This is an article about three specific Bible versions, but has more to do with the form of each; the purpose is not to delve into specific translation issues associated with the use of words, phrases, sentences or the doctrinal implications of different translation practices.
The Living Bible refers to the Bible originally begun in the 1960s by Ken Taylor to give his ten kids a better understanding of scripture at their suppertime family devotions. It is an English-to-English simplification of the ASV. This is not the same as the New Living Translation (NLT) though there is obviously shared history. The Living Bible is currently available for purchase in only two editions, a padded hardcover and an imitation leather anniversary edition. Anything else currently offered for sale is an NLT.
The Message refers to the Bible written by Eugene Peterson beginning in the 1990s to help people not knowing the original languages a better feel for the dynamics and nuances of Biblical passages. It is Hebrew-to-English and Greek-to-English, so it is a translation (regardless what anyone tells you) but a translation that uses American colloquialisms and a conversational reading style.
The Voice is the most recent of the three and was developed over the last ten years by the Ecclesia Bible Society, and while it is also a translation, the translators worked with stylists (poets, playwrights and musicians) to create something that blended traditional approaches and some radical departures in form.
All three Bibles were quickly embraced by people looking for an alternative, fresh take on the text, and therefore each has impacted a different generation. Similarly, all three were roundly criticized by traditionalists and conservatives as taking too many liberties or not being “Bible enough.” Some people simply have an automatic aversion to new translations, or are influenced by church leaders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in all things.
All three were released in stages; The Living Bible began as a series of smaller books, Living Letters, Living Gospels and Living Psalms and Proverbs being three examples; The Message Old Testament came out as a series of four hardcover books; The Voice issued a variety of editions consisting of individual Bible books and two music CDs.
Completed versions of all three came out in 1971, 2003 and 2012 respectively, and all three spread in popularity through word-of-mouth recommendations.
Today it’s hard to think of The Living Bible as radical, but several publishers rejected it, so Ken Taylor created Tyndale House Publishers and released Living Letters with a whopping print run of 2,000 copies in 1962. A year later, Billy Graham endorsed the project and gave away many times that number on his crusade telecasts. While sometimes a publishing company will work to fill a void by creating a Bible, this is a Bible that created a publishing company. By today’s standards, Taylor’s work wasn’t all that controversial, but his decision to render the Psalms as prose rather than poetry is one of the features that was later undone in the creation of the NLT. Taylor was fortunate to have predated the internet; today bloggers would be lining up to dissect every jot and tittle, but at the time, it was a simply matter of you either liked it your didn’t. Tyndale House today publishes Randy Alcorn, Francine Rivers, James Dobson and the Left Behind series.
I once read an interview where Eugene Peterson was surprised when churches started using The Message as part of Sunday liturgy. He envisioned the project having more personal application. Besides taking a straight-forward, in-your-face approach to many Biblical images and narratives, The Message originally came to market sans verse numbers; the only allusion to them being guides at the top of the page where chapters cut across several pages. Later editions added verses numbers in varying degrees, but even today, the most numbered editions tend to group three or four verses together which is, in many respects, more consistent with what’s needed to render the English equivalent to the original texts. There are some among the Christian community who are more than willing to totally dismiss the project, but reading some of Peterson’s more recent writing helps me appreciate his clout as a Bible scholar that he brought to this project. The Message is published by NavPress, the book division of The Navigators discipleship ministry.
The Voice Bible in many respects honored the work done by the KJV translators in retaining two of their strategies. First, where words were added to the text they were set in italics to show that they were not to be found in the original languages. Second, the aforementioned stylists were added to the mix to work with translators to bring about a finished product that sometimes goes out of its way to try to find new ways to restate old things (i.e. rendering Yahweh and Elohim as “Eternal One.”) But The Voice’s most unique contribution to the world of Bibles is its use of dramatic script (play) form wherever there is any type of dialog (see page sample image.) The Voice also borrows from The Amplified Bible in its application of word meanings in the italicized sections, and because of its desire to produce a dramatized script, what would normally be introductory or supplementary notes are embedded in the text between verses so as to give a type of stage direction. Unfortunately, The Voice also suffered at the hands of a vocal internet community that was as willing to pounce on a new translation as King-James-Only-ites were to decry the NIV. Trade distribution of The Voice is handled by Thomas Nelson.
Why It Matters
It has been said that a religious group that does not impart its sacred writings to its children is one generation away from extinction. We live in an ADD-plagued, media-saturated, Biblically-illiterate world. Over the years publishers have tried to encourage new readers with everything from devotional Bibles to Biblezines. A kids edition was issued with a faux fir cover for girls and a lockable metal chest cover for boys.
Still, sometimes we need to address the translations themselves; to rethink the base texts on which creative editions can be based. Furthermore, the language itself is ever changing, always evolving. Just as the radio industry once offered a choice of a half dozen or so formats (pop, country, classical, progressive rock, etc.) today’s cultural fragmentation means there are now dozens of different types of music channels. Similarly, the days of all of us at small group Bible study reading from the translation are probably over.
So while the last few years have also brought us The Expanded Version, the HCSB and the ESV, which would appeal to former Amplified, NKJV and NASB readers respectively, we also need the creative vision of those willing to boldly go where no translation has gone before.
Ken Taylor, Eugene Peterson and the people at Ecclesia represent that kind of vision. Nobody is forcing anyone to read a particular version — people who dislike one of the above tend to dislike all three — but just as some visionaries said forty years ago that “it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people,” today we might add that “it takes all manner of translation styles to reach all types of people.”
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