This interview was originally published in the October 5, 1979, issue of Christianity Today.
"Six years ago our only son died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. I knew I had to have God's Word to find the comfort and strength I so desperately needed. The Living Bible had just come out, and I read and reread it. At last! I had found a Bible I could understand. I've grown in my Christianity during the past six years from a lukewarm believer into an evangelical Christian, and I want to pay tribute to you for helping in my growth."
"I have been a Catholic sister for over 30 years. 1 was no stranger to the Bible, but never before have I experienced such joy and, yes, excitement in Scripture. "
Scholars continue to debate the merits of the Living Bible; but letters such as these, addressed to Kenneth N. Taylor, affirm for him its original purpose: to see lives changed through understanding Scripture. Taylor's first paraphrases appeared more than 15 years ago. Today, well over 20 million copies of the entire Living Bible, and several million more Living Letters (the New Testament epistles) and other portions have been sold.
A seminary-trained clergyman who has never had a pastorate, Taylor, 62, has been involved in publishing for most of his adult life. Using his pen as a pulpit, he has preached to millions of readers all over the world. But although his work has made him famous, he remains a retiring and modest figure, "one of the few people I know who has not allowed wealth to change him," says a colleague. "He simply has not been corrupted by money or prestige. His spiritual intensity and commitments are unquestioned."
After taking an undergraduate degree in zoology at Wheaton College (Illinois), he attended Dallas Theological Seminary for three years, and graduated from Northern Baptist Seminary in 1944 with a master's degree in theology. For three years he edited Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship's magazine, HIS, and for 15 years was director of Moody Press in Chicago. He left that position in 1962 to publish the Living Bible. He has also authored 10 children's books, including his best-selling Bible Story Book.
How many publishers originally turned down the Living Letters paraphrase when you first tried to get it published? And how did you react?
Probably five or six publishers, some secular and some religious, returned the manuscript. There was the feeling lurking in the back of my mind that it might be better to publish it personally so that there would be more control and more opportunity to give it undivided promotional attention. Sometimes I've been asked whether I expected such a vast circulation to occur, and I really don't know how to answer that, because God did give me some intimations that it was going to have a wide usefulness: I felt that since reading the completed manuscript helped me so much in my own understanding of the Word of God, others with less than my seminary education would be even more greatly helped in being able to understand the Bible easily.
So my emotional reaction was very mixed. I was disappointed, but excited that perhaps God was going to let me publish it myself.
What kind of pressures did you face as you translated the Bible?
There was an enormous burden on my soul for complete accuracy on the one hand, and complete readability and understanding on the other. A paraphrase is an entirely different kind of translation. A standard translation can best be termed a "word-by-word" or "phrase-by-phrase" translation, because a "dynamic equivalent" English word or expression is found to replace the Greek or Hebrew word in the original manuscript. But it is almost impossible to find an exact equivalent, so the result is a series of English words reconstructed into a fairly readable English sentence, but not quite accurate and often not conveying what the various Bible writers were really saying.
A paraphrase, on the other hand, is concerned about the accuracy in translating thoughts, to express something the way the authors would if they had been writing in English. This "paraphrase translation," as I call it, is understood more accurately by the average reader than are the standard modern translations such as the New International Version, the New American Standard, and others. These are excellent, especially the NIV, but they leave much to be desired in getting across the original thought to the average reader of English. Both kinds of translation are needed. I use the Living Bible for my devotional reading because I get so much more out of it, but in a Sunday school class I like to take along a standard translation, too.
Were the pressures of translation related to the partial loss of voice that you have experienced?
I was under great pressure, having been brought up with such a huge reverence for the Bible. One fears a mistake will be made. The committed paraphrase-translator, trying to insure accuracy of thought, has a far greater pressure upon his spirit than does the person doing a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation.
Whether this is the cause of my voice problem, no one seems to be sure. It broke while I was giving a luncheon talkI believe it was in Portugalabout 15 years ago, and it gradually deteriorated until I could hardly use it at all. Now, however, it is improving, although it still comes and goes. I suspect probably it is as one doctor told me, "Some people get ulcers, and some people get a psychosomatic disorder that can affect the voice." Emotions can make the voice falter, and emotional pressure during 16 years of paraphrasing can produce severe impairments.
How did your own children respond to the Living Bible?
My older children were not brought up on the Living Bible, because it did not exist during their formative years. The younger half of the tribe (I have 10 children) have frequently expressed appreciation and enjoy it very muchas do some of the older children.
The children were one of the chief inspirations for producing the Living Bible. Our family devotions were tough going because of the difficulty we had understanding the King James Version, which we were then using, or the Revised Standard Version, which we used later. All too often I would ask questions to be sure the children understood, and they would shrug their shouldersthey didn't know what the passage was talking about. So I would explain it. I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought. It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting resultsthey knew the answers to all the questions I asked!
