LONDON — It may be the word of God, but that hasn't spared it from regular man-made tinkering. From 15th-century printers to 20th-century modernists, every age has sought to adapt the Bible.
So now, for the era of restless consumers and fickle attention spans, a British publication distills the original into a form you could read at one sitting. Instead of 780,000 words and 1,200 chapters, there are just 20,000 words in fewer than 60 pages.
Not surprisingly, the "100-Minute Bible" is generating robust debate in Britain, where even Shakespeare is no longer immune to a culture of abbreviation.
Proponents say it is a gateway to the classic, a crash course in Christianity that will provide a useful tool to reach out to the curious, the lapsed, and the ignorant.
But opponents fulminate against such pithiness, muttering about the callous disregard for Biblical virtues such as perseverance, dedication, and deferred gratification. There is, after all, no beatitude that reads: "Blessed are the editors, for they shall make stuff shorter to read."
One contributor to a BBC discussion website grumbled: "What's next? Downloading sermons from iTunes?"
For those behind the project, such criticism misses the point. Publisher Len Budd says that he is struck by how little the average Briton knows about the Christian culture that has underpinned society for centuries. Barely 10 percent of the 40-odd million Britons who cite their faith as Christian regularly attend church. Of those who do, he says, many will have but a hazy sense of biblical chronology.
He devised the project two years ago, and enlisted the help of a retired Anglican priest and headmaster, the Rev. Michael Hinton.
The idea was to reproduce the 66 books into 50 400-word chunks, each taking about two minutes to read. The thin tome, shaped like an envelope and not much heavier than one, should take less than two hours to skip through.
"It's for the man in the street," says Budd. "If he's able to answer a pub quiz question about the Bible afterwards, then good. If he goes on to read the whole thing, even better. And if someone comes to faith as a result of it, even better still."
Mr. Hinton says he used all the modern English versions and his knowledge of ancient Greek to revise the scripture around the central figure of Christ.
"We started by doing the Gospels, and that took up half the space available," he says. "Then I went back to the Old Testament and summarized it in terms of the chronology and prophetic teachings that provided a context for Jesus. And then I did the Acts and Epistles and Revelation to show how they followed on from Jesus."
He admits the work is not exhaustive. There is no book of Ruth, nor much of a reflection on the character of St. Paul. And he says it "sacrifices poetry for clarity."
"We thought it would be good for the fringe inquirer and for active Christians who know their Bible well but don't have a picture of the whole," he says. "Then there are young people in secondary schools, and finally, we thought that it's the ideal read for plane or train."
The response to the "100-Minute Bible" has been overwhelming. Budd says he sold 4,000 copies the morning after its Sept. 21 launch. "I thought it would be a little cottage industry, but we have been totally overwhelmed," he says.
Adapting the Bible for a modern readership is not new, though this may be the most succinct effort yet. Several notable versions have sought to reproduce the book or parts of it in a reader-friendly form, such as Eugene Peterson's "The Message" and the "Reader's Digest Bible." There has even been a "Bible in Cockney," while another British project to be published next month renders the entire scripture in 700 limerick verses.
Peter Wallis, an ordained priest behind the limerick Bible, rejects criticism that these modern treatments are frivolous.
"An awful lot of people have got a Bible and it sits unopened by their bedside for years on end," he says. "Some of the Bibles around are paraphrases anyway, and unless you are a scholar in ancient Hebrew or Greek, I don't see the difference between this version ... and the others out there."
But Simon Barrow, codirector of Ekklesia, a London-based theological think tank, says that while new versions may find new markets, there is no substitute for time spent with the original.
He says one problem with the "100-Minute Bible," for example, is that it "flattens out the literary variety" of the Bible - its poetry, prophecy, history, law, parables, polemics, and letters - into, simply, prose.
"An example of where it can go wrong is in saying, 'God created the world in six days,' as if the whole story of Genesis was some literal statement," he says. "This could merely feed those who see the Bible as an oracle and don't see the poetry and parable there."
"If it gets people to read and think, that's good," he adds, "but we also need to say 'if you are going to understand this thing, you'll have to spend some time with it.' "
In the beginning God created heaven and earth over a period of six days. First he created light and darkness; then the vault of the heavens, separating the water above from the water below; then the dry land and all that grows in it. On the fourth day God created the sun, the moon and the stars; on the fifth the creatures of the sea and sky; and on the sixth those of the land, including humankind. On the seventh day God rested.
God made the first man, Adam, from the dust, and breathed life into him. He placed him in the beautiful and fertile garden of Eden, forbidding him to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil which grew there. Because he thought man should not be alone, he created the first woman from Adam's rib; Adam named her Eve. Eve was tempted by the serpent, the most cunning of creatures; she took fruit from the forbidden tree, ate some herself and gave some to her husband. As a punishment, God expelled them both from the garden; he condemned men to arduous toil, and women to pain in childbearing and to submission to their husbands.