Losing the American Bible Society
About ten years ago, I started reading the Bible fairly seriously. I hadn't done so since I was in junior high or so, and back then, I didn't really get the meanings of many of the passages. There's an old saying, "God has no grandchildren," meaning that you can't inherit faith from your parents. Everyone is a child of God on his own, and everyone has to come to faith on his own.
It doesn't matter how many times you recite Bible passages, or even if your Sunday School teachers explain them to you - it's never quite the same as when you first approach it on your own and the meaning sinks in. I imagine many people felt the same way over the recent controversy about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. It's just something people have recited for years, and stopping to think about may be threatening. (Then again, I know kids who went through twelve years of school saying "I led the pigeons to the flag" every single day, so I can't really understand why they're bent out of shape about someone else changing the words of the pledge...)
I started out by reading The Living Bible, because first readings of more literal translations are difficult. It doesn't work if you can't get through the book. However, with a little bit of study, I learned that I didn't want to stop there. I had known that The Living Bible was a paraphrase, but I didn't really understand what that meant in biblical terms.
Now, just about everyone who reads the Bible understands that it was not written in English (in fact, William Tyndale was burned at the stake by the church for daring to translate the Bible into English so everyone could read it). The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew (without vowels or spaces between words), and the New Testament was mostly written in Koine Greek, a common vernacular of Greek two millenia ago that's notably different from formal Greek, with some Aramaic thrown in. Most of Jesus's contemporaries would have spoken Aramaic, but if they knew how to read and write, that would have been in Koine Greek.
Sure, yeah, so what? Well, the light bulb finally came on. No one today is a native speaker of either Aramaic or Koine Greek, nor of ancient Hebrew. (If you think that's not a big deal, just think about how different it is to read Shakespeare, or Beowulf, compared to today's prose. Then realize that even Beowulf was about 2000 years later than most of the Old Testament. Languages evolve.) Therefore, what I read in an English "Bible" depends on several factors, including the fidelity of the source text and the biases of the translators.
Flip through any modern translation of the Bible and you'll see footnotes on almost every page: "Hebrew uncertain," or "Exact meaning uncertain," or "LXX omits 'God said'," and so on. I just picked up my copy of The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholar's Version off the shelf and opened it to the Gospel of Luke, and found two such notes within the first chapter.
In this translation, Luke 1:8-9, talking about Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, says:
8While he was serving as priest before God when his priestly clan was on temple duty, 9it so happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense.
At the bottom of the page, it's noted:
It so happened (kai egeneto) is a deliberate imitation of the style of the LXX. Its frequent use is apparently meant to make the Gospel sound like the Jewish Bible. Most modern English translations (e.g., RSV, NAB, NEB) omit this phrase.
Luke 1:26-28 starts the story of the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would bear a child:
26In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28He entered and said to her, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
A standard footnote at the bottom, like before, for verse 26 explains that it means "In the sixth month: of Elizabeth's pregnancy." A larger note, above the footnotes, reads:
1:28 Some mss add "Blessed are you among women" to the end of the verse
In the note on verse 9, the translators inform us that several popular translations (the Revised Standard Version, the New American Bible, and the New English Bible) omit the phrase "it so happened" because they believe it was only there to remind original readers of the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was all anyone used in Jesus's day. (It's abbreviated LXX because, according to the legend at the time, it was created by 70 men in 70 days.) The implication, though not stated, is that the phrase may have been inserted after the fact to strengthen the connection for readers.
In verse 28, we find out that the most ancient manuscripts available don't even agree on the text: some have "Blessed are you among women" in verse 28, and some do not. Scholars typically believe that when a phrase is missing in some manuscripts, especially the oldest ones, it means it was inserted later by scribes or clerics for their own reasons. Until Gutenberg, remember, all copies of the Scripture were made by hand.
Biblical scholars have all kinds of these problems. The original Hebrew text of the Old Testament has been lost for nearly two thousand years. Old Testament translations come from the Septuagint, or more probably, from the Masoretic Hebrew Text, a Hebrew version of the Jewish scriptures that dates back to about 900 C.E. (or 900 A.D., if you prefer, but it feels weird to use "A.D." when talking about Jewish scriptures).
