literature. The result was the magisterial King James Version of the Bible. First printed in 1611, the King James Bible was a beautiful translation of the Hebrew and Greek into the English of the people.

Centuries passed and the King James Bible remained THE English translation. But in the passage of time, words changed meaning. Thee and thou, once part of common language as the informal forms of the second person (you), became anachronistic. Rather than sounding informal or familiar, they came to sound loftier, more noble. Other words had their meanings evolve over time so that the text of scripture was not as immediately accessible to those not educated in Elizabethan English.

The past 50 years has seen a dizzying array of translations of the Bible into English and not a few paraphrases. A paraphrase is an informally created edition in which one restates the words of the Bible so to be more clear. The paraphrase is created with little or no reference to the original texts. A paraphrase is not the best single version to own as it may stray from the original text. However, I do find reading the recently completed paraphrase The Message by Eugene Peterson to be a refreshing way to reencounter a passage of scripture.

A translation means that those creating the Bible went back to the original Hebrew and Greek and translated the words into English. This was not and still is not without controversy. It seemed like changing the words of the Bible—the inspired word of God. While faithful scholars saw this work as once again putting the inspired texts of Hebrew and Greek into the language of the people, others saw it as a blasphemous changing of the unchanging word of God.

As one who has studied and taught both Hebrew and Greek, I see both sides of the issue. I learned many passages of the Bible by heart from the King James Version. The beautiful language speaks to my soul and I have experienced it as inspired.

Yet, I have also spent hours diving into the Hebrew and Greek and find that there is real power in those original text. You take a book, such as the Gospel of Mark, which I have worked on translating, and it was written in a very simple Greek by a non-native speaker of Greek. It is rough and immediate and wonderful.

Reformers such as William Tyndale willingly died in the effort to put the Bible into the common language of the people. I hate to see the Bible come to sound archaic when its message is so timely. I love translations of scripture which cause me to once again be confronted by God’s Word. Rather than settling in to a comfortable relationship with the text, I am confronted once again with its meaning as I see the familiar text expressed in slightly different words.

The King James was translated primarily through a literal word-by-word equivalence to the degree that Hebrew and Greek grammar made that possible. Some newer translations use word-by-word equivalence, while others opt for dynamic equivalence which translates whole phrases as phrases. This makes for a smoother English reading while working to retain the meaning of the original text in English idioms. In my own translation work, I prefer a word for word equivalence, but I do enjoy reading the New International Version which used dynamic equivalence in translating.

The following is a non-exhaustive annotated list of commonly found English translations of the Bible:

King James Version (KJV)—The 1611 version was the first edition. Typesetting being what it was in 1611, new editions up through the 1800s corrected some minor typographical problems.

New American Standard Bible (NASB)—Translated in 1971, this version is scholarly in tone, but an excellent translation using word-for-word equivalence.

New International Version (NIV)—Completed in 1978 by 100 translators using dynamic equivalence, this easy-to-read version was created by Evangelicals wanting to put the Bible back into common language. I particularly recommend the NIV Study Bible for its combination of a great translation with very helpful study notes. The New International Readers Version (NIrV) is also offered, which is an early-reader friendly version created for children’s Bibles.

New King James (NKJV)—The product of Thomas Nelson Publishers, this version completed in 1982, takes the text of the King James and makes changes throughout to balance making the translation understandable to contemporary readers while maintaining accustomed phrasing.

New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)—The 1985 update to the 1966 Roman Catholic translation, which used dynamic equivalence to put the Bible into common English. The update generally made the translation more literal and also changed some masculine references to gender-neutral ones.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)—Completed in 1989, the NRSV is an update to the Revised Standard Version of 1952. The change which caused some controversy was to take some gendered words (such as “brothers”) believed to refer to both genders in the text, and translate them inclusively (“brother and sisters”).

New Living Bible (NLT)—This recent translation represents a serious effort to follow up on the success of the Living Bible, a paraphrase popular in the 1970s. As the NIV had done a quarter of a century earlier, the goal was a group of Evangelical scholars working to keep the Bible in the language of the people. I also recommend this translation for those looking for an easy-to-follow Bible.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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