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Monday, January 31, 2011

Too Many Bibles? ...Bible series, part 1 of 6

Bookshelf with many Bibles on it

"Flash poll! How many Bibles do you have in your house?" That was the start of a post I made on Facebook a little while back. The discussion that followed unexpectedly became quite heated, and I wanted to address some of the things we talked about in that thread here in my blog. This will also be the first in a mini-series of posts about the Bible that I've been wanting to do for some time; stick with me this week and next week and see where this goes! Also, although I don't mention this very often, it's always true: the comments area is open for comments and even discussion. I personally approve each comment so that I don't wind up with a bunch of spam or profanity or whatever on the blog, but I don't censor honest differences of opinion. So comment away!

At my house I have more than twenty physical Bibles, most of which are full Bibles instead of just New Testaments. (My friends reported having as few as 2 physical Bibles, and as many as 15-19.) The Bibles you see pictured above came through many different channels before they wound up on my bookshelf, and I want to tell a few of those stories, but first I want to address something: 1980s Translation Fever.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to the 1970s in the United States (and keep in mind that I am not a historian, so you may be getting a view that is slightly skewed by my own experience) the King James Bible pretty much reigned supreme in Protestant churches. Oh, there were other translations out there... the American Standard Version had been out since 1901, and the modern revision of it, the Revised Standard Version, had been released in the early 1950s. But I never saw much of those translations growing up. What I did see were more and more brand-NEW Bible versions popping up. The Living Bible, which is actually a paraphrase of the 1901 ASV and not a translation (but who understood about that back then?) came out in 1971. The Good News Bible, which actually is a new translation designed to be much easier to read, came out about five years later, followed closely by a translation that has enjoyed an incredible amount of popularity ever since, the New International Version. The early 80s saw the New King James Version in the Christian bookstores. I'm not at all trying to name every single translation that came out, because I've almost certainly missed some, but those are the ones that turned up on my "Hey, I can understand this Bible!" Christian kid radar.

Well, this wealth of new Bibles may have been bewildering to some, but to those of us who had become a part of the "Word movement," these new Bibles contained riches to be uncovered. We also discovered the Amplified Bible, which had come out slowly over the course of a decade or so in the 50s and 60s. These different translations provided different perspectives on what the Bible said, and I think most of us had in the backs of our minds the idea that we wanted to find the "best" translation, the one that was truest to what the original Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek texts said, and also the one that was easiest to read. (I'd say those qualifications are a lot more complex than you might think at first; I'll talk more about that next time.) Point being, there were good reasons for having at least a couple of translations around. If you were having trouble understanding something in one of them, look up the same verse in another translation and see if it could shed some light on it. It was like having several smart people standing around telling you what the Word said: if one of them couldn't explain it well enough, you turn to another one. In the circles I was in, quite often a minister would say something like "This doesn't mean what it says in the King James. I like how it says it in the [INSERT TRANSLATION NAME HERE]..." which made it seem like the King James was a very faulty translation (this is a misconception, and I'll talk about that more next time as well.)

All that to say, back in the day there were extremely good reasons for having two or even three or four translations at your disposal. And remember, for those of you younger than thirty years old, that personal computers were in their infancy then. They were very slow, and no home computer had enough memory to even think about holding even one entire Bible text in memory at a time. The first time I saw a computer Bible I was in high school, and it was King James and it was on about a dozen floppy discs (each of which could hold about 90kB of information... one "kB" is one one-thousandth of a megabyte!) and to search the whole Bible you had to put each disk in, one at a time, and wait several minutes while it searched that part. It took FOR EVER. Hard disks were a strange new world in those days; not many people had them. So in order to have multiple translations of the Bible, you had to open up space on a bookshelf.

Bibles from my childhood
And that's where several of my Bibles came from. I have my first NIV, which I bought for myself with money I was given for college (best purchase I made with that money!) can see the spine of that green-cover Bible, worn to a frazzle, at the bottom of this post. I have a Good News Bible from back then, and a couple of King James Bibles I had as a kid. I have Bible or two that previously belonged to my parents, different translations that they let me keep because they had other copies of them.