What financial arrangements were made once the Living Bible began to sell? Were you tempted to use the royalties for your own gains, especially since you have 10 children?
Margaret and I have always been "missionary minded" and anxious to honor God in all we do. Since the Bible is the Word of God and God is the author, it seemed logical that he should get the royalties for his work. So we set up a foundation to receive the royalties from the first printing (2,000 copies) and any succeeding editions that might be called for. I have wondered, had I known at the time how huge the royalties would become, whether I would have been quite so "devoted"; but I think I would have.
How do you respond to the various criticisms brought against the Living Biblethat it's a "translation once removed," since it is based on English versions and not on Hebrew and Greek originals?
It is not true to say that the Living Bible is not based on the Hebrew and Greek originals. It is a matter of procedure as to whether the Greek and Hebrew are put into a rough translation and then given style by another group of communicators (as with the NIV, for instance), or whether one begins with the flowing thought of a paraphrase and then turns it over to Greek and Hebrew scholars to check and recheck for ultimate accuracy. It was this latter system I used. The first way tends inevitably to produce a somewhat stilted feel, whereas the paraphrase method is the ultimate method of understandability with accuracy.
What about the criticism that translating the Living Bible into other languages results in a translation twice removed from the original?
Our Living Bibles in other languages are not translations of the English Living Bible. The English version is the model for its understandability, emotive qualities, clarity, and exegesis. But each language group has its own resource of Greek and Hebrew scholars.
Some people maintain translations like the Good News Bible (Today's English Version) are superior, since they are based on the original manuscripts and translated by a committee of scholars.
I do not believe that the Good News Bible is considered by very many people to be superior to the Living Bible. Each has its place of usefulness. Both make use of the original manuscripts. I feel that a committee translation where everyone rewrites everyone else's work is apt to be less vital and exciting. In my opinion, it is best for the basic translation to be done by one person, then for others to contribute their suggestions.
Does criticism of the Living Bible dishearten you?
I am not particularly concerned about those who criticize the Living Bible because of its translation procedures, but I am very much concerned about certain people who have condemned it along with all other modern language translations, and have made millions of people fearful of using anything except the King James Version. It seems to me that this is a terrible disservice to God and man. I think it is a sad thing when people are discouraged from reading whatever translation the Holy Spirit will use to open their lives to God in fresh and wonderful ways.
How do you see the Living Bible in terms of the entire history of the English Bible?
I see the Living Bible as a translation for this generation. Although I am not permitted to question God's timing, I wish someone had been called to this task a hundred years ago so that the Living Bible instead of the King James would be in hotel rooms. Many traveling businessmen glance at the KJV and decide that it is not for them, because it is too hard for them to understand. They go away with the impression that the Bible is not an open book, not readable except to the experts, and thus they are terribly and eternally deprived.
The great Bible translations seem to me to be Wycliffe's in the 14thcentury, Tyndale's of 1526, the King James Version of 1611, and then the many good, modern-language translations of the last 70 or 80 years, including the paraphrase-translations exemplified by J. B. Phillips and the Living Bible. I suppose there will be other paraphrases in the future, and the result will be that vast numbers of Christians will understand the Bible and read it as never before; others who are not yet Christians will come to Christ by being able for the first time to understand the Word of God.
Describe the publishing program at Tyndale House.
Tyndale House Publishers is the major publisher of the Living Bible, and the royalties from the Bibles go through the Tyndale House Foundation to missionary organizations all over the world. These royalties must be paid by contract to the foundation, whether or not Tyndale House can afford them. In 1965 we began to publish a few Christian books other than the Bible. We are now releasing about 100 new titles each year.
Tyndale House (but not the foundation) has been hurt financially by several poor business decisions I've made over the past several years, most of them related to overexpenditures in my attempts to bring about a wider circulation of Christian books, including the Living Bible. I remember an advertising campaign a few years ago where we spent well over $100,000 for television advertising in the spring, promoting the Living Bible. We learned to our sorrow that such expenditures should be made toward Christmastime.
Would you tell us about the Tyndale Encyclopedia of Christian Knowledge? We understood this work was planned as a five-year project, but that it has now been stopped. How much time had actually gone into it up to the time the work was stopped, and how many more years do you estimate would be required to complete the encyclopedia?
The encyclopedia had been on the way for three and a half years and was about 90 percent completed when, regretfully, it was stopped. We tried to do in five years what should have been set up as a 10- or 15-year program, and we simply ran out of money that could be invested in it.
Do you think Tyndale will be able to complete the project?
We have stopped the project for a couple of years until we recoup, and then we will proceed in an orderly financial manner. We particularly regret the decision because 400 of the finest scholars in the world have worked on this project. But although the editorial work was so near completion, we simply ran out of money. We made some very bad decisions for which we are terribly sorry. We are determined, however, that the sacrificial work of these scholars shall not be lost, but that these splendid articles will be published so the public can profit from them. I expect that we will have the encyclopedia available by 1985.
