The Bible is the best-selling book in the world -- but there are a lot of versions of it

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Nicki Gorny, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·5 min read
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Apr. 4—It's said that the Bible is the best-selling book in the world, its circulation estimated at upward of 5 billion copies by the time that the trackers at Guinness World Records formalized its status in 1995.

But which version of the Bible?

The KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV — there's an alphabet soup's worth of options.

At Kingdom Christian Bookstore in Toledo, Danelle Bonds estimates that she stocks well over 30 versions of the Good Book. They range from the King James Version, published in 1611 by a collection of scholars commissioned by England's James I — and sounding very much like the part, with an old-school reliance on many a "thou" and "ye" — to the likewise popular New International Version (1978) or English Standard Version (2001). They're two of many versions she carries where at least somewhat updated language falls more easily on modern ears.

And then there are the versions that take these and other standardized texts and add to them all sorts of commentary and reflections. They're geared toward any demographic imaginable, Ms. Bonds said — men, women, college students, those in recovery from substance abuse.

And there are the kitschy adaptations like the Emoji Bible or Lego's Brick Bible.

It all adds up to some variability for the Christian sitting in a Bible study, comparing the words they're reading to the words a companion is reading aloud, observed Tommy Briggs, who speaks from experience as the pastor at Toledo's Gateway Baptist Church. He also co-hosts Wake Up Call on YES-FM (89.3). But where phraseology might differ, he and others said, the substance tends to remain the same when it comes to contemporary adaptations of the Bible.

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"It's not changing the meaning, it's not changing the understanding, it's not changing the theology," Pastor Briggs said. "There are just differences in how they worded it in English, as opposed to Greek or Hebrew."

Biblical translation is an involved process that traces its history across centuries. It's also complicated somewhat by the fact there is no one single text to which scholars look as the original, but thousands of hand-copied manuscripts of the Bible, a reality that scholars have taken into account as they've continually translated the text for a global readership.

At Lourdes University, Peter Sibilio, an assistant professor of theology, likes to begin his classes with an introduction to what he breaks down into essentially three versions of the Bible: A Hebrew Bible, a Greek Bible and a Christian Bible, which tacks on to the others a New Testament.

Some of the differences in the contemporary versions that line bookstore shelves today stem from early debates between Greek and Hebrew, and which a translator should use as his starting point, Mr. Sibilio explained. This question becomes important in part because the Bible written in Greek, called the Septuagint, contains a few books in addition to its counterpart written in Hebrew; these in turn account for the "extra books" that appear in some contemporary Bibles, notably those favored by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

He offered an example in the Book of Tobit, which is sometimes read at weddings in the Catholic Church.

"That's one that's in Eastern Orthodox Bibles, in Catholic Bibles, but not in most Protestant Bibles," Mr. Sibilio said.

With this exception, though, much of the differences between contemporary versions deal less with substance than style: While the King James Version had long stood as the primary — but not necessarily only — translation in usage in English, the second half of the last century, especially, saw a proliferation of interpretations that update and adjust the language.

Some aim to translate the original texts word-for-word, others thought-for-thought; still others opt for a paraphrased interpretation that's not a direct translation at all but is intended to be easy to read.

At the Toledo School of Ministry, a two-year ministry training school that opened in 2016, executive director Ron Earl said he can appreciate the appeal of the latter. These include versions like The Living Bible (1971) or The Message (1993).

"People sometimes don't want to get into the original language. It just bogs them down," he said. "They're searching for God, they're searching for meaning, and it's OK to read a paraphrased Bible that's drawing you closer to a relationship with the Lord."

It's one of many ways in which he and others see different versions suiting different individuals and different circumstances. Some still prefer the poetic quality of the King James, or find themselves drawn to it out of nostalgia and sentimentality, for example; others are happy to bypass the antiquated language. Students and those who are serious about their faith might appreciate the context and commentary of a study Bible or an interlinear Bible, which allows readers to compare several translations at once, while those who open the book for personal reflection might find such margin notes and additional information distracting.

James Sweeney is the J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay. He said he sees several factors contributing to the proliferation of versions.

Technology is making it quicker and more efficient than ever to explore new translations, he reflected in an email. And there remains an enormous demand for the Bible. "Publishing companies understand this and attempt to make the Bible as available as possible to as wide an audience as possible," he wrote.

"Third, professional scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the original languages and transmission history of the Bible recognize that the work of translation is an ongoing process," he continued. "As the English language is ever changing, concerned and dedicated scholars want to put contemporary readers (and hearers) in the best possible position to hear the words of the Bible in the idiom in which they speak."

At Kingdom Christian Bookstore, Ms. Bonds plans to keep her shelves stocked with them. They're the book that most frequently comes across her counter, she said, and she's noticed a particular interest in them since the onset of the pandemic.

"There's not a day we open that we don't sell some form of Bible," she said.