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December 19, 1999 - Language and the Bible - 2002-02-01

INTRO: A research group says most Americans own Bibles yet few read them. This week our Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti turn to a theologian to ask why.

RS: The Barna Research Group in California studies Christian-related cultural trends. It says more than ninety percent of homes in America own a Christian Bible. In fact, it says, the typical count is three.

AA: But the Barna Research Group says that, outside of church, in a typical week only about one out of three adults reads the Bible.

RS:Why not more?


"Partly because of its length, partly because of its cultural distance, partly because of its concepts. If one is not schooled in biblical historical reading, the Bible might seem a little off-putting to some people." RS:That's David Scholer, a New Testament scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

AA: He says the King James Version published in 1611 has become the standard against which all other English translations of the New Testament are compared.


"And, of course it was written in the beautiful English of its time, but that English today is difficult for most English speakers to easily understand and read. And therefore modern translations of the bible help people to understand the bible more clearly."

AA: David Scholer says three-hundred-fifty editions of the New Testament have been published within the last century. He says the most successful -- like the New Revised Standard Version -- make changes in language, but remain faithful to the spirit of the original text.

RS:Modern translations, he says, use contemporary English and thus avoid obsolete words and expressions that were part of the English language when the King James Version appeared.


"Then of course there are the `thee' and the `thou' and the `ye' which in the 17th century were part of how the personal pronouns were declined. And so modern translations don't use the `thee' and the `thou.' They just use 'you.' For a while that was seen by some as disrespectful of God because the `thou' term was used often to refer to the deity, and it was assumed that it had kind of a divine flavor to it."

AA: Another major change in modern English translations involves references to gender. For instance, the First Psalm in the King James Version begins: "Blessed is the man."

RS: In the 1989 New Revised Standard Version -- known as the R-S-V for short -- that wording became "Happy are those."

AA: But efforts to remove male-oriented language went beyond just that.


"Another example from the New Testament is very often the Apostle Paul addresses believers in the church as `brothers.' And so traditional translations would always translate `brothers.' The New R-S-V and many other modern translations would now translate [brothers into] 'brothers and sisters' or sometimes 'friends' in order to show that the term `brothers' as the apostle Paul used it was really meant to refer to all members of the believing community."

AA: Though not everyone in the community is happy with changes like that. Many say it's wrong to tamper with the words of the Bible.


DAVID SCHOLER: "The issue of the language in the bible is a real issue because it does affect the way people perceive things."

RS: "What would you consider the major challenges facing a translator of the Bible?"

DAVID SCHOLER: "Translating the Bible is a matter of trying to represent as carefully as possible what an ancient text actually said. Is my translation genuinely accurate to the Hebrew or to the Greek text? At the same time will my translation actually allow the reader today to experience the text as a reader of the original text would have experienced it?"

RS: "And that's what bible translators are struggling with everyday."

DAVID SCHOLER: "That's what they are struggling with every day. Because language is living, there is an almost irresistible attempt to keep on translating to see if one can do it better, and that's one reason why there are so many translations."

AA: David Scholer, associate dean at the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

RS: Next week, find out what it takes to put danger into words. Intrigued? Tune in!

AA: Wishing you a joyous holiday season, with Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.


HOST: Now for some Wordmaster trivia: Author Joseph Heller, who died this past week, left us all a simple term to describe a helpless, no-win situation: "Catch-22." Originally, though, Heller called his satirical, 1961 anti-war novel "Catch-18." But because Leon Uris was publishing "Mila 18," the title became "Catch-22."