On 400th anniversary of King James version, new Catholic, Protestant versions released - Kicking Jimmie under the Bus
Troubled by the translation of Isaiah 7:14 that said a messiah would be born of a "virgin," they quickly sought out a docent.
That's just one interpretation of the Hebrew word almah, the docent, a prominent Jewish educator, told them. Many scholars, he noted, translate the word as "young woman."
Two new English revisions of the Bible - the New American Bible published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Zondervan and Biblica's New International Version favored by most Protestants - are out this spring, each presenting the almah translation differently.
They come on this, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, viewed by many as the single most important book published in English.
Decades in the making, these new editions - much like the exchange at the Isaiah scroll - reflect the power of such words, for Christians and non-Christians alike, and the personal attachment to them thousands of years after their writing.
They also provide some insight into the scholarly balancing act between accurately imparting the meaning of the words and retaining some literary rhythm and beauty, all while making the Bible accessible to new generations of readers.
"The idea of accessibility is very important to us," said Deirdre Dempsey, a Marquette University professor of Old Testament and ancient languages who served on the board of editors for the New American Bible.
Retired Milwaukee Bishop Richard Sklba also worked on the Bible.
"We want it to be faithful to the text, but at the same time render it into accessible language," Dempsey said.
Gender-inclusive languageBoth revisions take advantage of advances in Biblical scholarship, including translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and reflect contemporary meanings of words.
In the Catholic Bible, for example, "booty" becomes "spoils of war" and "cereal " is now "grain." The NIV substitutes "foreigner" for "alien" and, to describe those crucified alongside Christ, "rebels" instead of "robbers."
Some changes were an attempt at more gender-inclusive language (occasionally at the expense of correct grammar, a linguist might gripe), and the rephrasing of some long-revered passages have rankled traditionalists.
Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Council on Biblical Man and Womanhood, a Kentucky-based organization that promotes the leadership roles of men at home and in the church, have criticized the NIV's inclusive language as going too far.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod raised concerns early on about the gender-inclusive language and other changes - such as substituting "young woman" for "virgin" - that might dilute Old Testament references seen as prophesying the coming of Christ.
But after careful scrutiny, it determined the NIV, the most widely read Bible today, remained the best translation for use in its publications, said the Rev. Paul Wendland, president of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon who headed the WELS translation evaluation committee.
In the end, it was the Catholic Bible that replaced "virgin" with "young woman," but referenced the alternative translation in its footnotes. The NIV retained the "virgin" and footnoted "young woman."
"I think even that (footnote) might cause concern with some people," Wendland said.
The NIV was last revised in 1984 and the New American Bible's Old Testament, the portion that is new in this revision, in 1970.
The independent efforts involved thousands of hours of work and a combined total of more than 200 scholars who consulted the original texts in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Changes were made judiciously and not without considerable debate.
"It took a 70% vote of the committee to change something in the NIV," said Douglas Moo, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College who chaired the NIV's Committee on Bible Translation. He noted that 95% of the NIV remains unchanged. "We have great respect for what the translators did then."
Likewise, the revisions for the Catholic Bible were reviewed to ensure they corresponded to Catholic doctrine, Dempsey said.
The two versions remain fundamentally different; the Catholic Bible includes several texts in its Old Testament that are not part of other Bibles.
It's not immediately clear how widely the new Bibles will be used, at least initially. There are no immediate plans to introduce the new New American Bible into the Catholic Mass. So, for now, it is likely to be used primarily for Bible study and in schools, according to Dempsey. And many churches have struggled during the economic downturn, and don't have the disposable income to replace Bibles, even the popular NIV, in the pews.
King James enduresBoth translations have been released during the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, revered still for its literary and cultural contributions, if not its often archaic language and syntax.
In the case of the NIV, that's hardly a coincidence, Moo said. "Our fundamental motivation is to get more people interested in the Bible, and with all the attention the King James Version is garnering, it's a good time to mount that kind of campaign, whatever that version might be," he said.
For such an old tome, the King James Version - which was never used by Catholics - still gets a lot of buzz. Events are scheduled around the world this year to honor, examine and discuss it. As for proof that it remains relevant: It has its own Facebook page.
Considered by some to be divinely inspired, the King James' impact is hard to overstate, according to scholars. Most subsequent versions derive from it - if not directly, then from the translators' intent to craft a Bible in the language of the day.
It was so dominant for 350 years that the King James influenced much of American culture, from religion to politics to literature and more, said Thomas Kidd, senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
"When they listened to Patrick Henry's 'Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death' speech, or Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, the audiences would have known they came from the Bible," Kidd said. "It builds a kind of cultural unity when so many people have one, sacred text."
Today, much of the King James seems antiquated and inaccessible, Bible scholars say. That said, sometimes only the King James will do, even for those who cherish it more for its sentimental value than as a tool for prayer or study.
"For beauty there's nothing, in my mind, that exceeds the King James Bible. It makes for such beautiful poetry," said the Rev. Keith Cogburn, executive director of the Lakeland Baptist Association in Milwaukee, who still has the copy his grandmother gave him in the early 1970s.
Cogburn said he was preaching recently from the 23rd Psalm - "The Lord is my shepherd..." - when he paused and thought: Oh, I wish I'd used the King James Version instead.
In other words, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley," doesn't have quite the imagery of "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."
Scholars recognize that kind of linguistic power. And while revisers often try to keep the most memorable passages intact, they still see great value in rendering the Bible in contemporary language.
"Language is always in flux," Moo said. "The importance of having a Bible in the language people understand is precisely what motivated the King James translators in their day. And I think, if they were around today, they would applaud the revisions."