That's one reason the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was so exciting: it provided Hebrew texts of Jewish scriptures that predated the Masoretic Text by about 900 years. What's amazing, and comforting to those of faith, is that a great deal of the manuscripts recovered from the Dead Sea agree almost entirely with the Masoretic Text, though some do agree more with the Septuagint.
The point, though, is that over hundreds of years, the manuscripts did change some. Not only did errors creep in as scribes or scholars "corrected" words or grammar they thought must be wrong, entire thoughts or details were added or deleted in some copies to make the scriptures align more precisely with the copier's own beliefs or agenda. It still happens in modern times: Thomas Jefferson famously removed parts of the New Testament that didn't fit his concept of a Jesus that acted much like Thomas Jefferson did.
This is one reason there are so many Bible translations, and continue to be more, as scholars try to express the ideas of dead languages in living modern prose. That was the whole point of The Living Bible, which began in the 1950s as Living Letters, paraphrases of Paul's Epistles. By the early 1970s, Dr. Ken Taylor had completed paraphrasing the entire Bible as The Living Bible, selling it through his own publishing company, named after William Tyndale. Just as Tyndale had faced execution for his work, Taylor was excoriated in some circles for rewriting the Bible in his own image.
The problem with The Living Bible is not just that it's a paraphrase of self now known to be rife with translation errors due to some faulty manuscripts that its translators used. It clearly changes some concepts into those that would never be found in a real Bible, including at one point, changing a lamp into a "flashlight." Although many evangelicals love The Living Bible because it's so accessible, many others revile it for changing the words of scripture and say it's not a Bible at all.
Translation is a real philosophical problem. The Revised Standard Version is a 1947 revision of the King James Version, authorized by the US National Council of Churches, to correct errors in the KJV's translation and remove now-archaic spellings and verb forms (the thees and thous), but still focuses as much as possible on translating every word and sentence in the original texts into modern English.
The New Revised Standard Version took a similar pass in 1989, but is reviled by most fundamentalist churches for its lack of sexism. For example, Paul spoke to all the members of the churches in his epistles as "Brethren" or "Brothers in Christ." The NRSV committee says that's like the English word mankind - a reference to all people even though the word itself refers only to males. The NRSV scholars felt Paul was addressing all members of the church, so they changed the language to be gender-neutral, including "brothers and sisters in Christ" where necessary.
Fundamentalists howl that the NRSV destroys God's Word about women in the church, so when they want a word-for-word translation, they typically turn to the New American Standard Bible, a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901 that was completed in 1971, and is noted by literalists for its attempts to keep the original texts in word-for-word English. (The NASB has since seen one update.)
Fundamentalist churches also love the New International Version, a 1978 release with a 1985 update that's more of a thought-for-thought translation. In those cases, the NIV translators read a clause or sentence in the original language, and then, doing their best to maintain as many of the exact words as possible, rewriting the sentence in modern English. Evangelicals prize the NIV, in my opinion, because it resolves ambiguity in favor of conservative dogma. Take this passage from page 148 of The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation:
In the New Testament the apostle Paul similarly denounced sexual immorality as one of "the works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19 KJV). The conflict between living by the Spirit or by the flesh is emphasized in Galatians 5 and Romans 7-8. In order to show that "flesh" refers, not to the body, but to the sinfulness of man, the NIV has often rendered "flesh" (sarx) as "sinful nature" (cf. Romans 8:3-5, 8-9). While many readers would properly understand "flesh" in the sense of "human weakness," the translation "sinful nature" avoids any misinterpretation of this key theological term.
See what I mean? The NIV translators freely admit that not only did they translate the Bible, in key places they interpret it for you as well, almost always with a conservative slant. At the time I was doing all this study ten years ago, I remember reading a letter in some magazine from an NIV editor, responding to a charge that the NIV was soft on homosexuality, emphasizing that the translators took care not to include any words that could be interpreted as not condemning homosexuality. I wish I had a reference for that, but on page 154 of the same book mentioned above, you can find the translators specifically rejecting any interpretation of Genesis 19:5 over the last hundred years that says the men of Sodom did not want to have sex with the (male) angels visiting Lot.
