The Bible: A great profit comes throughout the land

Publishing house publicity departments never tire of trumpeting the fact that The Bible is world’s best selling book. But, truth to tell, it has been on the bestseller list ever since it first came out.

Next time you visit a bookshop, stroll over to the Religious Section and take look at the different editions of The Bible on sale. You are likely to find a selection that takes your breath away.

A good book shop’s range should include such offerings as The Good News Bible, The New International Bible, The Jerusalem Bible, The Revised Standard Version, The American Revised Standard, The New Revised Standard, The New English Bible, The Revised New English Bible, The Living Bible, The Readers’ Digest Bible, The Authorized [King James] Version and the New King James Version. And this but scratches the surface.

The publishing houses aren’t doing this from the goodness of their hearts—because they have dedicated their lives, their talents, and their treasure to spreading Christ’s Gospel. Not a bit of it. They are publishing all these Bibles because it is highly profitable to do so.

Profitability also explains the proliferation of the different editions available. The King James Version of the Bible is not copyrighted. [When referred to as the Authorized Version, it is subject to Crown Copyright in the United Kingdom. —Ed] Anybody can publish it, free of charge. By contrast, the vast majority of the modern editions are copyrighted, which creates a sales monopoly for the individual publishing houses that own the rights to the various versions.

This, in turn, explains why the modern translations of The Bible are much more heavily promoted than the King James Version. The copyrighted versions are where the real money is.

Sharp-eyed folks might have noticed that I’ve been using the word “edition” or “version” rather than “translation” to describe the variety of Bibles on sale. This is quite deliberate.

While some of The Bibles are, indeed, translations from the original tongues (Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koinetic Greek) a large number of them are not. They are merely paraphrases or rewrites of other editions, usually the Revised Standard or, less often these days, the King James.

Though it is probably a bit unkind to say so, the motive behind the paraphrasing and rewriting has not been so much to give readers a better, more easily understood, version of The Bible as to create a “product” that can be copyrighted.

However, the fact that an edition is a new translation from the original tongues doesn’t necessarily mean that it is superior to earlier versions. Far from it.

The quality of a translation depends upon three things: The ability of the translators, the policy with regard to paraphrasing, and the quality of the text to be translated.

Paying top dollar by no means ensures the best translation. And, certainly no modern commercial publishing house can afford a translation committee of comparable size and quality to the 54-man team that produced the King James Bible. The team was divided into six committees—two based at Westminster, two at Oxford and two at Cambridge.

Each committee was assigned a portion of the Scripture and each committee member translated the whole of the portion before meeting to compare notes and agree on a final form. The next step was to send their work to the other committees for their comment and consent. After this, a select committee carefully reviewed the whole work once again. Two of the most distinguished scholars then made a final check before submitting it to the king.

Things, quite naturally, have changed a great deal since the 1611 when the King James Bible was translated. Not only are translation teams far smaller, but also one suspects that attention to detail is by no means a scrupulous as in the days when a scholar was liable to be called upon to pay for his mistakes with his head.

Policy on paraphrasing—or, more accurately, policy on the latitude translators are given in rendering passages that are particularly complicated, grammatically or conceptually—is extremely important. The translators of the original King James Version, for instance, translated the text word for word where possible. In better editions of the King James, words that do not actually appear in the original text, but have been inserted to make literal sense of a passage, are printed in italic type.

In these days of lower reading scores, many publishers encourage their translators to translate “for sense”—to paraphrase—rather than follow the precise wording of the text. However, when the priority is clarity rather than accuracy, instead of the word of God, readers are in danger getting the word of the translation committee.

The story of the King James Bible has been told in a couple of excellent books published back in 2005: Wide As The Waters by Benson Robrick and God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. They tell a remarkable story and are well worth reading.

The Bible—together with The Book of Common Prayer—was the crucible from which the English language was founded.

More than that, it played a profound and decisive role in shaping our laws and forging our constitution—all of which casts an interesting light on our fashionable interpretations of the separation of church and state. GPH✠

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