I also have Bibles that I keep for sentimental reasons, like the little red King James Gideon Bible I was given (at school!) in high school. I actually carried that one with me for several years; the cover is about to fall off it, but it reminds me of being a Christian in high school. It's something I can show my own children one day if they wonder what I think about having a Bible at school. I have one or two beat-up Bibles that I owned as a child; it's fun to look back and see the things I wrote in them based on my limited kid understanding of the Word and the World. I have a Bible, signed "Oral and Richard Roberts", which was given to me when I graduated Oral Roberts University (all of the graduates got them). I have another Bible that was given me when I completed the membership class at a church I attended for many years. Those last two Bibles have never been read; for me they are symbols of milestones in my life, and I keep them for that reason.

I also have some foreign-language Bibles. One of the Spanish Bibles I have is actually a Spanish/English parallel Bible that I was given by my parents to take on a missions trip to Mexico during my college days. My folks signed it, and it's a keepsake that I won't part with (also, the English translation is the RSV, which I don't have another physical copy of).

2 Spanish Bibles and One Vietnamese Bible
If I remember correctly, the Vietnamese Bible is in my hands because of a small home group I once co-led which consisted of Vietnamese teenagers. I have another Spanish Bible, and I honestly don't remember where that one came from. I don't read Vietnamese at all and I don't read Spanish very well, so now that I'm thinking about it, I may donate those to congregations in my area who speak those languages. But they also represent seasons of my life, so it's nice to have them around for that reason.

For a long time after I bought my green NIV when I went off to college I didn't buy any new Bibles. I had what I needed, I loved my NIV, it fed me the Word. But when the English Standard Version came out a decade ago, I became very interested and bought a new one for myself (it's the translation I generally quote on this blog). The release of the ESV Study Bible piqued in me a new interest in study Bibles, which I had had limited exposure to before then, and now (as you know if you've been reading this blog for a while), I'm darn near obsessed. Many study Bibles are almost like a Bible and a commentary in one book, and I love being able to gain background information and insights along with my reading. So most of my recent Bible purchases have been study Bibles, although I've been trying to diversify the number of translations I pick up at the same time.

Is twenty Bibles too many? Twenty-five? Thirty? How about a hundred? A large Christian bookstore could quite easily have fifteen or twenty different translations on their shelves, and if you went shopping online you could find thirty or forty different translations (legitimate ones; I'm not even counting fringe translations, cult translations, etc.). Heck, there are currently four different versions just of the NIV, with a new one on the way to be published this year. How many do you need? How many is it okay to have? Well, the fact is, the Word of God is the Word of God, and as long as the people who translated your Bible were seeking to represent the truth of the Word to the best of their abilities, if you enjoy reading that Bible and spending time learning from it, that's the only Bible you need. That one Bible will serve you well for a lifetime. But what if you like reading different translations? Comparing, contrasting, seeing different aspects of the text in different phrasings? Is it bad to have many Bibles? Obviously, my answer is going to have to be "no!" It's not bad to have many Bibles. And honestly, if you live in the United States of America, you're not taking a Bible out of someone else's hand to have a new Bible. We're cranking out new ones every day, and if someone wants a Bible, there are churches and parachurch organizations (like the Gideons) who will give them their own Bible for the asking. In fact, if someone asked me for a Bible, I wouldn't hesitate to give them one of mine, or even buy them their own; I have some little paperback ESV New Testaments that I bought specifically for this purpose. Yes, there are people in other countries who have one Bible for their whole entire underground church, or who don't have access to a Bible at all... but if I didn't have the ESV Study Bible that's sitting on my nightstand, they wouldn't have it either. The guy who walked into the Christian bookstore after I did would have it on his nightstand. BUT: if you are concerned about peoples across the World who do not have access to the Bible, I encourage you to look into organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators, which supports missionaries who translate the Bible into languages which do not have it yet, or the American Bible Society or International Bible Society which send Bibles to places where they are needed and wanted. Get involved financially, or get involved in missions work or volunteer work within those organizations. Enjoy the Bible(s) you have at home, and make it possible for someone else to experience that same joy!

There's an old saying that if you don't have a red Bible, you might as well not even have a Bible. Oh, did I say "red?" I meant read. If you don't have a read Bible, you might as well not even have a Bible. If you haven't read it, it's not in your heart, and God can't really use the Bible on your shelf to change your life. Only by putting the Word of God in your heart can you gain any benefit from it. So no matter if you have one Bible or fifty, READ. Open them. Study them. Read the notes and follow the cross-references. Find out what God's Word has to say to you. Because no matter how many books you have on your shelf, the one Bible that really matters is the one you have in your heart.

Two Bibles With Covers I've Worn Out

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