The Bible in History. The Bible NOW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT is subversive literature. It has led to the overthrow of govern-ments,sparked mass migrations across oceans, and more than once has changed the course of history.Governments -- from the 16th-century English monarchy to theCommunist Soviet Union -- have gone to great lengths to restrict or even prevent its printing and distribution. Yet it has always outlasted its enemies.It is the most popular book ever printed. No other has been translated into so many languages and few have had such impact on the development of those languages.It is the Bible -- the scriptures of the Christian religion, comprising the Hebrew writings known as the Old Testament, which recount the creation ofthe universe and the history of the people of Israel up to the Greek and Roman conquests, and the Greek-language New Testament, which tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe is the Messiah, and of the early Christian church. This report is a review of the Bible's role in society, both historically and today. It explores the development of the English Bible, looks at the importance to scholars of original copies of Bible versions, and reviews Bible translations available today. Articles also examine the meaning of the Bible for the great Protestant reformers, the role of scripture in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and a recent excavation of a Philistine city in modern Israel. The report concludes with a look at two individual s who tell why the Bible is important in their daily lives. Interest in the Bible today remains strong. Worldwide, the member organizations of the United Bible Societies distributed 639,249,849 Bibles and Scriptural selections in 1990. Bible society distribution accounts for most of the Scriptures available in the third world. The figure does not include the millions of Bibles sold by other religious and commercial publishers, especially in Europe and English-speaking countries. Eugene Habecker, president of the American Bible Society, says Bible distribution figures "have been holding steady ... and showing some increases." "Worldwide, our biggest increases have been in Eastern and Central Europe, and in the Asia-Pacific area," Dr. Habecker says. Distribution in Africa and the Americas is holding steady, he says. There are about 5,000 languages spoken in the world; the Bible or portions of it have been translated into 1,946 of them. This includes 318 languages in which the complete Bible is available, 726 in which the New Testament can be read, and 902 in which some portion of the Bible has been translated. "I know of no other book that even comes close to those numbers," Habecker says. The collapse of communism in Eastern and Central Europe has led to a hunger for the Bible that "has been described by many people as without precedent," says the ABS president. In China, he notes, the Amity Press has just printed its 3 millionth copy of the Bible in Chinese. "We anticipate that Cuba will be one of the very strong fields of interest in the Bible in the decade of the '90s as that country reassesses its future." In the United States, interest in the Bible is on the rise after falling off in the 1960s, Habecker says. During his recent cross-country media tour, "the vast majority of the contacts were all secular," he says. "If the response on the part of the secular media to this subject is any indication, there is growing and very active interest in the Bible from the secular marketplace." Habecker also points to a 1990 Gallup poll, "The Role of the Bible in American Society," which compares responses of those interviewed with responses obtained in a similar poll in 1978: * Asked if they view the Bible as "God's Word," 42 percent of respondents answered yes in 1990 compared with 38 percent in 1978. * Asked if they read the Bible daily, 17 percent in 1990 said they did, versus 12 percent in 1978. * In 1990, 21 percent of those polled said they belonged to a Bible study group, compared with 19 percent in 1978. "In all three cases, those are not gigantic shifts," Habecker says. "But I'd like to suggest that they're at least going in what I would call the right direction." While the responses in both years are down significantly from the 1960s, "this research would suggest to me that we've bottomed out and we're on the upswing again." According to a 1989 Bookstore Journal report, the average US household has 3.75 Bibles, indicating that many family members have their own Bible, and that "many readers like to have a modern translation in addition to the King James Version that most already own." The magazine also said that 10 percent of US households purchased at least one Bible in 1988. But, Habecker notes, while the data say 93 percent of Americans have a Bible in their home, "it's one of the most unopened books in that home. When you take a look at the availability of the Bible in the typical American home and then follow up with questions having to do with Bible literacy, there's a pretty substantial falloff." Several surveys bear this out. According to the 1991-92 Almanac of the Christian World, only 62 percent of Americans surveyed by the Barna Research Group could place the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. The almanac also cites Gallup polls showing that only 42 percent of those surveyed could correctly state five of the Ten Commandments, and only 46 percent could name the first four books of the New Testament - the four Gospels. Some research, however, indicates that Bible reading and Biblical literacy have increased in the US over the last several decades. In his 1989 book, "Religious Change in America," the Rev. Andrew Greeley cites data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, and the Gallup organization showing that in 1942, only 10 percent of Americans surveyed said they read the Bible daily; in 1965 that figure had risen to 14 percent, and in 1985 it was 15 percent. Similarly, another review of surveys showed that in 1954 only 34 percent of respondents knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, while in 1982, 42 percent knew. In 1954, 35 percent could name all four Gospels; in 1982 the figure rose to 46 percent. And 70 percent of Americans surveyed in 1982 knew where Jesus was born, while 64 percent knew in 1954. Habecker cites two reasons for the gap between Bible ownership and Bible literacy. First, he says, "the purpose for owning a Bible is not always spiritually motivated." Some see it only as a "religious good-luck charm," while some families simply use it as a place to keep family records. Secondly, he says, "A lot of churches across the country have not encouraged personal Bible reading." That is beginning to change, however, Habecker asserts, and it is one of the reasons the American Bible Society is involved in new translations. "Some of the reasons that people give for not reading the Bible are that the Bible is a difficult book to understand, it tends to be old-fashioned, it uses all these old theological terms. And they use that as an excuse for not getting into the Bible." The aim of the society's modern translations is "to take away any excuse along those lines that people have used for years as to why they don't read the Bible."

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