Since You Asked... November 2001

October 31, 2001

Q: "What is the most popular version of the Bible?" 

Dr. David Burke, dean of the American Bible Society's Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarhip:

A: In a recent survey done by the Gallup Organization for the American Bible Society, some revealing profiles emerged about Bible preferences and understandings.

Most American households have at least one Bible (93 percent). Among the Bibles people identify as theirs, the most frequently reported is the King James Version (54 percent). A distant second is the New International Version (15 percent). Other versions trailed in the single digits. The same survey showed that 65 percent of Americans believe that the Bible addresses or answers all or most of life's basic questions, and that reading the Bible has had a positive effect on their lives.

Most adults indicated that they prefer a Bible that is a translation from the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), while one in five indicate a preference for a paraphrased Bible. The Living Bible (1971) is an example of a paraphrase: Kenneth Taylor began it as a reworking of the American Standard Version English text so that his children could better understand what he was reading to them.

Its popularity showed that many others also found it easier to understand. Curiously, the Good News Translation, which was translated directly from the Hebrew and Greek, was thought by some to be a paraphrase, precisely because its aim was to bring the content of the ancient sentences into the clearest and most readable English.

New translations will always be needed

The most important concern for choosing a Bible among those surveyed is that it "should be easy to understand" (88 percent).

The survey confirms a paradox. While the King James is clearly still the Bible of prestige, there are very clear signals that its Elizabethan English (while prized for its poetic cadences and classic style) is difficult to understand. The American Bible Society includes in its King James Bibles a lengthy list of words that have changed meaning since 1611 (e.g., "prevent" no longer means "go before"; "let" no longer means "hinder"). Other translations are needed if the Bible is to be read and used with understanding.

There are three very important reasons why new Bible translations will continue to be needed. One is because our language continues to change, and modern English is probably the most rapidly changing of all.

Another factor is the continual new discovery of manuscript copies of the books of the Bible on scrolls, parchment or papyrus. Since the late 1800s, archaeology and research have turned up Bible texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include Hebrew texts a thousand years older than any previously known copies. The Greek text of the New Testament used by the King James translators was that of Erasmus, done in 1516. The oldest manuscripts he had to work with then were from the 12th century.

Now, within the last century especially, thousands of much older manuscripts have been discovered, copies of whole New Testaments or Bibles or books of the Bible, much closer in time to the originals than anything previously known. An example may be compared in Isaiah 21:8, where the received Hebrew text has 'ar yeh, "lion," in a context where it makes no sense. In this passage a sentry had been placed high on the city wall to watch for news about Babylon. The King James has, "and he cried: a lion." The Dead Sea text here has haro'eh, "sentry," which is both expected and clear. The letters in the two Hebrew words are almost the same and these words sound very similar, and apparently at some point a scribe got them confused.

The last reason is that biblical scholars continue to learn more and more about the original languages of the Bible, and this affects translation. An example may be compared from 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where the apostle Paul urges the church in Thessalonika to "warn them that are unruly" (in the words of the King James). More recent translations will use words like "idle" here instead of unruly. In 1611 the Greek term atakos was thought to mean unruly or disorderly, but we now have papyrus texts showing that it means "idle" or "lazy."

While the King James has continuing importance and popularity, there is a continuing need for new translations that are more up to date in scholarship. Bibles will be needed that are easier to read and understand and apply in the midst of life's ongoing conflicts and ambiguities.

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