The Mixed Blessing of Multiple Versions of the Bible

Written by Dr. Rex M. Rogers on . Posted in Local

bibleMultiple versions of the Bible are now a part of the landscape. Perhaps we're used to it, and perhaps not? In any event, it was not always so, and I'm not sure we've yet figured out how to navigate this ever-changing terrain.

I was raised in a Christian home—in the best sense of that phrase. I was regularly taken to church before I was born, and much more after that, so thanks to my parents I've been attending Bible-believing churches for over sixty years. This doesn't make me an expert on all things ecclesiastical, and certainly does not mean I always choose well and wisely. Far from it. But maybe like some of you it makes me "experienced," and thus reasonably adept at detecting changes over time.

One huge change is that we went from a largely One-Bible-Version world to a Multi-Bible-Version world, for the most part just in my lifetime.

I cut my teeth on the what's now called the "old" King James Version of the Bible, the 1611 version that influenced the course of Western Civilization. When I memorized Scripture, I learned the language of the KJV, including all the "Thees" and "Thous" and "Verily verilys," just like generations learned these passages before me.

When we went to church, we heard the KJV. There were no "pew Bibles,"—not that there's anything wrong with them—at least not in the Baptist or Bible churches of my youth (different denominations have used various pew Bibles and or worship books in addition to song books) because, well, most churches didn't see the need for them. Nearly everyone had their own (black) KJV and carried it to church.

To this day, when a verse comes to my mind, though I've been using an NIV for twenty plus years, what pops in my mind? The old KJV. I've noticed the same phenomenon in preachers over, say 50. They may be using NIV or NASB or another version in the pulpit and on the screen, but when they get rolling and the Spirit of God brings a Scripture passage to mind, they quote from memory, which is to say they often quote from the KJV.

When a friend presented me with an NIV in 1992, the Bible I still use, it seemed foreign to me because I'd absorbed so much of the KJV. I actually found it difficult to use in my speaking preparation and my speaking, so my wife purchased for me a "Parallel Bible" with KJV in one column and NIV in the other. Great tool. This helped me study and in the days before Internet searches helped me find remembered passages. I used this parallel Bible for several years, joking I could "shoot from either barrel." I also did this because at that time, many church goers were still carrying KJVs. Eventually I became more familiar with the NIV and most to the churches in which I spoke had adopted it or another newer version, so I finally picked up the NIV my friend had given me and made it my own. I don't know if others used a phased-in approach like this, but it seemed to work for me.

My good Dad, who at 86 years went to be with the Lord in April 2018, was long a source of family joy and a little needling because he'd learned to pray in two ways: a) very softly (he talked on the phone the same way), and b) in "King James." I mean he used a lot of "Thees" and "Thous" in his prayer. It was all entirely sincere and as such appropriate for this 50-year-Deacon, but it could also be a little funny to younger ears.

The first translation of the complete Bible into the vernacular English was completed by John Wycliffe in 1382. The Museum of the Bible, opened fall 2018, in Washington, DC, features dozens of Bibles, both hand-written and, after Guttenberg's Bible in 1454, printed. I highly recommend it.

The emergence of the English language Bible has continued in slow but steady process since. Some of the most popular versions include:
King James Version (KJV) translated in 1611, named for the English king at the
time, James I.
American Standard Version (ASV), 1901.
Revised Standard Version (RSV), 1952.
Amplified Bible, 1965.
New English Bible, 1970.
New American Standard Bible (NASB), 1971.
The Living Bible (TLB), a paraphrase rather than translation, 1971.
New International Version (NIV), 1978.
New King James Version (NKJV), 1982, including some translation corrections
and updates of the Old English to modern phrasing.
English Standard Version (ESV), 2001 as a revision of the RSV.

Now I have no problem with these or any new Bible translations as such, as long as they maintain fidelity to ancient and original texts. I am decidedly not a KJV only guy and never have been. But I do think we've paid a price for the multiple versions of the Bible we now employ and enjoy. It's a kind of embarrassment of riches.

The price—or if that's too strong for you, say unintended consequence—I believe comes in several forms.

I. As the number of marketable versions grew and parishioners carried an increasingly diverse set of Bibles to church, they lost the ability, though unintentionally, to share, to look at the received Word together. To account for this emerging challenge and to make it possible to preach and teach effectively, pastors understandably began posting their Scripture passages in bulletins, on screens, and later, on large monitors. Multiple versions in the service? No problem. Post that church's favorite version on screen.

Result: a common experience.
Unintended Result: churchgoers realized they no longer needed to carry a Bible to church.

