The Living Bible Reborn: Tyndale's 50th Anniversary
When I was a boy, growing up in the 1950s, everyone I knew at all the churches we attended had the same Bible. It was the King James Version, but no one called it that; it was simply "the Bible." There was very little talk of "versions" at all. (I knew that Roman Catholics had a Bible of their own, with some extra books that didn't belong there, but most Catholics-I knew this, too-didn't read the Bible in any case, because the priests didn't want them to start asking hard questions.)
How things have changed. Close at hand as I write this is the NIV Study Bible that I take to church each Sunday. Nearby is an NRSV study Bible, an NKJV study Bible, and-closest to my heart-a battered KJV that my mother gave me in 1967. On my wife's side of the bed is Eugene Peterson's The Message (the New Testament and Psalms), which is her favorite for devotional reading. Elsewhere in the room are several other partial translations: Everett Fox's rendering of The Five Books of Moses, for instance, and Tyndale's New Testament, and the recently published Three Gospels as translated by novelist Reynolds Price. There are other Bibles in the house, including a version for children and the NIV Student Bible. Among our friends and fellow church members we see a similar variety of versions—though sales figures say that the NIV is number one.
What brought about this transformation in the span of a single generation—from the nearly unrivaled dominance of the KJV to the profusion of contemporary translations? In part, at least, the answer is simple: the language of the KJV, freshly minted in 1611, resisted full comprehension by readers three-and-a-half centuries later. Now, the KJV did not become unintelligible overnight, but evangelicals in particular were slow to acknowledge its deficiencies. Holding rightly to a high view of Scripture, they had grown to believe that the majestic, archaic language of King James's translators was the very vehicle God would choose in which to express himself, were he speaking in English. The archaism confirmed that this was indeed the inspired Word of God.
Another fundamental evangelical conviction—that the Bible speaks to men and women now, and children too, with undiminished clarity and force—was thus in need of reaffirmation. That was done most decisively by Ken Taylor, who in 1962 published Living Letters, his version of the New Testament epistles. In an interview with Harold Myra (CT, Oct. 5, 1979, pp. 1307-11), Taylor recalled how, after several publishers, both secular and religious, rejected the manuscript, he was led to publish the work himself. Over the next decade, further installments were issued, and the complete Living Bible appeared in 1971.
The Living Bible was an enormous success; to date, more than 40 million copies have been sold. The impact of Taylor's work, however, extended far beyond the fortunes of that particular version: the warm response to the Living Bible testified to a hunger among readers for a Bible they could understand, and other translators and publishers took note. Today the Living Bible is but one of many versions that place a premium on accessibility.
In July of 1996, Tyndale House Publishers launched the New Living Translation (NLT), a revision of the Living Bible that seeks to preserve the freshness and readability of Taylor's groundbreaking paraphrase while providing the accuracy and reliability of a translation prepared by a team of 90 biblical scholars. Seven years in the making, and supported by a massive marketing campaign, the NLT is an ambitious entry to the field of "general-purpose" translations, intended not only for devotional use but also for study and congregational reading.