Thursday, September 30, 2004

Bible Versions – if not chaotic then nearly so

There was a time when it was believed in the Churches that to justify its existence a modern translation of the Bible must not merely be as good as existing versions – it must be better. This was when the literary merits of any translation were evaluated in terms of clarity, effective diction, vivid expression, respect for the principles of poetry, and smoothness of rhythm.

By these tests, the King James Version of 1611 stood supreme, and this is one reason why it was the Common Bible of the English-speaking peoples for over four centuries. It is only since World War II, and more particularly from the late 1960s, that ordinary readers have claimed that it is too archaic or difficult for them.

In fact one can claim that since the 1960s, when the desire for innovation through paraphrase and the use of dynamic equivalency in translation took a strong grip on most teams of translators and on the public imagination, the flow of Bible versions has been of haphazard and usually poor literary quality. Few if any of them actually sound good when read aloud and they certainly do not provide the basis for easy memorization.

[If the NIV had not appeared in the 1960s and the Evangelicals had been satisfied with a few changes in the RSV from the 1950s, the story of Bible versions would probably have been very different!]

Why then have there been so many versions and why do they keep on coming?

Here are several reasons:

Because of a prevailing sense in the churches that the Bible [and Liturgy] must be relevant, accessible, credible and easily readable by modern Westerners.

Because it is believed by leaders that folks want to talk to God as they talk to each other and thus they want the Bible to be in journalistic prose.

Because in a culture of rights, each group is perceived as having the right to its own version of the Bible, to meet its own needs and to be the Word of God to it in its own special context. So conservative and liberal groups have their Bible versions and so do feminists and fundamentalists as well as other interest groups.

Because in a culture of individualism, the Bible is seen less and less as the Holy Book of the Holy Church and more and more as a personal letter from heaven to the individual Christian, who wants it in simple prose!

Because publishers see the opportunity of making an inroad especially into the American market first with a version of the Bible and then following this with books based on it such as Sunday School material, commentaries and the like.

Because of the revolution in typesetting and printing, it is much easier and cheaper now to produce a Bible version than it was fifty years ago.

BUT whatever the precise reasons for the appearance of so many versions, the result of their sales has not been a more Biblically-based and Biblically-literate people. In fact, there has been a removing of modern readers from the actual world of the original text and thus of its possible deep meaning (because of the use of paraphrase and dynamic equivalency); and, further, the desire to memorize and the ability to do so has decreased immensely as the Common Bible has been forgotten and a series of new versions has been tried and found wanting!

This sad situation cannot be reversed easily if at all. Choice as a preference and the Supermarket as a reality are part of the cultural reality of modern western Christians, especially in the U.S.A. But Blessed are those churches that have stayed with one Version over the last five decades – perhaps the KJV, the ASB, & the RSV (none of which is a paraphrase or affected by dynamic equivalency!) – and blessed are those who have memorized portions. In their final years these gems in memory will be a means of grace.

Where a church uses a set liturgy, in which there is obviously supposed to be much biblical content, then the members surely have to keep their eyes wide open to see what it is that is being put before them as extracts from “the Bible”. All kinds of versions and paraphrases are introduced these days.

For public reading of the Bible in Liturgy the KJV or the RSV are the most pleasant and moving to the ear/heart.

One rule that stands out – do not forsake The Common English Bible, the KJV, always read it along with your preferred modern version, and if you have family prayers and read aloud a Bible, let it be the KJV or the RSV!

The Revd Dr Peter Toon September 28, 2004

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