Royalties from Bible sales go to the Tyndale House Foundation, and the foundation is by law prohibited from assisting Tyndale House publications, such as the encyclopedia. That is why the royalties did not prevent the encyclopedia project from being postponed.
What future do you see for Christian book publishing?
I constantly ask myself whether the evangelicals of the English-speaking world really need the hundreds of new evangelical books that roll off presses every year. New, small Christian publishers are continuing to enter this field. My conclusion is that although the 10 percent (estimated by the Christian Booksellers Association) of evangelicals who frequent Christian bookstores are well supplied, we have a long, long way to go to get the other 90 percent reading Christian books and magazines. Then there are the three quarters of the American population who do not count themselves as evangelicals. It is our obligation to try to reach them with books that will attract them to the Lord. That is why I am just as concerned about distribution as I am about publishing.
How have you dealt with areas in your past that you might consider major failures?
There have been times when I was proud in thinking that I was a good businessman, but through the poor results from some of my business decisions, the Lord has helped me see that although I can often analyze a business opportunity correctly, I'm not as able as many others to implement the decisions. I've also seen both from the Word and from experience that my decisions can be dangerously biased by acquisitiveness, which is a problem that has troubled me since my childhood, when I was brought up in a lower-middle-class standard of living. Now I have learned to see the red danger flags flying when I make decisions, if there is a possibility that pride or money hunger may be involved in a business or personal decision.
Strangely enough, I have not had any problem of pride so far as the Living Bible is concerned. It is a special gift of paraphrasing which God gave to me, and I accept it as an objective fact, very impersonally; although I am deeply involved, it is almost as though I am watching from a distance.
Describe Living Bibles International's plan to produce the Living Bible in all the major world languages, from both a ministry and a marketing standpoint.
There are approximately 4.5 billion people in the world, and 80 percent of them have never heard or seen any portion of the Scriptures. LBI is attempting to overcome this communication gap by translating, producing, and distributing easily understood Living Bibles in the major languages of the worldBibles in the popular language of the people, which can be understood by the man or woman of average education.
LBI works in a country through national Christian communicators, including church leaders, in translation and distribution. Their knowledge of the nation's language and culture helps us to be much more effective in using the finished product. Once in a while we find a person who has a special gift for paraphrasing, but mostly it comes through training and hard work. Often the LBI distribution program is carried out in cooperation with other major evangelical organizations. Many LBI editions are sold at full market prices in order to create a revolving fund. This assures a continual supply of Bibles in that language, and generates funds for subsidies in countries where sales are difficult.
How do you relate to the Bible societies?
The need for Bibles is great enough to keep the Bible societies and LBI both busy! We try to coordinate our work wherever possible in order to use available resources to the best advantage.
How have you coped with the responsibilitiesphysical, mental, and spiritualof raising 10 children, overseeing Tyndale House and Living Bibles International, and the other duties you have?
I have never had physical problems (except for my voice) and for this I am very, very grateful. While the children were at home I had a significant emotional problem in knowing how to give them the time and attention they each needed, and I failed badly in this. I spent too many hours working on the Living Bible when they needed my love. My wife is a marvelous person, full of patience and discernment, and this has made all the difference as she has encouraged and helped me. We don't always agree, and I am finally realizing that she is usually right, though not always!
Proverbs 22:6 states, "Teach a child to choose the right path, and when he is older he will remain upon it." Do you see that verse as a "promise" or as a general statement of fact?
Frankly, I was amazed when things began to go wrong in the lives of some of my own children. I had never questioned their following on in the faith, just as I and my brothers (I have no sisters) had followed along in the teaching from the Word and the convictions of our parents. Now that these things have happened, I can look back and see mistakes I made which, if I had not made them, might have significantly helped the children in following the Lord. However, regardless of the mistakes, during the last few years several of my children who were uncertain in spiritual matters have found a renewed relationship with the Lord and are steadily moving forward.
I have also been surprised and deeply concerned about many of my friends who have children who have not followed the Lord. My generation still hesitates to follow the Scriptures in this matter by sharing our problems with one another; that is a great mistake, for we need to pray for each other and for each other's children. But I also praise the Lord for many who have mentioned to me how their children have come back into the sunlight of God's presence.
If you had the opportunity to do over again things you have done in the last 30 years, what would you do differently?
I would spend more quality time with my children, I would pay more attention to showing my wife that I appreciate her, and I would examine myself more thoroughly to detect spiritual faults and have them dealt with by my Lord much earlier in the personal spiritual process.
Originally published in Christianity Today October 5, 1979
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See also: The Living Bible's Modern Hero | Ken Taylor's autobiography shows a man who makes nothing of an extraordinary life.
Tyndale House Publishers says a Ken Taylor memorial website will be available soon.
In an article about The Living Bible, Books & Culture editor John Wilson says the impact of Ken Taylor's work extended far beyond the fortunes of The Living Bible.