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New translation reaches out through common English

By Jessica Connor

Getting new believers to come to a contemporary worship service with modern praise music and a hip young pastor who uses video and everyday speech in driving home the message?

Check.

Getting new believers to pick up a Bible filled with antiquated, formal language so they, too, can know the word of God?

Not so easy.

Because of this, many people are embracing a brand-new translation of the Bible written entirely in modern vernacular: the Common English Bible.

A massive undertaking featuring translation by 115 biblical scholars from 22 faith traditions, the CEB was produced by an alliance of denominational publishers, including Presbyterian (USA), Episcopalian, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ. The board of editors includes two ordained elders in the United Methodist Church

Publishers say the new translation is easier to read and understand.

“For many, reading the Bible and then truly grasping what it means can be a challenge,” the CEB website (www.commonenglishbible.com) reads. “Yet the Bible is meant for everyone. The Common English Bible is a brand new translation of the Bible in a language that readers naturally speak and communicate—a common language.”

The Bible is written at a comfortable level for over half of all English readers, said publishers: “Easy readability can enhance church worship and participation, and personal Bible study. It also encourages children and youth to discover the Bible for themselves, perhaps for the very first time.” ¨ ¨

It is priced to be accessible: just $5 via the CEB website, and certain books are available for free download. Beginning this month, UM Communications will offer a free New Testament to people visiting the Rethink Church campaign website (www.rethinkchurch.org). The Rethink Church version is a special edition of the new translation that features a seeker-sensitive introduction to the Bible and to the UMC.

More readable = new disciples?

 

As Christians reach out to generations of new believers, many of them entirely unchurched, many think a “common English” translation is a good thing, helping to make new disciples.

“Any translation that gets folks to read the Bible is a good thing,” said S.C. Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor.

The Rev. Robin Dease, senior pastor at John Wesley UMC, Greenville, agrees.

“It can be a great resource, especially for those who are not traditionally churchgoers: a new slant on an old tradition,” Dease said. “Also, it seems to be more inclusive.”

Rev. Dean Lollis, campus minister, Lander University, said he thinks the CEB falls somewhere between The Message and the New International Version on the readability spectrum. He said people usually have two main difficulties when it comes to reading the Bible: one, the language comprises words and phrases they don’t use in normal conversations. Two is context, or how we bring that world of the Bible forward to our time and still understand what the Scripture is trying to tell us.

“I certainly don’t see anything but a positive if you can remove that first issue with a scholarly translation that removes the language barrier. Then we are free to interact with the text and let the Holy Spirit speak to us,” said Lollis, who used the CEB recently in his contemporary worship service.

Jonathan Harris, who is currently taking an Old Testament class at Candler School of Theology taught by Brent Strawn, one of the CEB translators, thinks the new translation could have a positive impact on disciple-making.

“Especially for people who struggle to understand the language of older translations, this Bible should be an easier read,” Harris said. “The change to a more modern form of English may also help people hear the Scriptures in a fresh new way.”

Adrienne Laura Chlumsky, Winthrop Wesley Foundation, said the Bible would interest more people if they felt they could understand it.

“I feel like sometimes when I read a passage I am absolutely confused. It’s like reading a textbook and realizing you just read a few pages and didn’t comprehend or get anything out of it,” she said.

Erica Oliveira, also a member of the Winthrop Wesley Foundation, said many young people are trying to find how they fit in this faith, and what they really believe texts are saying and the meaning of our scriptures.  She feels translations that break language barriers can be extraordinarily helpful in this.

“Our faith, and our holy text, needs to be something that Joe Blow down the street could pick up and read without having to fumble with words veiled in old English and poetry,” Oliveira said. “Putting the Bible in plain English empowers those who attempt to go at faith on their own, and keeps misunderstandings at a minimum.”

Human One vs. Son of Man

But while they appreciate the accessibility of the new translation, others take issue with some of the changes.

