By Russell E. Saltzman / First Things
I must have been living under a rock. Here it is late June, The Voice appeared a whole month ago, and it wasn’t until last week that I heard anything about it.
It is a new Bible, of course, from Thomas Nelson Publishing and the Ecclesia Bible Society, the latter an outgrowth of Ecclesia Church, Houston, an “emergent” congregation. There was an earlier 2010 release of The Voice New Testament, but I slept through that as well.
But what I’ve learned is just ever so astonishing. The vitality and importance of The Voice, I am led to infer, is almost level with the Coming Consummation of Time. If you want to read God’s story, this, at the very least, is the best thing since Moses took dictation for the Pentateuch. I am perhaps exaggerating the exaggerations promoters are making.
The seventy-two dollar “product,” as it is frequently called in Bible-marketing circles, isn’t one of your average ho-hum translations, either. No, sir, this is “a faithful dynamic equivalent translation that reads like a story.” Reading like a story means formatting the text to look like a script. Here’s the real wow factor: It does all this while remaining “completely accurate to the original manuscripts.”
Um, no. A “dynamic equivalent translation” is on the discount aisle at the biblical language store, in contrast to a “formal equivalence.” Another phrase might be “upgraded paraphrase.” In any case, it isn’t any sort of translation favored by actual language scholars. Artists and poets, we are told, took this translation to its dynamic equivalence with the original manuscripts. Only then was it passed around to a panel of biblical language scholars. As descriptions go, the equivalent of “formal” is not “dynamic” and nobody wants a stodgy old formal Bible when they can have a shiny dynamic one.
I seem to be lapsing into sardonic snarkiness. So, before my condition becomes terminal let me say that the “dynamic equivalent” parts I’ve read do have a real zing, a pleasant, engaging lilt and cadence. I even like the scripted format, a whole lot. There is precedence for it; Dorothy Sayers produced radio scripts from gospel stories. Also, there is nothing wrong and lot that is right about twisting Greek into idiomatic American English. I can’t even object to the middle school reading level, making it about the same as the New York Times.
The Voice does pick up some heat from critics for avoiding “Christ” in favor of “Anointed One,” and referring to Jesus as “Liberating King.” It also avoids the word “angel,” preferring “messenger.” There are other mild quirks like this. Folks who take their Bible “words” seriously think something is amiss.
But if I have any real objection, it is less with The Voice itself and more with the entire category of what I call “entertainment Bibles,” every one of which was supposed to rock our Christian world.
The effect of an entertainment paraphrase, whatever the intention, is to titillate by novelty. When the novelty is gone, we go looking for new entertainment. That’s how it rolls.
What promoters have said of The Voice has been said of other “dynamic equivalent” versions as they appeared and in some cases reappeared on the scene. There’s a half-life to these things, and it isn’t long at all.
Make a list: Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible. Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The American Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version. The Jefferson Bible is back on the shelves, Thomas’ cut-and-paste attempt to cleanse ethics of religion and superstition. Schonfield’s The Original New Testament (author also of The Passover Plot) was said to be a “radical” reinterpretation. Maybe, but there is even an older Original New Testament, a “secret” Essenes text “discovered” in the early 1880s in a Buddhist monastery by the Rev. G. J. Ouseley of Ireland. His version, like Schonfield’s and Jefferson’s, sets out to correct the early corruption of the first gospels.
Then we have the niche Bibles: Women’s Study Bible, Men’s Study Bible, The Mossy Oak Bible (the cover features an oak tree trunk covered with—wait for it—moss), The Princess Bible (pink cover, all glittery with sparkly jewels, “an instant favorite among princesses of all ages”), The Sportsman’s Bible (camo cover optional).
Along with niches are agenda Bibles: The Patriot Bible (telling the story of the United States as it is “wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible”), and The Green Bible (green lettering highlights the subjectively selected passages touching on care of the earth).
Everybody gets a Bible. But I’m kind of lost. Yet, I too have my own “dynamic equivalent translation,” something Mary Magdalene said at the empty tomb: “They have taken away my Bible and I do not know what they have done with it.”
Reprinted with permission from First Things. Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.