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.

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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.

The appearance of the NLT raises questions both among longtime readers of the Living Bible and among Bible readers in general. How does this new version relate to the Living Bible? Why was revision needed? And what does the NLT distinctively offer in comparison with the most widely used general-purpose translations already available?

Like the KJV, which was explicitly commissioned as a revision of the Bishops' Bible of 1568, the NLT is both a revision and a translation in its own right. Each book of the Bible was assigned to three scholars (many of whom, representing a wide variety of evangelical denominations, have published commentaries on the books for which they were responsible). They compared the Living Bible verse by verse with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, submitting suggestions for revision to a general reviewer, who prepared a first-draft translation. After further rounds of scholarly review and stylistic revision, the new translation was submitted to the Bible translation committee, which was responsible for additional revisions and final approval of the text. A comparison of the Living Bible with the NLT shows that the changes were extensive.

Why did the Living Bible require such substantial revision? Ken Taylor's work has been labeled a paraphrase, in contrast to a translation. In fact, as many scholars have noted, the distinction between paraphrase and translation is not at all clear-cut (see, for example, Robert G. Bratcher's review of the Living Bible, CT, Oct. 7, 1971, pp. 16-19), and it is more helpful to regard the Living Bible as a free translation that seeks to convey the meaning of the original text in idiomatic English. That is the aim of the NLT as well. So what is at issue in the revision of the Living Bible is not a fundamentally new or different approach but (1) greater accuracy and (2) stylistic changes, very much in the spirit of Taylor's enterprise, intended to make the translation even more readable.

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With regard to accuracy, many small changes simply reflect advances in scholarship, while others correct a tendency noted even by friendly critics such as Bratcher (see above) for the translator to impose a theological agenda on the text, sometimes to smooth over "difficult" passages. So, for example, compare Matthew 24:34 in the Living Bible ("Then at last this age will come to its close") with the more accurate rendering in the NLT ("I assure you, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place"). Similarly, the alleged anti-Semitism singled out by hostile critics of the Living Bible (see, for example, Barry Hoberman's cover story, "Translating the Bible," in the Atlantic, Feb. 1985, pp. 43-58) has been addressed in the revisions for the NLT.

Evaluating fully the accuracy of a new translation is a long process conducted by the scholarly community and demanding expertise that this reviewer does not possess, but first impressions suggest that the NLT will score high on this scale.

Even more impressive, however, is the style of the NLT. Other versions, such as the NIV and the NRSV, have been acclaimed by consensus for their accuracy, but none of the leading general-purpose translations can match the clarity, rhythm, and readability of the NLT.

Many of the changes from the Living Bible to the NLT are small but deft revisions of wording that enhance the readability of the text. Compare, for example, 1 Corinthians 4:1 in the Living Bible ("So Apollos and I should be looked upon as Christ's servants who distribute God's blessings by explaining God's secrets") and in the NLT ("So look at Apollos and me as mere servants of Christ who have been put in charge of explaining God's secrets"). Such differences may seem insignificant, but cumulatively they contribute to a clearer understanding of Scripture; they also facilitate memorization and reading aloud.

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Judgments regarding the style of rival translations can only be supported by detailed comparison of many individual passages, and contain an irreducible element of subjectivity. Nonetheless, it is useful to compare a single passage as it appears in the NLT and other leading versions. The sample passage, Ezekiel 21:18-20, is a good example precisely because it is not in the anthology of familiar favorites.

If you read this text in the four versions given below, you will find that the NLT version is the easiest to read. Note, for example, what a difference it makes simply to cut unnecessary prepositions: from the wordy "the sword of the king of Babylon" to the crisp "the sword of Babylon's king." The NLT version is much clearer, too. In part that is because a context that is missing in the other versions is spelled out in the NLT: "make a map." That visual image clarifies everything that follows. This superior clarity is also evident in the description of the road "that comes out of Babylon" (NLT); the other versions speak of the road "to" the city, a shift in orientation that confuses the reader.

There are differences in word choice as well; compare the idiomatic ease of the NLT's "trace two routes for the sword of Babylon's king to follow" with the other versions (NIV: "sword … to take" ; NRSV: "sword … to come" ; NKJV: "sword … to go" ).

Again and again, whether in the visions of the prophets or the rabbinical reasoning of Paul, one finds this lucid clarity in the NLT. Indeed, the translators sometimes go too far in their desire to be reader-friendly.

So, for example, in Matthew 8:22, Jesus is made to say: "Let those who are spiritually dead care for their own dead." This translation violates the rule of "equivalent effect," for Jesus' words—"let the dead bury their own dead" (NRSV)—were deliberately provocative, shocking even, for listeners in the culture of first-century Judaism, and late-twentieth-century readers should feel the force of that injunction.

Rendering the words of Jesus is a particularly difficult challenge for translators. The words of Jesus in the NLT are clear and dignified, but frequently they lack the feel of an actual speaking voice. There is an enormous difference between the Jesus of the NLT and the Jesus of The Message, for example, but to convey the immediacy of a speaking voice Peterson has taken liberties that the NLT, NIV, and NRSV translators have denied themselves. That is why we are blessed to have multiple translations; no one version supplants all others.

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While we celebrate an abundance of Bibles in diverse translations, we may wonder who is reading them. Tyndale commissioned a national survey, "Bible Reading in America," conducted in May 1996 by Barna Research, the results of which were published with the launch of the NLT. No one who has taught adult Sunday school will be stunned by the report. The survey found that while 91 percent of American adults own one or more Bibles, only one in five reads the Bible at least once a week; 45 percent rarely or never read their Bibles. Moreover, while 86 percent claimed to know the basic principles of the Bible "somewhat" or "very well," a large percentage performed poorly on a basic quiz of Bible knowledge.

Tyndale, unsurprisingly, concludes that people don't read the Bible because they can't understand it, and the solution is the NLT. It is true that among those surveyed who do not read the Bible at least once a month, 40 percent feel that the Bible is too hard to understand. But 59 percent feel that they don't have enough time. That last statistic is perhaps the most telling in the entire report. It may remind us that the demands and commands of Jesus come through pretty clearly in the end, no matter what translation you happen to be using; the difficulty, it seems, lies in following them.

Last Updated: October 10, 1996

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