The Everlasting Bible

New translations of the Bible have sought to make it accessible to everyone.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2011, Volume 32, Number 6

The English monarch Mary Tudor, in her drive to restore Catholicism to Great Britain, had a penchant for persecuting Protestants. She had some 280 burned at the stake, earning her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary,” and her actions forced countless other Protestants to flee England and relocate in Switzerland.

Colorful cover of the "Extreme Teen Bible."
Photo caption

Courtesy Thomas Nelson Publishers

Stylized cover of the "Couples' Devotional Bible."
Photo caption

Courtesy Zondervan Publishing House

Among these exiles were two scholars, Anthony Gilby and William Whittingham, who conceived the idea of a Bible translation targeted for a common lay audience. In 1560, Gilby and Whittingham brought forth the Geneva Bible, a version that quickly became the accepted popular standard among English-speaking Protestants. Everything about the Geneva Bible was designed to make it accessible to the lay reader, from its stress on understandable and common language to its extensive marginal commentary running to more than a quarter of a million words. The translation itself showed its antimonarchical roots in the purges of Mary Tudor as it liberally used the word “tyrant” over four hundred times to describe a number of rulers throughout the biblical text.

For the next half century, the Geneva translation held sway as the most widely used Bible by those outside the clerical ranks who were serious about their religion. Its popularity would only wane in the wake of the appearance of a new translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I in 1604. James empaneled forty-seven scholars to work on a new translation of the Holy Scriptures, a commission which took seven years to complete. James’s new translation came to be known throughout England as the “Authorized Version” because it was the only translation he permitted to be used in his country’s church services. In America, the translation came to be known by the name of its sponsoring monarch, the King James Bible (KJB).

Following in the footsteps of Gilby and Whittingham, James desired to give his subjects a vernacular Bible—a translation that could speak to the ordinary man and woman, an audience his translators called “the very vulgar.” As the use of the KJB spread throughout England, it also became the favorite English translation of the Bible in America by the mid seventeenth century. American Puritans readily adopted it because it was largely free from the extensive—often intrusive—notes found throughout previous English translations of the text.

The KJB’s place as the most popular English biblical translation in the United States remained for a stunning three and a half centuries. The story of the KJB is explored in “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” an NEH-funded exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

King James Slips from Prominence

Only in the mid 1980s did other Bible versions begin to outsell the venerable KJB. The end of such a long and distinguished reign begs the question: What finally brought down the KJB as America’s most popular Bible translation? The answer is complex, but it is partly found in the KJB’s vernacular roots. The KJB had been designed to offer God’s words in the common people’s idiom. The Bible translations that ultimately replaced it also fell into this vernacular tradition, aiming to make God’s words accessible to the most ordinary reader. Just how far Bible producers have gone in their attempts to reach a popular audience is but one fascinating aspect of the decline of the KJB in America’sbiblical culture.

New English translations of the Bible began to appear in the United States in the early nineteenth century, but none of them mounted a serious challenge to the KJB until 1881, when the Revised Version (RV) was released as a modern update to James’s much loved Bible. Although initially well received, the RV never gained a lasting popularity. English translations began to multiply in the years following the RV’s appearance; some of the most famous included the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1946), and Today’s English Version (1966). Although each new English translation chipped away at the KJB’s popularity, it was not until 1986 that another version unseated the King James Bible as the best-selling Bible translation in America. In that year, the sales of the New International Version (NIV) finally toppled the KJB from its perch.

The NIV translation was billed as thoroughly conservative and based on inerrant manuscripts (records that were without error when they were first written). The NIV’s translators coupled their proclamations of biblical inerrancy with a desire to present the Bible in a more contemporary idiom, noting that “unless Christian families and churches use the Scriptures in modern English form, more and more of our young people are going to be strangers to the Gospel.” Their work paid rich dividends. When the NIV first appeared in 1978, it was an immediate success. Using the extensive distribution network of its publisher, the International Bible Society, and quickly adopted by conservative evangelical churches throughout the country, the NIV’s initial 1.2 million press run sold out in advance. Within the decade, it became the single best-selling English Bible in the United States, and by 1996 over one hundred million NIV copies were in circulation.

The NIV translators’ commitment to producing a Bible in a more contemporary idiom made it a work tilted toward functional over formal equivalence. In translation terminology, formal equivalence work emphasizes a literal, word-for-word representation of a text. In Bibles, formal equivalence often makes for a slightly awkward reading experience, as archaic grammatical structures and vocabulary frequently characterize the text. Functional equivalence desires to translate a text thought-for-thought, not word-for-word. The aim of functional equivalence is to capture the original meaning of a text, not necessarily its exact wording and syntax. In terms of biblical translation, functionally equivalent approaches have the primary goal of making the biblical narrative accessible to contemporary readers, not to capture every nuance of that narrative. More simply put: Formal equivalence seeks to bring the reader back to the world of the ancient text, while functional equivalence seeks to transport that ancient text into the world of the modern reader.

Translations That "Flatten" Interpretative Possibilities

Functional equivalence highlights the reality that all biblical translation work is by necessity interpretive. Functional equivalence tends to allow translators greater freedom in their work because it is a strategy that stresses the intelligibility over a strict adherence to the wording of original sources. As a result, functional equivalence permits a greater depth of interpretation to be present in the final product; the theological predilections of those responsible for the translation become more prominent in the text itself. In such a way, functional equivalence tends to flatten the interpretative possibilities of biblical passages as it attempts to facilitate narrative flow and ease of understanding.

