NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A new Bible translation tackles the challenge of turning ancient Greek and Hebrew texts into modern American English and then adds a twist: It’s written like a screenplay.
Take the passage from Genesis in which God gets angry at Adam for eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil:
“Adam (pointing at the woman): It was she! The woman You gave me as a companion put the fruit in my hands, and I ate it.
“God (to the woman): What have you done?
“Eve: It was the serpent! He tricked me, and I ate.”
Later, Eve bears her first son, Cain.
“Eve (excited): Look, I have created a new human, a male child, with the help of the Eternal.”
Even people who have never read the Bible could probably guess that other translations don’t say Adam pointed his finger at Eve when he blamed her for his disobedience. Neither do other Bibles describe Eve as “excited” about her newborn son.
That’s pure Hollywood, but the team behind The Voice said it isn’t a gimmick. They hope this new version will help readers understand the meaning behind the sometimes archaic language of the Bible and enjoy the story enough to stick with it.
The idea was a longtime dream of Chris Seay, pastor of Houston’s Ecclesia Church. Seay had success in helping church members relate to the Bible by dividing out the parts of the various speakers and assigning roles to church members who read them aloud.
The idea struck a nerve with Frank Couch, vice president of translation development for Nashville-based religious publisher Thomas Nelson, who had performed Bible-inspired sketches on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., in his youth.
The result of their efforts, as well as a team of translators who worked alongside poets, writers and musicians, is The Voice, released in its full version earlier this year.
“The biggest thing, the unexpected plus, is that people will read an entire book of the Bible because it reads like a novel,” Couch said.
“It engages your imagination in a different way,” Seay said, expressing his hope that The Voice helps people to “fall in love with the story of the Bible.”
The Voice not only reformats the Bible but also inserts words and phrases into the text to clarify the action or smooth transitions. These words are generally in italics so the reader can tell what the additions are. At other points, the order of verses is changed to make the story read better.
Some earlier attempts to make the Bible accessible to a modern audience met with heavy criticism from people who thought the translators were taking too many liberties with the word of God, Wake Forest University religion professor Bill Leonard said. But those translators were attempting to deal with a real problem – increasing Bible illiteracy, even among those who attended church regularly, he said.
Eugene Peterson, translator of the popular The Message (Bible), published in 1993, said he was braced for the negative reaction faced by some of his predecessors, but they didn’t materialize.
“I was surprised that the reception was so immediate and so positive,” he said. “... I think the one thing I hear most often is, ‘This is the first time in my life I understood the Bible.’”
Leonard said modern translations seem to have become less controversial as the total number of Bible translations has expanded, although the 2011 New International Version managed to cause a stir by using some gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language, something The Voice doesn’t do.
It does, however, take out the word “Christ,” which many people have come to think of as Jesus’ last name, rather than a title bestowed upon him by the Gospel writers to show that they believed he was God’s “Anointed One” – the chosen translation in The Voice.
All Bible translators have to confront the problem of words that don’t convey the same meaning to a modern audience as they did to an ancient one, said linguist Joel M. Hoffman, author of And God Said –How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.
“For example, ‘John the Baptist’ was really like ‘John the Dunker,”’ Hoffman said.
John was doing something new by submerging people in water to cleanse them of their sins, but that is lost on people 2,000 years later, Hoffman said. Today, people hearing John’s title might think it refers to a Baptist denomination rather than his then-strange behavior.
In the Old Testament, translators of “The Voice” have rendered YHWH (commonly written as Yahweh), the Hebrew name for God, as “the Eternal” or “the Eternal One.” One of the Bible’s most famous passages, Psalm 23, reads, “The Eternal is my shepherd ... ”
Most other translations render YHWH as “Lord,” a word that was rich with meaning in a time when people lived in subjection to absolute monarchs but not so much for contemporary Americans living in a democracy, Couch said.
Hoffman said he would buy the argument against using “Lord” if the translators didn’t go on to sometimes to call Jesus “the Liberating King,” another reference to royalty that has lost its grip on the modern American imagination.
“When I think of a king, I think of a powerless figurehead,” Hoffman said.
But Hoffman said the goal of making the Bible accessible to a contemporary audience is laudable, even if he doesn’t always agree with the translations in The Voice.
And for the average reader, unaware of the sometimes contentious debates over translation, The Voice seems to have struck a chord.
Steve Taylor, who directed the recent Christian movie “Blue Like Jazz” and also was one of the screenwriters, said the screenplay format makes the Bible stories feel more immediate to him.
“It was like it was happening now, as opposed to reading something that happened 2,000 years ago,” he said. “When Jesus turns the water into wine in John 2, I felt more like I was at the wedding. I felt the awkwardness of the situation.”
Getting readers to feel engaged in the story is exactly what the creators of The Voice had in mind, Couch said.
“We had an 82-year-old woman who told us that she had never understood the Bible before.”