II. Now, fewer people bring a Bible, any version, to church at all. We've learned we "don't need them." If you don't believe me, make your own assessment next Sunday. Count Bibles. Lest someone misunderstand: I'm not suggesting this is some kind of measurement of holiness or spirituality. Not at all. I'm just thinking about things practically. Churchgoers no longer carry what we used to call the Sword of the Lord, unless of course they're accessing biblical texts on their smart phones. Some people have clearly made this switch, so at least they're still viewing the Word directly in any of several versions typically available on Bible apps.

Result: aside from apps, people don't handle and thus don't become familiar with their Bibles. It's a revered object, one preserved in a favorite if forgotten place in the home. And unless people are engaged in Bible study other than in church, which of course occurs, people less familiar with their Bibles don't tend to learn the order of the Old and New Testament books, so they can't look up or find biblical references, i.e. the Bible is sacred but foreign...unless maybe they depend upon a search engine.

III. People who wish to memorize Scripture, a faith discipline recommended by pastors back when and now, may struggle to memorize because multiple versions confuse them. Once you've memorized the wording of a verse in one version it's difficult, at least for those of us getting older, to transpose this to the wording of a new version. Even if you master the task and commit the verse to memory drawn from your favorite version, others in your circle may be using a different version so that your memorized text does not match theirs.

Result: out goes reciting verses, even the Lord's Prayer, together in unison.

IV. Existence of multiple versions may be contributing to a lost opportunity for larger cultural influence, which jells with declining biblical literacy, because:
1) biblical references in speeches or movies, e.g., like those you can hear in 1940s or even 1950s speeches or films, aren't typically made any more,
2) of the few such references that are made, people do not immediately recognize the biblical allusion due to unfamiliarity with the wording.

Result: declining presence and, arguably impact, of biblical language and values upon American culture.

This is of course not due simply to the availability of multiple Bible versions. Many factors contribute to the generally advancing secularism of American culture. But none of the multiple, nor all combined, versions available today exercise anywhere close to the impact upon culture once traceable to the KJV.

There was a time when a political leader might say, "A house divided against itself, cannot stand.," which Abraham Lincoln did in 1858. It's not a stretch to suggest that most if not all his listeners in that day understood Lincoln had drawn this phrasing from the Bible, and they may even have known it was from one of the Gospels, Matthew 12: 25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17. Now, though, I periodically see this phrase used by a writer or speaker who invariably says, "As Abraham Lincoln once said..." with apparently no clue Lincoln had borrowed it from Scripture.

Similar observations might be made about scriptural phrases like "willingly ignorant" (2 Peter 3:5) or "to everything there is a season" (Ecclesiastes 3:1), which the average American likely believes came from the Byrds's 1965 hit, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" And another phrase variously used, though often misquoted, "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). The point is, there was a time in American culture when no one would have missed the fact these phrases are drawn from the Bible. Today? I'm not so sure, partly due to the march of secularism and associated decreasing biblical literacy in American life and partly due to the variously rendered wording of these phrases in the multiple versions of the Bible on the market.

What concerns me is not the existence of multiple versions. Again, this is a blessing we should determine how best to employ. I realize different versions have aided understanding and improved communication of the Word. I also realize there are likely many churches in which the shepherd and flock have decided upon a favorite version, use it consistently, and see good spiritual results. All good.

I am, therefore, not suggesting the impossible: we should "do away with" multiple versions of the Bible. Like any other thing we use in our lives, the issue here gets more to our choices and actions than it does the item itself, even in this case the Bible.

What concerns me is the loss of a common Christian language within the Body of Christ, the Church, and what this might mean going forward for the Church.

What concerns me is the related loss of impact upon American culture of Christian values and language drawn from the eloquent and eternal, yet eminently practical, biblical text.

It seems to me, though I am not a theologian or a pastor, that we should be able to find our way around this embarrassment of riches, rather than let it overwhelm us.

Perhaps I am needlessly concerned? For the prophet Isaiah said, "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever" (Isaiah 40:8, NIV).

-END-

Dr. Rex M. Rogers, President SAT-7 USA,
www.sat7usa.org, www.rexmrogers.com,
www.linkedin.com/in/rexmrogers/

Author Information
Dr. Rex M. Rogers
About:
Rex M. Rogers (born 1952[1]) serves as President of SAT-7 USA, the American promotion and fundraising arm of SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry by and for the people of the Middle East and North Africa. SAT-7 SAT-7, based in Nicosia, Cyprus, supports quality, indigenous-produced programming on four channels in three languages, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

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