THERE was a time when you could buy a Bible in any colour you liked, as long as it was black; and in any style of English, as long as it was archaic. Even today, there are those who insist that the King James Version is Holy Writ. But it was not always so. “There were dozens of translations in circulation in the 16th century, until the KJV put them out of business,” the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, the Rt Revd Tom Wright, says.
Today, there is once again a plethora of versions, and there is no universally familiar wording of even the best-known texts. Look up a reference on a website such as biblegateway.com, and you can find it rendered 50 different ways.
Translators now feel freer to render the Hebrew or Greek “thought for thought” rather than word for word. Some of the revisions take account of a better manuscript, or a better understanding; some reflect changes in English usage — not least, the ascendancy of inclusive language.
Is there now too much choice? “I think it’s a good thing that there are several translations,” Professor Wright says. “I tell my students: if you don’t have fluency in Hebrew or Greek, you must have at least two very different translations open, when you’re studying a passage, to remind you that these are all approximations, and that you need to do business somewhere in between them.” Or, as the original preface to the KJV, put it: “Varietie of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.”
His own translation, The New Testament for Everyone (SPCK, 2011), is sometimes conservative, sometimes bold. “In Paul’s letters, I translate ‘Christos’ as ‘King’, for example,” he explains. “It really means ‘the Anointed One’, which doesn’t mean anything to the average English-speaker, and I think Paul intends us to hear royal overtones.”
THERE is today a constant search for new approaches. Canongate’s “Pocket Canons” in 2008 presented individual books from the King James Version, with introductions by such writers as P. D. James and Will Self.
“Bible publishing is arguably the most cynical area in publishing,” the director of publishing at Hodder Faith, Ian Metcalfe, says. “We’re essentially taking the same product, and repackaging it, and selling it to people over and over again.” Zondervan’s Wild about Horses Bible (2009) is a fine example of the genre. The Waterproof Bible (2010) can be read even in the bath.
Many publishers aim to add value in editions aimed at particular constituencies. Zondervan’s The New Student Bible cut a path that has since been followed by Bibles for “Extreme teens”, “Busy moms”, “Sisters in faith”, and “Spirit-led women”.
Since the 1990s, the various, multi-million-selling “Rainbow Study” Bibles have used “a unique colour-coding system that allows readers to quickly and easily identify twelve major themes of Scripture throughout the text”. The more single-minded Green Bible (2008) supplements the NRSV with “inspirational essays”, and “highlights in green, soy-based ink more than 1,000 references, verses and passages related to the earth”. The Poverty and Justice Bible (2008) gave a similar treatment to the CEV (as this year’s God’s Justice has done to the NIV).
One rich new seam is so-called journalling Bibles, which feature wide margins where their owners can write observations, reflections, prayers, and notes. Some people have started “illuminating” scripture with illustrations, and posting photos on social media. For those lacking confidence, there are even editions available with “pre-drawn” images, and words they can colour in.
The Bible Society is working on a “dyslexia-friendly” version of the Bible, using thick, cream paper and simple, large print in a single column of text. So far, it has published the Psalms and Mark’s Gospel in the Good News version, and Luke’s Gospel in the ESV.
SEVERAL publishers have brought out selective retellings of the Bible story in visual form. The Comic Book Bible first appeared in the United States in 1995, although it has been updated since, and is fairly primitive. Lion assembled a crack team to produce its award-winning Graphic Bible in 1998. (“‘Well, don’t just stand there,’ the risen Jesus tells his disciples with a characteristic grin. ‘I’d like something to eat!’”)
In 2006, Manga Messiah appeared, the first element of a “Bible” drawn in the distinctive huge-eyed, wild-haired Japanese style that its publisher, Next, describes as “the visual language of the world’s largest unreached people group: the worldwide youth culture”. In various formats, more than eight million copies are now in circulation, in 33 languages.
The next year, The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation came out: a 200-page graphic novel drawn by the English-born Ajinbayo Akinsiku. It takes some interesting liberties: Noah loses track when he is counting the animals into the ark, and has to start again. More fully, Job’s house is hit by a bomb labelled “Fat Man”, the codename of the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
The Action Bible (2010) was followed in 2015 by Lion’s Comic Book Hero Bible, which all but relocates the story of salvation to the Marvel Universe. God creates the cosmos with a Kaboom! Adam becomes Earthman, Samson is Judge Dreadlocks, Deborah is an Afro-sporting Iron Maiden. The book of Job is compressed to a single, lurid, full-page image.
Despite their “radical” format, these reimaginings of the Bible can be curiously conservative: Jesus still tends to have dreamy eyes and a centre parting; Simon Peter has an unruly mop; and only the disreputable characters have bad teeth. The style may be edgy, but the theology implicit in the choice of stories, and the way they are told, is not.
Considerably less dynamic is The Unofficial Bible for Minecrafters: Stories from the Bible told block by block (2015). Minecraft is a computer game, hugely popular with children, that allows you to construct almost anything out of virtual building blocks.
Does it matter that we seem to be getting further and further from the concept of “Holy Writ”? Professor Wright thinks not. “I would much rather people were encountering the great story of Genesis to Revelation in any way that is going to get it into their imaginations rather than saying, ‘Oh dear! This doesn’t represent exactly what the text is saying.’
