Perennial issue whenever journalists write about religion: Which Bible to quote?

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A recent item by GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross posed this perennial issue facing journalists and others writing about religion: “Which Bible to quote?

News articles had quoted Eugene Peterson’s The Message -- one man’s popular paraphrase and not quite a Bible -- and the New King James Version, a conservative fave that was an odd choice for a piece about liberal Protestants.

Once upon a time the (original) King James Version from 1611 sufficed. Its wordings were  familiar to a broad swath of English readers, indeed often memorized. Though the King was Protestant, generally similar verbiage appeared in Catholicism’s old Douay-Rheims translation (1609), and even moreso in the Jewish Publication Society’s The Holy Scriptures (1917).  

Today, however, a dozen or more modern options are in regular use, thus creating our tricky problem. Ross, who like The Guy is an Associated Press alum, noted that the wire’s influential Stylebook offers ample guidance about the Bible but doesn’t address how to decide which version to quote. “Please help me out here, friends,” Ross asked, so the ever-friendly Religion Guy responds herewith. 

When The Guy was teaching an adult Bible class recently, one participant brought along The Message. Its differences with standard Bibles sparked some pointed discussions. Such personal paraphrases -- also including Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible and J.B. Phillips’s elegantly British New Testament in Modern English -- are useful for private study and devotions. But they’re not really Bible translations, so a more literal version should also be consulted for comparisons.

Likewise, in most situations writers should cite a Bible closer to the original text that expresses the consensus from a panel of experts.  

Obviously, if a person is quoting a Bible passage verbatim you’ll go with that wording, even if it’s a paraphrase. Here and in most cases it’s best to cite the chapter and verse for readers to look up on their own, and to name the translation used, particularly when the wording is unfamiliar. The same principle holds, of course, when the particular wording in a Bible translation is what’s at issue. 

With exclusively Catholic stories, best go with the U.S. bishops’ authorized New American Bible (1970; revised 2011). Likewise, with exclusively Jewish stories quote the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (1985, revised 1992), which is the Jewish term for what Christians call the Old Testament.   

On the other hand, when writing for a broad general readership The Guy would avoid Protestant translations identified with particular groups (e.g. the New International Version,  English Standard Version, New King James, or 21stCentury King James, which are used especially by evangelicals, or the Holman Christian Standard Bible, published by the Southern Baptists).

What, then? The Guy favors the original King James (as opposed to recent King James rewrites) when no modern Bible provides the phrasing readers will recognize. However, the King James can be problematic because its 17th Century lingo is sometimes fussy or confusing. Plus there’s a technical problem: Its translators could not consult the broad range of ancient manuscripts available for all modern translations. 

So, better to use modern editions drawn from the King James tradition. The best  all-purpose option is the Revised Standard Version (1952; revised 1971), which retains much of the King James English and is available in editions with the extra Old Testament books in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. However, some chafe at its King James-y “thee” and “thou” business. 

More important,  publishers and writers sensitive to inclusive language will prefer the New Revised Standard Version from 1989, which also enjoys wide ecumenical acceptance. Note that  it strays somewhat further from the cherished King James phraseology than the 1952 Revised Standard. Also, critics object that plural pronouns employed to dodge the he-his-him-“man” problems change the literal meaning. For instance, take a look at Psalm 1:1. 

Except for the J.P.S. Tanakh, writers can access the full texts of the editions mentioned above, and many more, for ready reference and comparison at www.biblegateway.com

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