A `Modern, Timeless English' Bible


THE REVISED ENGLISH BIBLE London: Oxford University Press, 236 pp., $19.95

More than 20 years ago, Britain's principal Protestant churches published the New English Bible (NEB), a translation that sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide in its first two years. The new Revised English Bible (REB) is ``a successor, not just an updating'' of the NEB, maintains W.D. McHardy, director of revision of the translation panels.

Like the earlier translation, the REB is not intended to supplant the King James Version. As Professor McHardy told me in a 1970 interview, ``... we don't want people to stop reading their King James Bible. If you will read your King James and our translation alongside it, you will get a lot more out of your King James. It'll be an eye-opener....'' That was good advice then; it's good advice today.

In a telephone conversation from his home in Scotland, McHardy explained that once again the translators had gone not only to the Hebrew Bible but also to the original Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew sources, to make their verse-by-verse comparison. That's significant since the King James is based on the earlier, lesser-quality Bishop's Bible.

Almost as soon as the NEB appeared, criticism and suggestions from the public as well as from scholars began pouring in. So, as long ago as 1974, work began on the REB to take advantage of such ideas as well as of advances in recent scholarship. The translators have been hard at work practically ever since.

This time, Roman Catholics as well as representatives of some smaller Protestant groups such as the Salvation Army and the Moravian Church were included. But in every case, translators were chosen for their scholarship rather than their denomination.

The new panels of translators wanted to satisfy those critics who considered the NEB too academic, too ``donnish,'' but without resorting to a contemporary conversational style that would soon be out of date. They were aiming for ``modern, timeless English'' that would appeal to the well-educated general reader. They tested the finished product on writers like poet Philip Larkin to ``make sure we are on the right lines.''

Often a passage will lend itself to several different interpretations, and I wondered how a translator keeps his own theology out of his translation. They don't always.

``We are human beings,'' the professor said. But ``we are also academics, honest and objective.'' In fact, he told me, the only real disagreement was between two scholars of the same denomination. Apart from that, ``we didn't even get impatient.''

The 131st Psalm gives some idea of the kind of transition a passage can go through from the King James Version to NEB to REB.

The second verse in the King James reads: ``Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.''

In the NEB, the verse becomes, ``I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother,'' and in the REB, verses 1 and 2 read: ``Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty; I do not busy myself with great affairs or things too marvellous for me. But I am calm and quiet like a weaned child clinging to its mother.''

To expect every change to please every reader is too much to hope for. I have my own regrets about the word ``man'' which has almost completely vanished from the REB. Everyone's role as ``man'' - meaning all humankind - seems vastly important, but recently the use of the word has been narrowed to include only the male of the species. Should the Bible follow that practice?

McHardy explained that it is vital not to give a whole section of the population the feeling that they are excluded. Besides, the translators have a ``clear conscience because the Hebrew does not indicate whether the subject of the verb should be he/she/they.''

So now we have in Genesis (1:27) of the REB, ``God created human beings in his own image.'' And in Psalms (144:3): `` ... What are frail mortals, that you should take thought for them?'' But even disagreeing with a new rendering of a favorite passage has its advantages: Inevitably readers are left pondering the passage in a different light and reasoning over their preferences.

Other changes include more distinctly marked verse numbers and clear subheadings. It is easy in the REB to pick out where a story or a discussion begins and ends.

Another change from the NEB is the use of ``you'' instead of ``thou'' as the form for addressing God.

Some changes are due to what McHardy characterizes as ``the growing conservative tendency in our church.'' For instance, the NEB speaks of ``a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters;'' the REB has ``the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water'' (Gen. 1:2).

In the NEB, the translators were interpreting the text ``in the way it was regarded by the Jews in the earliest centuries.''

This more literal translation shows up again in the first Beatitude. The REB has, ``Blessed are the poor in spirit''; the NEB has the more appealing but less accurate: ``How blest are those who know their need of God.'' (Matt. 5:3.)

Some favorite REB translations include:

``[T]he earth is filled with the Lord's unfailing love.'' (Psalms 33:5.)

``Consider how great is the love which the Father has bestowed on us in calling us his children! For that is what we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it has not known him.'' (1 John 3:1.)

``Lord, you have examined me and you know me. You know me at rest and in action....'' (Psalms 139:1,2.)

The Revised English Bible is also available with the Old Testament Apocrypha. These books were nearly all included in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, prepared for Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria in 3 BC. This Greek Bible was adopted by the early Christian church. The Catholic and Lutheran churches still accept nearly all the Apocrypha. Jews and most Protestants do not.

There are some good stories and wise sayings in these books, though not every passage approaches the inspiration of the King James Old Testament.

One worthwhile passage is from the Old Testament story of the three boys in the fiery furnace. First the account in ``Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three'' says the three walked in the fire praising God, and then (Dan. 1: 26,27) an angel ``came down to join Azariah and his companions in the furnace: he scattered the flames and made the heart of the furnace as if a moist wind were whistling through. The fire touched them not at all; it neither harmed nor distressed them.''

In the REB, Matthew 25:35-36 reads:

``For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger, you took me into your home, when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill, you came to my help; when in prison, you visited me.''

The publishers have found their own way to translate this passage into action. With every Bible, they are enclosing a card listing six charities. Readers are invited to indicate their favorite charity, mark the card accordingly and return it to the publisher, who will donate 50 cents to the charity indicated.

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