My take on the Bibliotheca project

There’s no way to understand my feeling about Adam Greene’s Bibliotheca project without telling you something about my own story as a Bible reader. I first confessed Christ as a 9-year old. I really think that is when the Lord converted me. I remember some things that immediately changed in my life after that experience. Among other things, I wanted to tell my third grade teacher at my public school that I had gotten “saved” (which turned out to be a bust, but that’s another story). I also remember having a desire to pick up my Bible and read it.

The Bible that I owned at the time was the standard issue King James Version that all Southern Baptist children used for Bible Drill. I remember sitting on my bed, looking at the Bible on my little book shelf, and thinking, “I wanna read that”—which was a brand new feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. I figured I would just start at the beginning, so I opened up to Genesis 1:1 and got going. It wasn’t long before my nine-year old 20th century American brain got bogged down in the stifling, archaic language of the Authorized Version. So I put the Bible back on the shelf and figured that this was a book for grown-ups. It was not something that I could understand.

It would be many years before I took to reading my Bible in a serious way. In high school, my parents bought me a brand new NIV Life Application Bible. I thought it was so fine and elegant that I carried it around in its box for I don’t know how long. What I liked best about this Bible was not the notes, maps, and other extras. What I liked best was that I could understand it. I wasn’t staring at impenetrable prose. I was reading a book that was in the language I knew, and it made all the difference in the world. It ended up being the first Bible that I ever read through cover to cover. I still have that Bible and read from it regularly to my own children in our family worship times.

There are a lot of things that go in to making a good Bible translation. In fact, I expound at length every semester in my own teaching on “11 qualities of a good translation.” All of those things are important. But for me, perhaps the key quality is that it be clear English in the contemporary idiom. Nothing is more stultifying to Bible-reading than a translation that doesn’t communicate to modern readers. It was this weakness of the King James Version that turned me into a Bible dilettante instead of a Bible student as a young man. In other words, archaic English is a barrier to reading scripture, and I want to remove all barriers.

I love the vision of the Bibliotheca project. I believe the creator really is trying to make reading the Bible a better experience. And I actually think that he is onto something in recognizing the need for elegance and simplicity in printed versions of the Bible. He’s also right that our modern printing conventions can sometimes be a barrier to reading the Bible as it was meant to be read. I agree with all of that and celebrate his effort to remedy those deficiencies.

The thing that I can’t get past, however, is the translation that he chose to use—the American Standard Version (ASV). There is a reason that the ASV was rejected by English readers over a hundred years ago. There is a reason that it is now in the public domain. It’s bad English. It is so woodenly literal that it is quite often a chore to read. Consider Luke 9:17,

And they ate, and were all filled: and there was taken up that which remained over to them of broken pieces, twelve baskets.

Who talks like that? The text is also filled with archaic expressions like “howbeit,” which appears 79 times in the text of the ASV. Here’s Philippians 3:7,

Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.

Another example of outdated expressions is Mark 10:14 in which Jesus says,

Suffer the little children to come unto me

As a revision of the KJV, the ASV retains the word “suffer” in this verse. The only problem is that suffer doesn’t mean now what it meant in 1611. In 1611, it meant “allow.” In 2014, it means “feel pain or distress.” I could multiply examples. The point is that there are old timey expressions all over the place in the ASV. This is more than a matter of removing some “thee’s” and “thou’s.” How is Adam Greene going to deal with such expressions?

Charles Haddon Spurgeon recognized these problems when he called the ASV’s British precursor “strong in Greek but weak in English.” I think that judgment still applies today now over a century later. Ultimately, the ASV’s archaic style and wooden literalism make it a barrier to reading the Bible, and that’s what concerns me about the Bibliotheca project. If the excellence of the translation doesn’t match the excellence of design, the design alone likely won’t keep readers coming back to read more.

At the end of the day, I want readers to embrace the Bible, not turn away from it in linguistic frustration. I want them to have the experience that I had in high school and beyond, not the one I had as a nine-year old. I am not confident that the ASV will provide that experience for English readers.

Having said all of that, I am not against what Adam Green is doing. In fact, I’m cheering for its success. Anything that gets folks reading their Bibles more is a good thing. Also, I am very pleased to see that Adam Green is already looking beyond the ASV to future editions of this work. On his Kickstarter page, he writes:

I would like to state that I did anticipate, for this campaign at least, that I would not, and could not, please everyone in this regard. Although, I hope the success of this project will allow me to make this set available in other translations and even languages in the future.

Now that Mr. Greene has gotten the attention of the publishing world, perhaps he can expedite an agreement with a publisher to secure the rights of a modern language translation. He would then be able to tweak his project a little before filling the initial orders. He could offer backers the option of the original ASV that they purchased or a modern language version. I would be greatly interested in this set in a different translation. I hope he’s able to pull that off soon. He needs to do it soon because the major publishing houses have taken note, and he will have stiff competition very soon.

24 Responses to My take on the Bibliotheca project

  1. Lindsay Parks July 30, 2014 at 4:18 am #

    I was raised on, memorized, and saved through the words of the King James Bible, and it is still my daily reader, and my go-to study Bible. That being said, I have a dozen other translations that I also use for study. My brother is a preacher, and has traveled the world. He has a friend who lives in the UK, who is considered one of the top 3 people in the world in OT Hebrew, and NT Greek. This gentleman told him that without question, the ASV is the most accurate of all the translations in use today. It may be a bit more difficult than others, but it is very accurate. Maybe this is why it was chosen for this project.

  2. Don Johnson July 30, 2014 at 4:44 am #

    The Books of the Bible (NIV) and the ESV Reader’s Bible have a similar formatting philosophy. And this one is not just ASV, it has some LITV in it when the editor wishes.