If you want to know more about the various Bible translations out there, spend $4 and pick up a copy of The Complete Guide to Bible Versions. The author, Phillip Comfort, apparently vastly expanded and revised the work in 2000, but I don't have that later version, The Essential Guide to Bible Versions. I think I want it.
Bible Societies and Profit
To me, the answer about what translation to read turned into, "read all of them." Getting a lot of Bibles can be expensive, though. The International Bible Society created the NIV and owns the copyright on it, but the huge Christian publishing house Zondervan has the exclusive North American print rights to the NIV. (Zondervan, by the way, is the largest commercial Bible publishing business in the world, and it's owned by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch's company that also owns Fox, including Fox News. This annoys some fundamentalists, as Zondervan came to Murdoch when News Corporation purchased HarperCollins, which also publishes The Satanic Bible. People take this stuff very seriously.)
But yes - the International Bible Society created the translation. Bible societies around the world have taken the lead in such work because commercial BIble publishing has to answer to sales. Somewhat ironically, the IBS has since produced two NIV-based translations that haven't caught on with readers as well because they aren't as conservative: the younger-skewing New International Reader's Version (NIrV), and the complete revision of the NIV that's called the Today's New International Version, ignored by fundamentalists in part because it also includes gender-neutral language in many places.
The three most prominent commercial Bible translations of the past twenty-five years have all catered to a specific audience.
Thomas Nelson Publishing's 1982 New King James Version updates the language of the King James Version, but although the publisher wants to make it sound more accurate than the KJV, it's not, because its translators deliberately ignored newer, corrected versions of the source text that take into account the latest archeological findings about the original manuscripts. It's aimed at people and congregations who want to stick with the KJV but need more modern language - you can read along with the NKJV while someone reads aloud from the KJV and never get lost. (Of course, any "Christian" bookstore has at least one shelf full of desperately loony tracts explaining that anything other than the King James Version is the work of Satan, and the NKJV doesn't escape that fate. Other than that, though, the NKJV has proved popular with people who love the poetry of the King James Version.)
Tyndale House's 1996 New Living Translation is an attempt to repair the flaws of The Living Bible. Originally conceived as an attempt to fix the obvious problems of the first paraphrase, it quickly turned into an entirely new "dynamic-equivalence" translation, the scholarly way of saying "paraphrase," but this time from the original texts. Dr. Taylor himself approved the effort. It's my understanding that the NLT still uses the words of The Living Bible when the translators judged them to be an accurate paraphrase of the original texts, but I can't find a reference for that. The NLT has all but replaced The Living Bible in the stores and in churches, and has inherited its predecessor's popularity.
Eugene Peterson's The Message is, kind of like Taylor's The Living Bible, Peterson's own paraphrase of the original Greek and Hebrew texts with an emphasis on making the text dynamic, in the common language that you and I speak, not in formal prose for posterity. As an example, the Luke 1:8-9 passage cited above reads this way in The Message:
8It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, 9it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense.
Other than "regiment," that sounds a lot more like a story you would tell to a friend, and that's what Peterson wanted. Like earlier paraphrases, it's a lot easier to read than any word-for-word translation. But like all paraphrases, it inserts commentary into its rewording, usually in favor of conservative evangelical positions.
(I should note that super hard-line evangelicals hate all of these versions, largely because they've based their faith around the long-discredited notion that Jesus is a magic rock that you must believe in or you will burn for all eternity. Modern scholarship has shed considerable light on those concepts, so the rightest of right-wingers lash out with fury at anything "Biblical" that does not back up this misanthropic position in the extreme. They hate any hint that hell is not a real place where you will be tortured for eternity for thinking the wrong thoughts, they hate any hint that women are the equal of men in God's eyes since they weren't in Paul's eyes, and they hate any suggestion that God might love people who don't agree with their theology. You really have to be careful for that stuff when reading about Bible translations on the Internet, especially.)
