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.