Dr. Michael Wolfe, senior pastor at Advent UMC, Simpsonville, is a religious historian who is writing the Advocate’s 175-year history. Wolfe said he has a “very positive” overall impression of the CEB, which he said falls squarely in the middle of the readability spectrum. On one side is the New American Standard Bible, which he said is very exact in its translation, almost a word-for-word from the Greek into English, leaving a very wooden, stiff read. On the other are paraphrases like The Message, which are not translations but are far more flowing and readable, he said.

The CEB, a “readable translation,” is also strong from a scholarship perspective, he said.

“I can imagine switching over to the Common English Bible for our more contemporary service because it has a more informal feeling,” Wolfe said.

But he issues with some of the language chosen for phrases that carry a lot of freight, he said.

For instance, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” in the Gospel of Matthew became “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

“This gave me a little bit of pause,” Wolfe said, as the word “repent” is a big Christian concept. “Do we want to completely drop away those theological concepts?”

Concerning him more is the shift from the traditional phrase “Son of Man” to the CEB translation, “Human One.”

“Some scholars think Jesus was being humble and Jesus was saying, ‘I’m a human being’ when he called himself the ‘Son of Man,’” Wolfe said. “But the phrase ‘Son of Man’ comes from Daniel; it was a messianic term. It carries some freight and had an apocalyptic meaning. He’s not just saying he’s human. It loses a bit of its punch.”

Wolfe is curious to see, when the Old Testament of the CEB is released in 2011, whether it has Daniel saying Son of Man or Human One.

“But I’m on the line, because I’m very careful in my own preaching,” he said. “With words like ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification,’ I will often look for other words to use to help unchurched people get he point. So I’m friendly to the idea that we want to make it understandable. At the same time I don’t want to completely lose those ancient words, either. In some ways they are almost more than words. Th
ey’ve been used for 2,000 years and carry a lot of baggage.”

Dr. Tim McClendon, Columbia district superintendent for the S.C. Conference, agreed that overall, the CEB is a good translation.

He said it translates some things better than earlier versions, such as the King James Version. For instance, in Revelation 2:23, the KJV reads, “And all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts.” The CEB reads, “Then all the churches will know that I am the one who examines minds and hearts.”

McClendon said the original Greek cites a God who examines kardias and nephros, which literally is “hearts and kidneys.” For the ancient Greeks, our heart represents where we do our thinking and our kidneys are where we do our feeling. But for KJV to use “reins,” which most us associate with horses and control, gives the phrase an entirely different meaning.

“The CEB is much more understandable here,” he said.

But like Wolfe, McClendon takes issue with certain phrases.

In Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, NIV reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But the CEB translation reads, “Happy are people who are downcast because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

“That’s an overreaching,” McClendon said. “‘Happy’ is an attitude I can generate. ‘Blessed’ is a gift from God. I can be blessed even when I’m not happy. If folks can’t understand ‘blessed,’ then we’ve dumbed down the translation.”

McClendon also disagrees with replacing “Son of Man” with “Human One,” though he appreciated that the editors chose to capitalize the phrase to add weight.

“It might be a good translation of the Greek, hubious tou anthropou, but what does that mean? In the first century, what did that mean?” McClendon asked. “‘Human One’ seems to overemphasize Jesus’ humanity over his divinity, whereas ‘Son of Man’ at least carries that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy as messiah and the thinking that Jesus can identify with us.”

McClendon said he would hesitate giving the CEB to a brand-new believer.

“The Common English Bible does make the language more contemporary,” McClendon said. “But I think it would raise more questions than give answers. Albeit they’re not tremendous questions, but questions nonetheless.”

Depends on the audience

Dease said use of the CEB depends on the audience.

“When ‘The Message’ came on the scene, I was in my early 30s, and I remember saying to myself, ‘Finally, a Bible I can identify with.’ It was a hit within the congregation I served where many were close to my age,” she said.

Now that she serves an older congregation, she finds that they are comfortable with their traditions, which are the New Revised Standard Version and the KJV, so she typically doesn’t use “The Message” except for her personal devotion.

Harris said it is important to remember that all of this debate is moot unless the Bible is actually read.

“As pastors and lay people, we all have the responsibility to read the life-changing Word of God,” Harris said. “People will get much more out of reading any translation of the Bible than they will get from a Common English Bible left collecting dust on the shelf.”

 

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