Many of these translations came about during or after the huge success of the NIV, as publishers realized that churchgoers longed for a Bible that was not only readable but told them what they wanted to hear. But that's not what the NIV translators set out to do, and their continued work in the largely-ignored TNIV shows that. The NIV wouldn't have been possible at all without the International Bible Society, who funded the years of translation work, and continues to fund its Committee on Bible Translation that produced the NIrV and TNIV.
In fact, it's the United Bible Societies organization that maintains the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, the accepted scholarly text of the New Testament in the original Koine Greek. It's republished every decade or two with the latest consensus from scholars, such as when a much older manuscript than any previous one is discovered with different text, or when analysis of existing manuscripts shows that some text was added or altered after the manuscript was originally finished. Bible societies do important work in the cause of accurate Biblical scholarship, something many so-called Christians actively dislike, as noted above.
In many ways, you have to think the NIV effort came about thanks to the American Bible Society.
The purpose of the American Bible Society is to provide the Holy Scriptures to every man, woman and child in a language and form each can readily understand, and at a price each can easily afford. This purpose, undertaken without doctrinal note or comment, and without profit, is a cause that all Christians and all churches are urged to support.
In the early 1960s, missionaries to Africa were writing to ABS in search of a Bible that was more approachable to people who didn't understand much English, at least for areas where no native-language Bible was available. (The entire Bible is still not available in most of the world's languages, though it's been translated into more languages than any other book.) ABS Executive Secretary Eugene Nida actually invented the concept of "dynamic equivalence," a Bible that would tell you the same story as the original but in your own language, based on the success of a Spanish translation for Latin America. Staff member Robert Bratcher produced a sample dynamic equivalence translation of Mark, and in 1966, ABS released the entire dynamic-equivalence New Testament as Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today's English Version. (The word gospel literally means "good news.")
The Today's English Version went on to become one of the most popular translations in history - not really a paraphrase, but not a word-for-word translation, either, and paved the way for the NIV and The Message. The full Bible was released in 1976, and the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals were added in 1979. (I remember a lot of this, but I'm also getting help from Wikipedia.)
In fact, in 2001, ABS renamed the Today's English Version to the Good News Translation, at the request of Zondervan (as with the NIV, Zondervan is the exclusive commercial North American licensee to the translation, sigh), because people weren't buying TEV Bibles (despite a fondness for the work) because they thought it was a paraphrase, not a "translation."
The GNT is easily readable, even by people who read English as a second language, and adheres as closely as possible in dynamic equivalence to ABS's mission of providing understandable scriptures "without doctrinal note or comment." (Those who worship the King James Bible as if it were God himself, of course, hate everything about the TEV, including translator Robert Bratcher, who had the unmitigated heretical gall to tell an audience once that the Bible was not God.)
Just as the IBS didn't stop with the NIV's revision in 1984, ABS didn't stop with TEV in 1979, publishing an updated version in 1992. However, the Society also kept researching on how to make the scriptures even more understandable. Translator Barclay Newman, one of the GNT translators, started studying English speech and reading patterns in 1985, learning how people read and how they heard the language. Newman was interested in a Bible translation that was not only easy to read and understand, like GNT, but also one that was easy to hear and to read out loud. The work he began became the Contemporary English Version of the Bible, published as a New Testament in 1991, a full Bible in 1995, and with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books (for a full Catholic Bible) in 1999.
The CEV is often dismissed because it's aimed at a fourth-grade reading level, but I say it's horribly wrong to do so. The translators were very careful, and made a Bible that not only expresses dynamic equivalence, but leaves in (wherever possible) the Bible's magnificent ambiguity while simplifying the language. Look at this comparison of translations of Mark 1:15. Mark is widely understood to the be the oldest and original gospel, and 1:15 is where Jesus speaks his first words, translated in the KJV as "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel."
What does at hand mean? KJV chose that phrase because, like the original Greek, it's ambiguous: it can mean both "right here" and "almost here." The kingdom of God could be three steps away, or it could be all around you right now. The NASB also uses "at hand" for Jesus's first public words. The NIV and NLT, however, both say the kingdom of God "is near," while The Message says, "God's kingdom is here."
