ONE BOOK, MANY VERSIONS
Updated: Jan 26
In the previous post, I noted that claiming to be “reading THE Bible” was a misleading statement. Not that I failed to reach the end of its 783,137 words during lock-down. Indeed, by year-end, I had time to read the Apocrypha too. (I’ll explain that at a later date.)
Rather, while referring to a couple of biblical commentaries, it became obvious that the version on my Kindle was one of many available. Indeed, that’s an understatement.
So here is my attempt to outline the life and times of ‘the book that changed the world’. And remember that I am neither a believer or a scholar – so all the errors are mine, made (ironically) in good faith.
BACK TO THE SOURCE
The first thing to remember about ‘THE’ Bible is that if you’re a regular English monoglot, you’re reading it in translated form.
The two main sections – the Old Testament and the New Testament – were written at different times and in different languages. OT was collated between 1500-430 BCE in Hebrew and Aramaic; NT written 45-95 AD in ancient Greek.
(Before rushing on, let’s pause for a moment to set out a couple of rules for the road. Most important is that everything I’ve just stated and much of what follows is open to question. The further back we go in time, the more open that ‘facts’ are for interpretation.)
(The second rule is that this post is not theological - religion and religious belief - nor ecclesiastical - about the church or the clergy [although that’s hard to avoid in the C14th-C15th, as you’ll see]. The whole point of the challenge last year was to finally read ‘the’ Bible. My intention now is to share a few things I learned about the book. That’s all.)
Back to the source material:
The Hebrew and Aramaic is called the Masoretic Text (MT); the ancient Greek is known as Textus Receptus (TR). Scholars must mix Greek and Latin at the earliest opportunity to appear clever and confuse laypeople.
We can thank/blame St. Jerome for that. In the fourth century he translated the Greek (TR) then the Hebrew (MT) into Latin, creating the foundation of the Vulgate Bible. That gave a leg-up to Christianity becoming the official state religion of the Roman empire, and the Roman Church getting its grip on biblical teaching for the next thousand years.
(The third rule of the road is that a LOT of historical material is missed from this post. Brevity is the soul of wit.)
Fast forward to the late fourteenth century:
THE ENGLISH. PATIENT
Among many roles in life, John Wycliffe was a seminary professor at Oxford University (Balliol College, 1361). Despite that status, he was regarded as a troublemaker because he supervised the translation of the Bible into Middle English that appeared between 1382 and 1395. He was trouble because the Roman Church hadn’t approved of the venture.
Indeed, they were so unhappy with Wycliffe, that 30 years after his death, the Church declared him a heretic, excommunicated him retroactively, and dug up his body to burn him and his works.
But the cat was out of the bag; an English translation existed.
A century later – 1526 – William Tyndale published a version of the Bible that he’d translated, which was the first printed in English. Might not sound like a big deal in our online, texting age, but until the Guttenberg printing press all Bibles were handwritten. So Tyndale had put two explosives under the Roman Church’s monopoly.
In the circumstances, not surprising that he was declared a heretic and executed in 1535.
The following year, Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. In 1539, he issued an edict for an English Bible – The Great Bible - to be in every church throughout the country. More than 9,000 copies were printed by 1541.
Bibles were an instrument of politics – and survival.
Between 1553-58 Protestant clerics and scholars absconded to Switzerland, escaping from Catholic Queen Mary I, and by 1560 had helped to create the Geneva Bible.
What goes around comes around. A decade later, with Protestant Elizabeth I in the throne, Catholic clerics and scholars ran to Douai University in France, where they spent forty years translating the Latin Vulgate into the English Douai-Rheims Bible (1610).
In 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England. And within a year, his biblical fate was cast. In January 1604 he chaired the Hampton Court Conference, to deal with a series of complaints about the Church of England. The outcome? Instructions to 47 scholar-translators to create a new Christian Bible in vernacular English.
The King James Version (KJV) was first printed in 1611 and was the dominant Bible for the next 350 years. Indeed, a quadricentennial imprint was published in 2011 and was the version I read through during 2020 lock-down.
But while it may have been dominant for a long period, it isn’t THE only version - despite the protestations of the KJV Only movement.