“Let’s get the word out there, in whatever form is accessible, and hope and pray that people will mature and want to study it more formally in due course.”
NOT everything billed as a Bible, of course, is intended to be a lamp unto our feet. The sporadically funny The Bible According to Spike Milligan (1993) is an obvious example. Jesus on Thyface (2010) wittily retells the Gospels in a series of Facebook status updates.
Some “translations” of scripture, into Cockney or Australian vernacular (“God said ‘let’s have some light’, and bingo — light appeared”), are intended to inspire people to reread the real thing. Others — into Klingon, for example, or Quenya, the tongue of J. R. R. Tolkien’s elves — use the familiar words as raw material for an exercise in whimsy.
The Brick Bible has been hailed by the magazine Rolling Stone as “the greatest toy story ever told”. It presents the more dramatic episodes in scripture in more than 4500 tableaux made entirely out of Lego. The online version (http://thebrickbible.com) is sexually explicit in places, but the various books are child-friendly, and have proved popular with Sunday schools.
None the less, its creator, Brendan Powell Smith, is an atheist who likes God for all the wrong reasons. “I don’t think I would have been nearly as inspired to create this project”, the author said, “if it weren’t for the outrageous and depraved actions of the Bible’s main character. Power-mad, belligerent, masochistic, petty, woefully insecure, extremely dangerous and unpredictable — and seemingly not too bright — Yahweh exhibits all the worst attributes of Man.” No surprise, then, that the face chosen for him looks permanently angry under its snowy white hair.
At least The Brick Bible sticks to the text of scripture. The LOLcat Bible (2010) is unevenly crowd-written in the style of English known as “kitty pidgin”, which became an internet fad in 2007. (A “lolcat” is a photograph of a cat with a droll caption distinguished by atrocious spelling and grammar.) Genesis 1.3 is fairly typical: “At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, ‘i can haz lite?’ An lite wuz.” In a solitary nod to a more reverent tradition, the words of Happy Cat — that is, Jesus — are printed in red. Srsly.
Translation, translation, translation
THE first English Bible legally available in Britain was the Great Bible of 1539, which was chained to the lectern in churches to stop parishioners’ removing it. The Geneva Bible of 1560 came with marginal notes, maps, and woodcut illustrations, and its punchy language made it very popular. This was the version used by Shakespeare, Donne, and Bunyan.
Like the King James Version (generally referred to in England until the internet era as the Authorised Version) of 1611, they both drew heavily on William Tyndale’s proscribed translation of the New Testament, and much of the Old, made in the 1520s and ’30s. It was he who coined the phrases “Let there be light,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Not all his best lines were lifted by others, though: his serpent tells Eve impatiently, “Tush, ye shall not die.”
Tyndale’s aim was to render scripture in the kind of language that people might use around the table after a day’s work on the farm — much like William Lorimer, who translated the New Testament into Scots, putting into the mouth of Jesus and his disciples language equivalent to the “plain braid Galilee” they would have spoken. (”Hae faith,” Jesus says in Mark 9.23, “an ye can dae aathing.”) It caused a sensation when it was finally published in 1983.
The KJV’s mix of Hebraisms, Greekisms, and contemporary English established for centuries what scripture — if not religious language in general — was supposed to sound like. The mould was broken by J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase of the New Testament, first published in its entirety in 1958. Hard on its heels came the New English Bible, which opted for “thought-for-thought” translation: Jesus in Matthew 27 “breathed his last”. The first complete paraphrase was the Living Bible (1971), memorably denounced by the Revd Ian Paisley as “the Living Libel”.
The Message, a distinctly free paraphrase by the American pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson, which is now the second-bestselling Bible in Britain (after the New International Version), was published in full in 2002. Where J. B. Phillips had famously rendered Romans 12.2 “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould,” Peterson went further: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.”
In 2012, The Voice announced itself as another new departure: a collaboration between scholars, pastors, writers, musicians, poets, and other artists. Its paraphrase of John 1 is certainly arresting, beginning: “Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God.” Another ongoing translation project is The Passion Translation, described as “unfolding the deep mysteries of the scriptures in the language of love, the language of the heart”.
The Tree of Life Version (2014) is a Messianic Jewish translation (though some words, such as “shalom” and “ruach”, it considers untranslatable, and simply transliterates).
The “Wicked Bible”, printed in 1631, featured the typo of the century when it omitted the crucial word “not” from the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20.14). The scandalous mistake was not discovered until a full year later, when a thousand copies were in circulation. Charles I ordered them all to be burnt, but nine or ten copies survived, one of which was sold at Bonhams last year for £31,250.
The typo of the following century appeared in the “Fools Bible” of 1763, in which Psalm 14.1 said boldly: “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God.”
Presciently, perhaps, in 1612, one of the earliest editions of the KJV had declared in Psalm 119.161 that printers (as opposed to princes) “have persecuted me without a cause”.
This kind of mistake is almost unthinkable in a modern Bible, but, 50 years after it was first published, the Good News translation still consistently says that Jesus would die and be raised to life “three days later”. So, that’s on Easter Monday, then.