  3. Mike Lumpkin July 30, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    With as much money as he’s raised, I don’t see why he can’t move ahead with better translations to match the (potential) beauty of the project. I’m with you on the beauty of the ESV Reader’s Bible. As well, while I love the complimentary edition to read unencumbered, codices seem more needed than ever given the increasing, not decreasing, level of biblical illiteracy in churches and culture. That is all.

  4. Jeffery Hunt July 30, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    These were my feelings exactly. I loved everything about this project except the translation. I also would have preferred the Hebrew order of books. I suspect the ASV being public domain has something to do with his choice.

  5. James July 30, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Do you think he choose the ASV because of copyright laws for other translations?

  6. Micah Carter July 30, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    You’re spot on, Denny. And he supplements the ASV with Young’s Literal Translation, even more wooden in presentation. I appreciate your take on this.

    • James Harold Thomas July 30, 2014 at 10:22 am #

      YLT is more of a mapping than a translation.

  7. Michael Hupfer July 30, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    I agree with the points made in this post. If readability is primary, then why use a clunky translation? The example from Luke 9:17 is telling. Greek syntax and English syntax are not the same syntax.
    That being said I still backed the project because I love the idea and want to see it done in other translations in the future. It would be great if Adam could offer the first edition in other versions, but I’m not expecting that to happen.

  8. bobbistowellbrown July 30, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    In our Precepts Bible Study class Kay Arthur encourages us to use the New American Standard.

  9. Wesley Allen July 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I’ve said this from the beginning of the project. I think there are only two options if he abides by his original intent to use ASV updated by himself:
    1) The project is delayed many years.
    2) The translation is bad.

    With the way Kickstarter projects usually go, I think (1) is the most likely scenario with no guarantee that (2) won’t follow. Basically, I think I’m going to end up getting a beautiful set of books, whose content is such that I won’t read it, sometime around 2018. You may ask why, then, did I still back the project after Adam made clear his unbending resolve to make his own translation. My answer is pretty simple: so that Crossway will copy the design for ESV.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy July 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    The typeface is really stunning, and the formatting! I was shown a 1535 Luther Bible and was told that he insisted on the single column formatting, paragraphs, and a good typeface, as well as a dynamic translation. His translation is not at all literal.

    In some ways, an archaic translation suggests truthfully that the Bible is an old book. It is an antiquity. But few are familiar with this translation. It is also one of the masculinizing translations.

    For example, Matt. 5:9

    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. KJV 1611

    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God. ASV 1901

    Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. NIV 1973

    All translations preceding the late 1800’s had children, including the Anglo Saxon gospels, Wycliff, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva, French Geneva, Luther, and so on. “sons of God” is a sort of aberration in the history of Bible translation. Too bad. I do love the the physical aspects of this Bible. In the mid 20th century, translations returned to “children of God” until the Colorado Springs guidelines struck it off the list of allowable translations for this verse.

  11. Mark Singleton July 30, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    One of the things I am most thankful about you Dr Burk is your love of the bible. It’s contagious and something evident to your students and for sure is already evident to your children. Thanks for sharing this. It’s now on my radar.

  12. Paul Reed July 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    “I first confessed Christ as a 9-year old…which turned out to be a bust.”

    Not surprised. A 9-year old saying he’s a Christian is basically like a 9-year old saying he’s a Democrat, Marxist, Tea-Partier, or Muslim. He’s taking on the identity of his parents. Any 3rd grade teacher sees it all the time.

    • Mark Singleton July 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      Ironic you say that, I was a 7 year-old who became a Christian with parents who were not involved in church. Now I am a church leader married with kids turning 30 next month.

      Btw, Dr. Burks statement doesn’t seem to say that his decision to follow Christ was a bust. It seems it was his attempt to tell his teacher.

      • James Bradshaw August 3, 2014 at 8:34 am #

        @Mark: But you must have at least heard of Christianity through some venue or media or person, no? I would indeed be interested to hear of someone who spontaneously became a Christian amidst a cultural vacuum.

        • Don Johnson August 3, 2014 at 9:59 am #

          As evangelism is forbidden in many Islamic countries, I have heard that some of them come to Jesus through dreams of Issa, which is the Arabic name.

  13. Kyle Barton July 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    1. What Bible translation would you have used?

    2. From the pictures I’ve seen, Bibliotheca will blow the ESV Reader’s Bible away in terms of visual beauty. The ESV Reader’s Bible has way too much text on each page with too small of margins and overall bad proportions. The pages look typically thin too.

  14. Michael Awbrey July 30, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    I agree very much with your assessment. I went back and forth for two weeks as to whether or not to purchase the set, and ultimately decided not to due to the translation choice. Simply put, I knew I wouldn’t read it much. I absolutely love the design elements though. The ESV reader’s Bible failed to excite me because the pages were still semi-transparent, it was still one volume, and lacked the design excitement that comes with this set.

  15. Esther O'Reilly August 4, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    Denny, I confess to being a bit surprised at this post. We could disagree over our favorite English translation of the Bible, but I don’t see a reason or a need to call the KJV “bad English” just because it’s not the English you grew up with. “Suffer” has lost its archaic meaning over time, but that doesn’t make the older meaning “bad English,” just older English! This is a matter of taste, not technique. I’ve never seen you exhibit chronological snobbery before, but I’m perplexed to see hints of it here.

    • Denny Burk August 5, 2014 at 12:23 am #

      Yeah, I shouldn’t have said it was bad English. It’s actually a literary masterpiece! I just meant that it’s so dated that English readers often have difficulty reading it.

      Having said that, however, when a modern translation anachronistically tries to mimic the older idioms, I think that is bad English!

    • Denny Burk August 5, 2014 at 12:26 am #

      Okay, I changed “bad” to “archaic,” which is all that I meant in the first place. Thanks for the helpful feedback!

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