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How many versions of the Bible do we need?
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
October 26, 2010
6 MIN READ TIME

How many versions of the Bible do we need?

How many versions of the Bible do we need?
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
October 26, 2010

If you stacked all the

Bibles sitting in American homes, the tower would rise 29 million feet, nearly

1,000 times the height of Mount Everest.

More than 90 percent of

American households own a Bible, and the average family owns three, according

to pollsters at the Barna Group. The American Bible Society hands out 5 million

copies of the Good Book each year; 1.5 billion Gideon Bibles wait in hotel

rooms worldwide.

Scripture outsells the

latest diet fads, murder mysteries and celebrity bios year after year.

Evangelical publishers alone sold an estimated 20 million Bibles in

recession-battered 2009, raking in about $500 million in sales, according to

Michael Covington, information and education director of the Evangelical

Christian Publishers Association.

Experts say it’s nearly

impossible to calculate exactly how many Bibles are sold each year. But one

thing is clear: The Good Book is great for business.

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“Bibles are in many ways a

cash cow,” said Phyllis Tickle, a former longtime religion editor at Publishers

Weekly. “The Bible is the mainstay of many a publishing program.”

However, some Christian

scholars wonder whether too much Good News can sometimes be a bad thing, as a

major new translation and waves of books marking the 400th anniversary of the

venerable King James Bible inundate the market this fall.

The assortment of

translations and “niche Bibles” (think, “The Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing

Edition”) sow confusion and division among Christians, invite ridicule from

relativists, and risk reducing God’s word into just another personal-shopping

preference, the scholars say.

“I think we are drifting

more and more to a diverse Babel of translations,” said David Lyle Jeffrey,

former provost of Baylor University and an expert on biblical translations.

Jeffrey believes Americans need a “common Bible” — a role the King James

Version played for centuries — to communicate the grandeur of Scripture without

reducing it to “shopping-center-level” discourse.

“When we have so much

diversity we lose our common voice,” he said. “It is in effect moving away from

a common membership in the body of Christ into disparate, confusing

misrepresentations of the rich wisdom of Scripture, which ought to unify us.”

Leland Ryken, an English

professor at Wheaton College, a leading evangelical school in Illinois, was

more blunt.

“When there is wide

divergence among Bible translations, readers have no way of knowing what the

original text really says,” Ryken said. “It’s like being given four different

scores for the same football game, or three contradictory directions for

getting to a town in the middle of the state.”

Christian publishers,

meanwhile, say they have an obligation — even a divine calling — to make

Scripture ready and readable to as many people as possible.

Despite the Bible’s

ubiquity, Americans are not necessarily reading or absorbing scripture, said

Paul Franklyn, associate publisher of the Common English Bible, a new

translation sponsored by five mainline Protestant publishers.

For example, half of

Christians cannot name the four Gospels; a third cannot identify Genesis as the

Bible’s first book, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on

Religion & Public Life.

The new Common English Bible

aims to present an easy-to-read translation from the “theological center,”

Franklyn said. Its New Testament debuts this fall; the entire Bible is due next

year.

Despite the profitability of

Bible publishing, penetrating the crowded and competitive market is a “big

risk,” requiring equal parts scholarship and salesmanship, Franklyn said. The

Common English Bible publishers spent $1 million on the translation and will

doll out another $3 million to get people to “pay attention” to it, he said.

Scholars estimate that at

least 200 English translations have been published since 1900 — many of them

revisions of earlier texts. Sorting out the differences between the New

American Bible and New American Standard Bible, for example, can be daunting

for even experienced readers.

The market can be so

confusing and crowded that half of customers who visit Christian stores to buy

a Bible leave without one, according to a study presented to Christian

retailers in 2006.

“Heck, I’m overwhelmed and I’m

supposed to know what the hee-haw I’m doing,” said Tickle, author of “The Great

Emergence,” a well-regarded book on the future of Christianity. “Bibliolatry is

not a word I use very often, but we are probably veering very close to it.”

There’s even a cottage

industry of experts to help people choose a Bible. Paul Wegner, a professor at

Phoenix Seminary in Arizona who conducts church conferences about the Bible,

says Christians constantly ask why there are so many different Bibles, and

which is the “right” one.

“People almost throw up

their hands, there are so many Bibles out there,” he said. “Maybe they’ve

created a market for me.”

To counter consumer

confusion, publishers began marketing Bibles based on “felt needs,” or secular

interests, said Andy Butcher, an editor at the journal Christian Retailing.

Christian publisher

Zondervan’s 2010 catalog of Bibles (“The Book of Good Books”) runs 223 pages

and includes Bibles tailored toward black children, students, spiritual

seekers, women with cancer, busy dads, new moms, recovering addicts, surfers,

grandmothers and camouflage enthusiasts.

“The next thing will be a

Bible for men in midlife crises,” Jeffrey said, “with ads for Harley Davidson

motorcycles inside.”

Tim Jordan, a marketing

manager at B&H Publishing Group, a leading Christian publisher that sells

niche Bibles, compared them to conversation starters. “It’s just being smart

about where people are at and trying to meet them there,” he said. “We need to

engage people into the Bible.”

Ryken, however, suspects

publishers’ motives may be more economic than spiritual.

By definition, niche Bibles

are designed to corner a market segment, he said. In the process, “the Bible

loses its identity as the authoritative word of God and becomes something

trivial, on par with shoes for hikers or luggage for the international set.”