ONE BOOK, MANY VERSIONS
Popular versions were published in the first half of the twentieth century (1901 ASV American Standard Version, 1952 RSV Revised Standard Version), but it was the 1960s that started the expansion in English translations and Bible variations. Here is a very partial list:
NOTE: the following shows the year, abbreviation name, title, and the denomination(s) that prefer(s) the version
1961 NWT New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses); 1966 TJB The Jerusalem Bible (Catholic);
1970 NAB New American Bible (Catholic); 1971 NASB New American Standard Version (Evangelicals); 1972 TBLE The Bible in Living English (Jehovah Witnesses); 1973 NIV New International Version (inter-denominational); 1976 GNB Good News Bible (inter-denominational);
1982 NKJV New King James Version (Protestant); 1985 NJB New Jerusalem Bible (Catholic); 1989 NRSV New Revised Standard Version (Protestant);
1992 GNB-CE Good News Bible (Catholic); 1995 GW God’s Word (Lutheran); 1998 CJB Complete Jewish Bible (Messianic);
2001 ESV English Standard Version (Evangelical); 2002 MSG The Message (Protestant, and Catholic version); 2004 HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible (Southern Baptists); 2006 RSV-2CE Second Catholic Edition (Catholic);
2011 NABRE New American Bible: Revised Edition (Catholic); 2017 CSB Christian Standard Bible (Southern Baptists, Lutheran, Conservative Anglican).
But the Bible is the Bible, right? Well no. Let’s return to the method of translation.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
When reading a Bible, the first question to ask is ‘What text has been translated?’
Well, you know that already: Masoretic + Textus Receptus. Except that only applies to the versions before the twentieth century. For everything since the 1901 ASV American Standard Version, they include later Greek documents as new source material.
When the team worked on the KJV King James Version, the scholar-translators had just six Greek documents representing the New Testament. They were dated C10th-C13th – that’s over 1000 years after the Jesus timeline.
By 1881, when the first RV Revised Version appeared, there were two thousand Greek records available, some back to the C4th.
And in 2010, the archive reached 5,800 sources, some possibly dated to the C2nd.
The second question, and probably the more important to ask, is ‘What method has been used?’ Well, it’s been translated by someone who knows Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and English. Duh.
Except it is not that straightforward. In semiotic and linguistic circles, the consideration is called ‘Equivalence’:
If the translation is ‘word-for-word’, that’s Formal Equivalence. The word that was used in the source text has been translated in a literal way;
If the translation is ‘thought-for-thought’, that’s Dynamic Equivalence. The source text is translated to convey the idea, rather than exact words
For example, in English we might say ‘My mind instructs me’ or ‘My heart instructs me’. But the literal translation of the Hebrew source would be ‘My kidney instructs me’. Which is better in an English context? How would ‘My gut tells me’ sound in a Biblical context?
Here’s another one: the Hebrew word tob means good. In the KJV, tob is also translated as beautiful, true, glad, joyful, fair, loving, well, merry (that is, as noun, verb, adjective, or adverb).
Professional translators of a Bible will explicitly state which approach they are using. ESV uses an “essentially literal translation” (Formal); CEV uses “everyday words and phrases so that the Bible can be understandable by everyone” (Dynamic); CSB seeks a “balance of linguistic precision reflecting the original languages with readability in contemporary English” (aka ‘Optimal' Equivalence).
NOT GREEK, NOT MEEK EITHER
The fourth method, which avoids ‘equivalence’ is paraphrasing, usually by one person. Here’s the KJV start of The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.3-9)
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
And here are the same verses from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s “modern translation for today’s readers”.
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. 4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. 5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. 6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. 7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. 8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. 9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
For me, that deletes the poetry and the literacy out of the ‘original’, the English source of the phrases listed in the previous post. But for others, possibly a different generation, it speaks to them.
Different strokes for different folks.
There is one other reason for the sheer number of Bible versions: Money.
Definitive data on the total sales of Bibles is astonishingly difficult to find. Even historical metrics vary widely, between 2.5 billion copies to a more recent ‘estimate’ of 5 billion. Here are some data points from reasonable sources:
1976-95, GNB (Good News Bible) sold 17.5 million copies (The Guinness Book of Records)
1982-95, NKJV sold 22 million copies (publisher Thomas Nelson)
Since 1973, NIV sold 450 million copies (publisher Zondervan)
Over 100 million Bibles are sold or given away each year (The Economist)
Religious book sales in the US: $568m in 2017, $593.7m in 2018 (Statistica)
Remember that most of the translations have the copyright held by the publisher (e.g. Crossway), a religious organization (e.g. The American Bible Society), or in the case the KJV its held by the Crown, in perpetuity.
(NB: the two largest Bible-and-religious publishers are mentioned above, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. They are both owned by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which in turn is a subsidiary of News Corp.)
Finally, here's one of the most interesting claims about recent Bible sales, made in New Statesman last year:
‘Eden, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April.
‘The pandemic has triggered a “historic spiritual moment”, says Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who is unsurprised by the growth in Bible-reading.’
Perhaps I chose to read a Bible in 2020 for reasons (still) unknown me?
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