All three of these translations or paraphrases resolved the ambiguity - two one way, one the other way. Is there a fourth-grade English phrase that captures the dual meaning of "at hand?" No, there's not, so the CEV translators did this:
15He said, "The time has come! God's kingdom will soon be here.  Turn back to God and believe the good news!"
See that? They kept the most common interpretation in the text, but clearly footnoted the other meaning of the original text, something the other translations did not do. It's that way throughout the text as I remember it (I gave my last CEV Bible away a few years ago and haven't gotten another one, which annoys me), which makes it great both for reading and for light study.
If you want to get really deep into a few verses, you'll need a heavier-duty translation, like the NRSV (my personal choice), but that's OK if you're aware of it. You can sit down and read the CEV for a few hours at a time. Sure, the CEV Psalms don't have the majesty of the KJV Psalms, but anyone can understand their message, and that's important, too.
The CEV translators sweated all the details for this. A phrase in one epistle describes some people as "the pillars of the church," but when the CEV New Testament was released, they found that people hearing that phrase often heard "pillows of the church," especially in the south. So in the 1995 full Bible release, they changed it to "backbone of the church," because it gives the same impression of strength and stability without being heard wrong. Those are the kinds of choices that dynamic equivalence translators should make, and I think they did a splendid job.
They paid attention to line endings because people reading English tend to pause at the end of a line. Thomas Nelson Publishing purchased exclusive North American commercial rights to the CEV, and the contract with ABS explicity states that they may not rewrap lines of indented text, because the line endings in such blockquote-style passages, like the Psalms, are actually part of the translation. How cool is that?
The CEV also worked to eliminate "church language" that people are afraid to admit they don't understand, like justification and sanctified. Here's a somewhat lengthy quote from the CEV introduction making that point better than I can:
Acts 20.32 will show the difference between the way grace appears in traditional translations and how it is restructured by the CEV. By following the form of the Greek text and using traditional language, the verse may be translated: "Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." "The word of his grace" is difficult for several reasons:
There are also other problems in the verse:
- "word" means "message;"
- "of" merely shows that there is some relation between "word" and "grace," but it does not tell what the actual relation is; and
- "grace" is an event, not an object.
- "build you up" is not contemporary English usage;
- "inheritance" is used in the special biblical sense of "what belongs to God's people;"
- "those who are sanctified" is a New Testament way of referring to God's people; and
- in the Greek text the pronoun "which" refers to "word," rather than to "grace."
In the CEV every word, phrase, and clause of the original was carefully studied by the translators. Then, with equal care, they tried to find the best way to translate the verse so it could be easily read and understood. As a result, the form is very different, but the meaning is both accurate and clear: "Now I place you in God's care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God's people."
If you're sitting in a pew or in Sunday School, which of those two verses are you going to understand, whether you're reading it or hearing it?
The CEV is not some leftist dream, mind you. Passages that originally read "man lying with man as with a woman," or that are often read as referring to homosexuality but may not (like 1 Cor 6:9-11) are still translated "homosexual" in the CEV, because in all honesty, that's what all contemporary English translations of those phrases in any context would say. True, the concept of "homosexuality" was not known until the 1890s as a sexual orientation, so it can't truly be mentioned in the Bible, but it's hard to argue against using some form of the word "homosexuality" where the text does mean "same-sex intercourse." That's how most people use it today. (See, for example, any third-grade playground: "Eww, you hugged another boy, you're gay!")
If this interests you at all, you need to read Creating and Crafting the Contemporary English Version, with all of this information and a lot more. I gave my copy of that one away too, dang it.
Why ABS was cool
In addition to creating the CEV and evangelizing it (pardon the pun), the ABS also makes available extensive study aids, foreign translations, and numerous English translations of the Bible at very low cost. When I was reading them ten years ago, you could get one of every major English translation from ABS in paperback (trade paperback, not the tiny mass-market size) for about $15. Today they average around $4 each, but there's still plenty of them. ABS sells these for mission purposes - they want you to give them away to people. They sell New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs in a number of translations and formats, including those aimed at youth, prisoners, victims of abuse, and more.