One example of how the NIV closed down options in assigning meaning is found in its rendering of Habakkuk 2:2. The KJB had translated this verse as: “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” NIV translators worked hard to make the verse clearer to the contemporary reader by avoiding any ambiguity in what it might mean. They translated the verse as: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.” The KJB had retained the double edge of the passage’s meaning in translating the Hebrew as “he may run that readeth it.” In Hebrew there are two possible meanings: a herald might run quickly with the message, or someone might be able to quickly read the writing on the tablets themselves. The NIV translators flattened the interpretive possibilities of the passage by portraying the first interpretation as the passage’s only meaning. Such choices may enhance the NIV’s narrative flow, but diminish the actual complexities of the text. The NIV translators constantly made such one-dimensional explanatory choices, thus producing an English translation which, in the end, offered a far less rich biblical text.

In the 1980s, Bible publishers adopted new publishing technologies that revolutionized their industry. American publishers produced an ever wider array of Bible formats to accompany the proliferation of new English translations of the sacred text. At the heart of the new wave of translations lay computerization. Computers vastly increased the speed and ease in which a translation could be completed. By the mid 1980s English Bible translations were appearing at the unheard-of rate of one every year. Of the more than thirty-five English translations that have appeared since 1980, the vast majority of them are products of the functionally equivalent approach.

Proliferation of Bible Formats

The intersection of functional equivalence with revolutionary changes in publishing has made the past forty years an era dominated by niche Bibles. The practice of adding marginal notes and commentary to Bibles dates back centuries, but never before had Bibles reached their readers in so many different editions as they did in the wake of the publishing revolution of the late twentieth century. As American Bibles rolled off the presses in the closing decades of the twentieth century, they not only contained translations bent toward greater intelligibility, but they were also increasingly accompanied by ever more sophisticated interpretation-laden layouts. Editorial teams used new computerized publishing techniques at an unprecedented rate to craft different editions that appealed to specific audiences. So were born: The Couples BibleOne Year New Testament for Busy Moms, Extreme Teen Study BiblePoliceman’s Bible, and the Celebrate Recovery Bible. The plentiful apparatus, mixed with highly interpretive, functionally equivalent translations helped set the stage for Bible editions that were more directive in their interpretational stances than ever before.


Perhaps no biblical edition better captures the current vernacular spirit than The HCSB Light Speed Bible. The Light Speed Bible was a finely tuned response to a biblical culture characterized by 91 percent of American adults owning at least one Bible, but half of those Bible owners rarely or never read the sacred volume. When queried, 40 percent of American Bible owners declared that the book was too hard to understand, and 59 percent felt they simply did not have enough time to read their Bible. Holman Bible Publishers of Nashville, Tennessee, created The HCSB Light Speed Bible as the perfect edition to help busy people read this complex and challenging book.

The HCSB Light Speed Bible used as its core translation The Holman Christian Standard Bible, a slightly more literal translation than the NIV but still firmly situated in the functionally equivalent camp. William Proctor, the editor of The HCSB Light Speed Bible, fused this common-idiom translation with an aggressive Bible reading plan. For decades, various editions had offered systematic reading plans that allowed a person to finish the Bible in a set amount of time, most commonly a year, but Proctor had no patience with such a slowly attained goal. Through his Bible edition’s special format and reading instructions, Proctor promised his readers that they might “expect to take about 12–24 hours or a little longer to read every word of the Old and New Testaments” and enjoy a comprehension rate of “70 percent on basic, factual multiple-choice evaluations.”

With such promises of high speed and pronounced comprehension, The HCSB Light Speed Bible positioned itself as the ultimate user-friendly Bible for busy Americans. Here was a Bible edition that one could completely read (and understand) in roughly a day. The HCSB Light Speed Bible exemplifies the impetus behind common-idiom translations and the proliferation of niche Bibles: quick, intelligible access to one of the most challenging books ever written. Accessibility, efficiency, and ease of use have clearly become key values in the production and consumption of American Bibles.

In generations past, one of the earmarks of religious reading was its intensive, repetitive nature. Readers read the same biblical book or the same passage again and again over a period of days, weeks, and even years in an attempt to wrestle the meaning from a text for themselves. While not every reader might have so intensively engaged the Bible, today’s American Bible publishers facilitate a far less self-reflective approach to the book as they stretch to make the biblical text accessible through the use of translation strategies that foreground heavily interpretive translation and
formatting strategies.

By any measure, the Bible is a demanding book that requires readers to struggle to acquire its meaning. Attempts to make it easily digestible are laudable in one respect, but such attempts need to be considered in light of the fact that the move to provide interpretive clarity and ease of use always compromises the message found in a book that thrives on complexity and ambiguity. The KJB may have been an old text, but its Elizabethan English encouraged reflection. Reading and interpreting the Bible has never been easy, and in the end, maybe it should not be. Flattening out the possible meanings of any given verse and then adding additional commentary to clarify the verse robs the Bible of important layers of subtlety. As we celebrate the four hundredth birthday of the King James Bible this year, we might do well to pause and reflect on the changing nature of vernacular Bibles. The KJB’s greatness is found in how it mixed a common touch with multilayered textual meaning. It was indeed a masterful blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary.