Friday, November 14, 2008

New Bibles

I own a lot of Bibles. A couple dozen, probably. Some I've purchased over the years, but most have been given to me - Bibles my parents gave me, my Ordination Bible, the Bible I was given when I was installed as pastor at Lakebay Community Church.

Two particular bibles have caught my attention lately. I was at Borders yesterday and picked up a copy of The Voice: New Testament, a brand-new translation by the Ecclesia Bible Society. I've only had a few spare moments between then and now to poke around inside, but so far I like what I'm finding.

As to the translation, those behind this interpretation have made a conscious effort to present the Bible as story, in a way that will connect with a world steeped in narrative . In other words, the concern of the translators was the tendency of most Bible translations to come across rather academically, and thus sometimes rather stilted, losing the broad sweep of action and dialogue that is supposed to carry the reader along. In order to achieve a different telling, the publishers used not only academics and people with "Dr." in front of their name, but also poets and story-tellers and musicians and artists and pastors. While maintaining fidelity to the original texts (as much as we have them), they sought to translate in ways that sing and resonate in the ears of 21st-Century people. In essence, their hope is to reclaim books that were written as stories, shared around campfires and along dusty roads, stories that lay deep within the hearts of God's people, but that have all-too-often become the battlegrounds of textual critics and classical academics.

Much thought went into the layout. One of the changes The Voice brings is to present the text in screenplay format. Thus, instead of "And then Jesus said. . .and then Mary said. . .and then they all said. . ." you get:

Jesus: Go get some food.
Disciples: Where are we going to get food?
Jesus: Why don't you try that Burger King over there.

(note: I just made that part up to give you an example. Nowhere in The Voice does Jesus talk about Burger King)

Also, within the text, the translators have included points of clarification to help the reader track the story. This is both an interesting addition and a minor irritation.

For instance, in Matthew 8, the story of the healing of the demon-possessed men, you read this:

"A way off - though still visible, not to mention odoriferous - was a large herd of pigs, eating.
Demons: If You cast us out of the bodies of these two men, do send us into that herd of pigs!
Jesus: Very well then, go!
And the demons flew out of the bodies of the two flailing men, they set upon the pigs, and every last pig rushed over a steep bank into the sea and drowned. The pig herders (totally undone, as you can imagine) took off. . ."

You can see how they do it - the normal text is a fairly faithful translation of the Greek texts, while the italicized portion are NOT part of the original text, but added to help make better sense of the story. One can see the danger - when you put the added part right in line with the text, it's easy to confuse what is the inspired Word of God and what is human interpolation. At the same time. . .last Wednesday I taught the middle school girls' Bible Study (Karina usually does, but she was in Mexico at the moment), and a couple of those girls have never cracked a Bible before this fall. Have never been in church before. Missed out on my Confirmation Class. And thus were generally interested but clueless about all that was going on. And I can see where this Bible would be the perfect Bible for them, helping them see and understand the bigger picture, and what's underlying the action. Much of what the above text does reflects exactly what I did in that Bible study - explain the history, the thoughts and feelings, helping them to visualize the action, the sights and sounds and smells of the story as it went along. So I'm not overly troubled by what the translators have chosen to do here. As to the irritation: sometimes when I'm teaching I enjoy the more nebulous nature of the original text, as that gives the class room for discussion. "What's going on here? Why do you think Jesus said that? What do you suppose they looked like?" Those are all good ways to further dialogue in the classroom, filling in the blanks. When translators fill in those blanks, as the NLT also does fairly often, it can dampen discussion. After all, the answers are all right there in the text now. Nothing left to toy with, to discern, to debate or wonder about. Thus, as with the NLT, sometimes what makes for good public or private reading doesn't always do as well as a basis for teaching.

In addition to the in-line added commentary, The Voice includes more extensive thoughts as the text goes along, still in-line with the text but bracketed off in boxes. More often than not (insofar as I've seen, anyway), these tend to be summary-type statements, or devotional, personal statements. For instance, following the above story of demons and pigs is the following 'thought in a box': "Some people recognized that Jesus was powerful, but they wanted nothing to do with His kind of power. As in this case, it cost them dearly."

In the end, I think this Bible may be the answer to all those people who say to me "I've never read a Bible, and I don't know where to start." Just looking at how the page is laid out: two simple columns, easy-to-read font, script-style dialogue, basic "helps" along the way - it invites the reader in. Also, like most novels, it doesn't contain pictures and charts and diagrams and timelines and all those extras you find in so many other Bibles. Just the text, with basic book introductions. Even the chapter and verse numbers are minimalized so as to not interrupt the flow. It seems to me to be a lot less overwhelming than your typical Bible. Finally, the copy I picked up, with woven cloth and leather cover, still carries a dignity about it, still seems to offer respect to the text within, which is not the case with so many Bibles printed today (see Kid's bibles, Youth Bibles, Teen Bibles, Postmodern Cynical Bibles. . .).