One current offering is the Gospel of John with a soccer game on the front cover and testimonials from famous sports figures inside, called Spirit of the Sport. It's only $1.25. Even better, you can get a full CEV Bible in paperback for only $1.69 when purchased in a case of 24 copies ($40.69). Because of licensing agreements, these Bibles are not for resale, and that's why ABS can offer the NIV Bible as well as other translations owned by Bible societies or in the public domain. (To its credit, Thomas Nelson has always licensed the NKJV for mission distribution, but you can't get the The Living Bible, NLT, or The Message from any Bible society - only from their publishers.)
The ABS also publishes extensive scholarly translation books on Scripture for serious students, as well as the Greek and Hebrew texts, scriptures in many languages, and much, much more. The society sponsors Bible Sunday to encourage reading of the Bible, gives away tens of thousands of scripture "portions" designed for people in need (little pamphlets, really), and much more.
The decline of ABS
To me, the key to all of this success has been the part of the mission statement that says "without doctrinal note or comment." The American Bible Society was founded in 1816 on the principle that if people can just get a Bible they can afford and understand, the Word of God will do the rest if they're ready. People do not need to be hit over the head with a Bible, nor have it shouted in their face or shoved down their throat. Give them an accurate Bible they can understand and it will speak to them. To me, that goes to the heart of God himself - if God's word can't reach people who are open to it, what does that say about our faith in God? Is his Word so weak that we have to bully people into hearing it exactly as we do?
In the late 1990s, I purchased several cases of CEV bibles (and a few others) and gave them away, often as palanca at Presbyterian Cursillo events. Because of that, ABS sent me not only catalogs, but also its quarterly magazine The Record, which I glanced through from time to time.
One day, I was reading an issue of The Record, and a prayer concern jumped out at me. Paraphrased (ha ha), it was something like this: "Pray for our brothers and sisters of [such-and-such church] in Canada. The local government has blocked their efforts to teach Bible classes in the schools and give away Bibles to all students, not just those who specifically request a copy."
Now maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but the gist was the same: there was a prayer request in the magazine to overcome the separation of church and state. They wanted me to ask God to let them use a government school to teach religion. I'm against that. If I had kids, I wouldn't want someone going to school, where they were required to attend, and hear someone explain things about God that I might not agree with. When the kids wanted, they could explore religions and develop their own faith, but not by compulsory attendance. That was enough to make me keep my eyes open a bit more, and sure enough, ABS started including more doctrinal notes and comments in its work.
For a long time, the society recognized that adding anything to a Bible was, by definition, adding "doctrinal note or comment," so it resisted except in the cases of adding very basic one-page evangelical calls, or perhaps adding quotes from famous figures, or lists of scriptures to read when you're depressed or lonely or whatnot. In recent years, though, the society has added several Bibles with ABS-generated "study aids" or "explorations." The African-American Jubilee Bible explores the history of African American culture and highlights the presence of African American culture and highlights the presence of Africans in the Bible as well as the history of the Black church and its influence on the Black family."
Not convinced? Try the CEV Learning Bible. "Finally, you'll have a Bible that invites reading and makes learning a joy! The ABS Learning Bible combines our very accessible Contemporary English Version text with clear and coherent explanatory material. For each book and for each section of that book you will find background and analysis to guide you to the full meaning and importance of what you read. Throughout there are colorful, informative illustrations, tables, charts and maps to guide you in your study and devotions. 2400 p. (7 x 9 1/4 in.)"
Explanatory material? Background? Analysis? "Guide you to the full meaning?" Since when does ABS presume to know the "full meaning and importance" of a passage, and how could it possibly do so "without doctrinal note or comment?" Granted, the opposition of some evangelicals to the CEV means that there aren't enough CEV study Bibles out there, especially when combined with what I said earlier about using a heavy-duty translation to get deeply into a specific passage. But for ABS to publish a Bible with doctrinal notes and commentary?
What then makes ABS different from any other right-wing evangelical organization that both gives you a Bible and tells you what it means?
