Hollywood keeps making new versions of classic films because the passing of time creates new generations to entertain. Producers bet that, given fresh alterations to script and cast, the old moneymakers will attract new audiences to the box office.
Bible publishers share the same motivation as they devise new versions of the Good Book for special audiences. Today, for example, there are popular versions of the New Testament in illustrated paperback editions aimed at teenagers. Not long ago I was sent a review copy of a hardcover Bible especially intended for male golfers.
In every case the biblical text is unaltered; all that changes is the audience being addressed.
The Bible, of course, is the world's most popular book. Michelle Boorstein, writing in The Washington Post, notes that two contemporary translations (the Catholic New American Bible and the evangelical New International Version) together have been printed more than 415 million times.
Unlike the usual run of best-selling books, the Bible is rarely read cover-to-cover, but only selectively. The reason is that the Bible is actually a compendium of 66 distinct books, composed over millennia. Taken collectively, they illustrate God's initiatives toward humankind, but each selection has a different purpose. The Psalms, for example, were originally songs. The Epistles were letters written to specific audiences.
Biblical scholarship is a highly developed science requiring knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Greek. English translations reflect careful study of the ancient texts and culture. Some believers boast that they honor every verse of the Bible literally, but scholars caution that the precise meaning of some passages has yet to be ascertained.
As a young man I studied biblical Hebrew and Greek just long enough to feel inadequate to make informed translations into English. Accordingly, on my shelf I have half a dozen versions that I consult before writing for publication.
My current writing project is a guide to the parables of Jesus. Years ago, when I published a commentary on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I used J.B. Phillips' translation of the New Testament, because it was almost shockingly fresh and straightforward compared to the poetic King James version. This time around I decided to employ the New International Version of the complete text for no better reason than that it is the translation most accepted in American churches. It dates from 1973, revised in 1984.
I was premature. At the beginning of Lent this year publishers issued updated versions of both the New American Bible and the New International Version.
Don't feel you must rush out to get the latest versions. The alterations are few and relatively minor. For example, in Mark 15:27 the text formerly read: "They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left." In the new version "robbers" are referred to as "rebels."
Fortunately, the translators did not call them terrorists. That would be a stretch.
David Yount is the author of 14 books, including Breaking Through God's Silence (Simon & Schuster). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org