I am looking forward to spending more time with this Bible in the days to come. If you're interested in it, you can check out more at their website (see above). You can even download a copy of the Gospel of John for free, just to get a feel for how it reads.

Last May I ordered a copy of The Books of The Bible, which is not a new translation but a new arrangement of the Bible. Published by the International Bible Society, The Books of the Bible is a specialty version of the popular TNIV, the translation I use in my own personal study and preaching.

Two things stand out about TBOTB, and both relate to the overall layout of the text. First, the publishers chose to order the books in ways that make more logical sense, or that stand truer to their original intent. Many people don't understand the rather haphazard way in which the order of books within the Bible was created; nor do we see how the disordered manner of book listings interrupts the overall flow of the Bible.

For instance, Luke and Acts were really intended to be Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of the Christian story, compiled by Luke. Vol. 1 tells the story of Jesus, Vol. 2 tells the story of the early church. But both were written by the same author and meant to flow together. However, early on the church shoved John in between Luke and Acts, since Luke structurally parrallels Matthew and Mark while John is just so, well, John-like. But when John broke up Luke and Acts, the reader lost the drama of reading Luke's epochal story beginning with the earliest inkling of the Messiah and ending with the Church spreading to Rome and beyond.

Thus, the publishers tried with TBOTB to restore a semblence of historical order and original intent, meaning the books of this Bible aren't necessarily in the same order as the books in your Bible. Luke and Acts are put back together, and followed by all the Pauline epistles. Matthew, being the most Jewish of the gospels, is placed right before Hebrews and James. Mark was a disciple of Peter, and much of the gospel of Mark probably came from the memories of Peter, so the gospel of Mark is placed just before 1 and 2 Peter. John is placed right before 1, 2, and 3 John. And so it goes.

In addition, in attempting to read as closely as possible to the originals, chapter and verse numbers have been eliminated from the text itself, and placed along the bottom of the pages. Yes, that makes it difficult when the pastor says "Turn to Joshua 4:5," it makes it difficult when you're attempting to look up a specific verse. I get that. But it also allows the reader to see the Bible as it was, whole sections and thoughts, a long developing train leading toward monumental conclusions, rather than a series of disconnected verses divided by random chapter and verse numbers.

TBOTB does even less with commentary and "helps" than The Voice. In fact, there is no commentary in TBOTB, save for a few short book introductions. And all footnotes have been changed to endnotes, so as not to clutter each page. In fact, rather than columns, each page is a gingle column of text, laid out in paragraphs, with poetry inset slightly from the margin to call attention to its form. It is one of the simplest layouts I've seen - simply the naked text on the page.

As to its uses, I find it primarily helpful in devotional reading, when I'm not so concerned about chapter and verse, wanting instead to be lost in the continual waves of the text. It's a little like floating in the ocean vs. a small pool, as the boundaries have been removed and it's a little less obvious where things start and where they stop. Which is a lot like real life, when you stop to think about it. I've also found that it can be helpful even in sermon prep, and Bible Study background work; again, in that you're allowed to see the long, logical development, or the extended songs of praise, you're much more aware of the broader context when all that context isn't bracketed off by chapter and verse numbers, and when that context isn't lost in the chorus of footnotes and Helps and graphs and charts. Thus the true voice of the Word stands out alone, instead of in chorus with all those other things we've added in over the years.

One little confession: I gave TBOTB to all our confirmation students this year as their Confirmation Bibles. The truth is, most have pretty decent study Bibles already. And I wanted something that might stick with them over the years, not a Teen Bible they'd put away in four more years. They might end up being just a little confused by this Bible. At the same time, I have the feeling it's one they'll come back to in later years, once they've grown up a bit and want to come back and take another look at this Book, this Holy Word. I told them I didn't really expect to see them using this Bible in church, mostly because it's tough to follow along when I say "here in chapter 6 verse 3." But for their personal time, their devotional time, when they're sitting around looking for something to read. . .just maybe they'll pick this one up, and see in it the Bible as it's supposed to be. God's Word, unencumbered by all that extra weight.


Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with your post except - I was at Borders on Thursday too! I just bought Christmas presents for the girls, though. (Susan)

Chris Smith said...

I think giving copies of The Books of The Bible to your confirmation class was a great idea. I've been consulting with IBS on this project and one thing we're hearing back is that teenagers and young adults really like the format. Some are reading the Scriptures regularly who've never done this before, and others are on their way to reading all the way through the Bible. The young people in your church might be interested to know that there's a Facebook group called De-Versify that's dedicated to people's stories and experiences using TBoTB. And I wouldn't be surprised if people started showing up for church carrying a copy. We're hearing that with the verse range at the bottom of the page, people can actually follow along pretty well with Scripture lessons, sermons, etc. Thanks for your interest in this new edition and for recommending it on your blog.