The answer, sadly, is "not much." ABS is now publishing Bible-like books that reinterpret the Bible to fit a target audience, with no indication of what doctrine that might be supporting. It can't be any other way for Testament, a graphic novel ("comic book") that "presents stories from the Old Testament with drama, wisdom, wit and social and personal relevance." By definition, there is no way to make a graphic novel out of the Bible without significant editing, reduction, and interpretation. Ten years ago, ABS wouldn't even sell this thing. Now they're publishing it.
The last straw
I got an E-mail ad from ABS this week encouraging me to check out their online store for a special deal:
The Passion Gift Book Only $19.99 - Save 20% off the regular price! Remember The Passion of the Christ with this beautiful gift-book edition! With a forward by Mel Gibson, full-color images from the movie throughout the book, and narratives from the Scriptures, this sweeping presentation of The Passion of the Christ will enhance the movie experience!
ABS promoting The Passion??
Sad but true, and not just by co-marketing some book. ABS actually endorses Mel Gibson's crucifixion porn, using donated money to purchase tickets that it gave away to people in New York City. Some excerpts, with all emphasis in the original:
The American Bible Society (ABS) has offered its strong support for people to see the feature film The Passion of The Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, as a landmark tool for education and outreach about the importance of Jesus and the power of the Gospel stories to impact lives. [...]
"We are pleased to be encouraging people to see this landmark film, which we believe has the power to impact lives," said Dr. Eugene Habecker, President of the American Bible Society. "The American Bible Society enthusiastically encourages people nationwide, Christians and non-Christians alike, to see The Passion of the Christ to encounter for themselves a powerful retelling of this timeless story."
In connection with the film's opening, ABS is also creating print and Web resources that provide Scripture and larger context information about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to address questions and concerns viewers of the film may have after seeing it. An online resource with all four Passion and Resurrection narratives from the New Testament is being prepared because of concerns that the film blends the four Gospels into one story and because the film does not deal in a significant way with Easter events. [...]
Before voicing any public support for the film, senior executives and scholars from the Nida Institute of Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society closely assessed it for anti-Jewish undercurrents, which some critics have accused it of having.
ABS disagrees with the suggestion that there is any anti-Semitic content in the film. In its own Good News Translation of the Bible - which was used verbatim in another recently released film, The Gospel of John - the American Bible Society identified the forces urging Jesus' crucifixion as "Jewish authorities," rather than "Jews" generally, because it is sensitive to any blame being assigned to the larger Jewish community. The Gospel of John film follows the Fourth Gospel word-for-word and uses the Good News Translation as the script. The Bible Society scholars affirm that The Passion of the Christ is historically accurate in showing that, ultimately, the Roman authorities bore responsibility for putting Jesus to death, which is an important point in light of the charge of anti-Semitism. [...]
In addition, the American Bible Society is also providing free of charge the services of Dr. Barclay Newman, its senior translation officer, to a special committee formed by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions that will oversee the subtitling of The Passion of the Christ into various languages for international release.
"Ultimately, the Roman authorities bore responsibility for putting Jesus to death?" Yes, but everyone says The Passion makes clear that "the Jews" pushed the Romans into it. People donated money to ABS to make unbiased scriptures available to people everywhere, and ABS is using that money to promote a film that, by Mel Gibson's own admission, is largely based on extrabiblical sources. For ABS to not only endorse this movie but spend money and resources promoting it is a complete reversal of the 188-year-old mission statement.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I went back to the ABS site to find that mission statement and found it has been shortened:
Our mission today is to make Scripture available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford.
The page says that ABS "carries out its mission," in part, by "producing materials that avoid endorsing or advocating any doctrinal position," but you must admit that doesn't rule out publishing biased materials. It just says that they also publish material without doctrinal note or comment. The old mission statement, which lasted nearly two centuries, said that the society "undertook its purpose without doctrinal note or comment."
The American Bible Society, a cornerstone of scholarship since 1816, gave up its mission of providing scripture materials as free as possible from interpreting the Bible for you - and it's using that new capability to advocate the doctrine in The Passion. The last bastions of Christianity that believed God's Word could stand on its own have decided it's more fun to beat people over the head with it instead.
I'll still buy CEV Bibles, because everything I said about them is true, but somehow I don't think ABS will again do work that good with its new mission statement. It's the beginning of the end of one of the great Christian traditions in America.