Common English

After my sermon yesterday at Concord United Methodist Church, someone came up to me and asked me to re-state the name of the Bible translation I’d used. I told her it was the Common English Bible, which has become my go-to translation. Although the UMC does not have an official translation, it uses both the CEB and the New Revised Standard Version in things like Sunday School curriculum, so those two have at least an indirect stamp of approval.

There are a number of Bible versions available nowadays. Some are translations, and some are paraphrases. I know this is old news to some of you, but I suspect there are others that aren’t familiar with the difference between the two.

In general, I think of a “translation” as being prepared by a team of scholars, with a high emphasis on accurate translation of the original text. A “paraphrase,” like Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” is more likely to be the work of one person. It tries to present the Bible in readable, contemporary language. Both are worthy enterprises, and both can be useful. I’ve been in worship settings where “The Message” was used to great dramatic effect. But if I were trying to argue a point of theology with someone, I’d certainly want a translation, not a paraphrase.

In any case, reading, translating and interpreting the Bible is a challenge. The Bible is an ancient manuscript, written in ancient languages. There are words in English whose meaning has changed in the past 50 years, and in the case of the Bible we’re talking about words that were passed down orally, in many cases, before being committed to papyrus at some time thousands of years ago.

Paradoxically, some of our latter-day archaeological discoveries give modern-day translators access to older (and thus more likely accurate) manuscripts than the translators of the King James Bible could have imagined.

There are plenty of challenges to translation. If there’s a figure of speech, do you translate it literally, word-for-word, and leave everyone scratching their heads about what it means? Do you try to figure out the point of the figure of speech and find something comparable in the language of the translation? Do you add an explanatory footnote?

There are a lot of judgement calls that have to be made, and any judgement call invites debate, dialogue, and the possibility of error, or at least controversy. Does a particular Greek or Aramaic word which might have been translated as “man” a hundred years ago refer to all mankind, or just to those of the male gender? And if we translate it as “humanity” or “people,” are we being faithful and inclusive or revisionist and heretical?

Questions like these are why there are so many different Bible versions — not to mention so many different denominations.

When the New International Version created an updated version, called the TNIV (the T was for “Today’s”), some evangelicals objected to a few gender-related updates, accusing the translators of revisionism. The reaction was so strong that the TNIV was discontinued, and a later revision, dialed back a little bit, reverted to the NIV name.

Some people don’t realize that the modern translations are updated over time, sometimes quietly and without fanfare. When I was at Mountain T.O.P. earlier in the summer, we played some sort of game as an icebreaker (I assume it was during Sunday orientation, although I don’t remember precisely) that involved looking up the Nth word in such-and-such a Bible verse. The organizers had thought to make sure everyone was working from the same Bible translation, but even so different groups came up with different answers — because that verse, by sheer dumb luck, had been reworded in an update, and some of the Bibles had the newer version, while some were an older version.

Anyway, I like the CEB because it’s a translation, the work of a team of scholars, but yet it reads as clearly and simply as some of the paraphrases. And even if it’s not the official translation of the UMC, it’s at least something that the UMC recognizes and uses. There are times when I like the beauty of an older translation, but then again it’s possible to become too fixated on beautiful language that we lose the meaning behind it.

When I was a teenager, there was a popular translation called the Living Bible, prepared by Kenneth Taylor and first published in 1971. I had an edition of the Living Bible marketed to teens, titled “The Way.” Interestingly enough, the publishing house which had the rights to The Living Bible later came back and used it in the 1980s as the jumping-off point for the New Living Translation, which was the work of a group of Greek and Hebrew scholars. There, too, the goal was to combine the rigor of a translation with the readability of Taylor’s paraphrase.

I haven’t listened regularly in a year or two, but for several years I listened to the Daily Audio Bible podcast, in which Brian Hardin reads passages from the Bible over the course of a year. Hardin changes out Bible versions on a weekly basis, which — I suspect — helps keep him from getting on the bad side of any publishers, who might find him in competition with their own existing or potential Bible-on-tape products. Some of the versions he uses are great, but there are others that seem really gimmicky or forced.

One year, there was a special edition of the New International Version which was published keyed to the Daily Audio Bible’s reading schedule, making it easy to look up and follow along with each day’s readings. Because of that publication, Hardin proposed using the NIV exclusively that year, on the assumption that people might like to read along from the new book. I was in favor of that, but Hardin put it to a vote of the listeners, and they overwhelmingly wanted to stick with the different-version-every-week plan.

I can’t remember whether I first discovered the CEB from Hardin’s podcast or from some UMC-approved Sunday School literature. I know I encountered it both places, and immediately liked it. I have a CEB edition of the Wesley Study Bible — I’d previously owned an NRSV edition of that same Bible, which I thought I’d lost but ran across just recently. That’s the Bible I take and read from when I preach as a lay speaker.

When I prepare a sermon, I look up the passages at the Common English Bible’s official website, so that I can copy and paste them into my manuscript. For a while, I would just read the Bible verses from the manuscript, but at one of my lay speaking courses someone talked about the power of seeing someone in the pulpit pick up a Bible and read from it. So now, I always read the verses from my study Bible, even though they’re also there in the manuscript.

If you’re looking for an understandable, and yet scholar-approved, version of the Bible, I would recommend the CEB.