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And the Word took on new meanings

Two new bibles could not be more different, says Andrew Brown
IT IS already the most popular, most published story ever told, but the new translations just keep coming.

Two new versions of the Bible are being produced on either side of the Atlantic, and they could not be more different.

The Contemporary English Version, published in Britain, rejects old biblical language in favour of a contemporary spoken style, and omits words such as crucifixion, repentance and grace as too difficult to understand.

In America, a new version of the Bible is one of this winter's literary sensations in New York. The Schocken Bible, a translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, attempts to renew the shock of the original Hebrew. Its publication has been so successful that it has been the subject of public readings attended by celebrities such as Norman Mailer and James Earl Jones.

Bibles are huge business. The Good News Bible, the most popular translation into modern colloquial English, has sold 125 million copies world-wide, and its more sober rival, the New International Version, more than 100 million copies. The King James Version has probably sold more than any other book in history, and is still popular, especially among fundamentalists.

Bibles have appeared in almost every known human language, and are rapidly spreading into cyberspace. Bibles on CD-rom are now commonplace, sometimes integrated with original text and in one case with the catechism of the Catholic church. There is even an Internet site that holds translations into Swedish, German and Tagalog, as well as five different English versions to make comparisons easy.

It is easy to see where the profit is in all this for publishers. Yet why do readers and translators keep returning to the theme? One answer lies in the growth of knowledge. As more manuscripts are discovered, disputed readings become clearer, so that in some respects modern translations are more accurate than older ones.

There is also a tendency in some modern bibles to bowdlerise the fruitier bits of the Old Testament: the popular Good News Bible is noted for this. The Contemporary English Version, shows something of the same tendency. Bits of the Bible are obscure even in the original, and to translate them into clear English is to mislead the reader.

The other, related, problem is that an English translation which was once clear can, over the centuries, become obscure or, worse, keep its clarity but change meaning until it is plainly wrong. Tyndale, for example, uses "Naughty" to mean "valueless"; and "prevented" to mean "anticipated" and "pill" to mean "rob". What future generations will make of one modern American translation in which King Saul "entered the cave to go to the bathroom", God only knows.

Bibles translated or annotated by individuals often serve a polemical purpose. In 1994 Enoch Powell published a translation of St Matthew's gospel, partly to further his thesis that it was the first of the four gospels to have been written (most modern scholars believe Mark was), and partly to place in a footnote his theory that Jesus was not in fact crucified by the Romans, but stoned to death by the Jews.

Which Bible?


Tyndale NT




Most copies impounded and burnt at customs in 1534-6


The translators of the King

James Version (see right)


Only NT

In the end

And hath quickened you also that were dead in trespass and sin, in the which time past ye walked, according to the course of this world, and after the governor that ruleth in the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of unbelief, among which we also had our conversation in times past, in the lust of our flesh, and fulfilled the will of the flesh, and of the mind: and were naturally the children of wrath, even as well as others.


The first translation from the Hebrew into English: the author was burned at the stake for it . A drastic criticism for one of the most influential books ever written. Now available in paperback (YUP).

King James


More than any other book

in history


In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.

And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of the world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience; Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.

Incomparably the best book ever written by a committee. Surprisingly few of the idioms are so dated as to be incomprehensible and every sentence is weighted to be read out loud.

Revised Standard


3% of the British market today

The discerning but

straitlaced reader

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind

More accurate than the KJV, but a lot less suggestive. Lose all the thees and thous and solemnity becomes old-

fashioned pomposity.

New International


100m worldwide

Those who think laughter


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was

hovering over the waters.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, whose spirit is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts, Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

This is the one to go to if you ever wonder what a passage actually means. Almost impossible to read aloud except as a soporific, though.

Good News


125m worldwide

People who think Cliff Richard is relevant

In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness and the power of God was moving over the water.

In the past you were spiritually dead because of your disobedience and sin. At that time you followed the world's evil way: you obeyed the ruler of the spiritual powers in space, the spirit who now controls people who disobey God. Actually, all of us were like them, and lived according to our natural desires, doing whatever suited the wishes of our own bodies and minds. In our natural condition, we, like everyone else, were destined to suffer God's anger.

The Reader's Digest version: available with innumerabe

illustrations annotations. Not the Bible as soap opera: the Bible as a TV cartoon,

complete with merchandising.



Too early to tell

People who think Cliff Richard is too old to be relevant

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was barren, with no form of life; it was under a roaring ocean covered with darkness. But the spirit of God was moving over the water.

In the past you were dead because you sinned and fought against God. You followed the ways of this world and obeyed the devil. He rules the world, and his spirit has power over everyone who doesn't obey God. Once we were also ruled by the selfish desires of our bodies and minds. We had made God angry, and we were going to be punished like everyone else.

The most recent colloquial translation, this was designed to be read aloud to possibly

illiterate American audiences. The bible for people who love daytime TV.



Too early to tell

American literati

At the beginning of God's

creating of the heavens and the earth when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing

spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.

[Only Pentateuch]

Gnarled as the original and nutty as a fruit cake, this is the result of 11 years' labour by an American academic.