Friday, January 21, 2011

Not Yet, part 2

As I wrote on Wednesday, I don't plan to read the Bible until after I have read through the rest of the Ancients on my reading list.  Nevertheless, I thought I'd talk a little today about the various versions that are available.

For centuries, observant Jews have handwritten the words of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible onto Torah scrolls. A scribe called a sofer works carefully (and with extensive guidelines) for as long as eighteen months to complete one Torah. And this is how scrolls are created even in the 21st century.

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For those of us who must read in English translation (and those who think it might be awkward to cuddle up on the couch with a scroll), we as readers have a great variety of choices. I've listed a few I plan to consult in my reading later this year, as well as a few I have stumbled across in my local library.

I have three editions on my shelves to which I will refer extensively when I read the Bible (after reading the other Ancients on my list):

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard VersionThe New Revised Standard Version of the Bible emphasizes both accuracy in translation and clarity of English for the modern reader.  It is a very common Bible used in Protestant churches.  The original RSV was published in the mid-twentieth century and the revision in 1989.  The NRSV uses no archaic language (doing away with thee and thou, art and hast).  It also changes gender-neutral masculine usage to more inclusive language (such as changing the English brothers to brothers and sisters when the original text is not referring explicitly to a single-sex group).

When I was young, I read the RSV translation (sneaking it under the sheets with a flashlight and reading late into the night). The edition I had did not have the kind of supporting material provided in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. I chose the third edition because of its reputation for having essays helpful to non-religious readers. From what I have heard, the newer fourth edition might be more appealing for observant Christians.  Although I plan to use this edition as support, it will not be the primary translation I will rely on this time.

The Bible: Authorized King James Version (Oxford World's Classics)Celebrating its 400th birthday this year is the King James Version of the Bible.  The first official English translation, there is no more influential book in the shaping of all the English and American literature to come.  In other words, the KJV can fall into two places in a Lifetime Reading Plan: during the Ancient period for the original Bible, and during the 17th century for the specific translation.  I'll talk a little more about this translation in the following posts.  This will be the primary translation I will read for this project.

If you have a bit of  money to spare, Oxford has just published a gorgeous edition of the King James Version to celebrate the book's anniversary.  But if you have a more limited book budget, try the incredibly affordable (and easier to hold) Oxford Paperback, The Bible: Authorized King James Version.

The Jewish Bible: Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures--The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text: Torah * Nevi'im * Kethuvim Another major version of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) to which I will sometimes refer is the translation put out by the Jewish Publication Society, published in 1985.  This Tanakh (the traditional Jewish way of referring to the Bible) is translated directly from Hebrew rather than using a prior English translation.  The version strives to be both modern in sound and faithful in its translation of Hebrew.

Because it comes out of an interdenominational team of Jewish scholars,
The JPS Tanakh differs substantially from more Christian texts.  The assumptions of different theologies affects not only commentary but occasionally translation itself.

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Two other Jewish translations of the first five books of the Bible have received tremendous reviews.  I'll  be referring to library copies on occasion.

The Everett Fox translation attempts to capture the rhythm and poetry of the Hebrew original, creating an English text that echos with a sound very different from the versions we may be used to from the RSV or KJV.  Characters retain their Hebrew names ("Moshe and Aharon" instead of "Moses and Aaron," for example) and the imagery comes from literal translation.  In addition, the work is known for the strength of its notes and commentary.

The Robert Alter version of the Torah is also praised for its extensive notes and commentary.  Alter emphasizes close translation, thinking through the complexities of the Hebrew and calling the English reader's attention to nuances of meaning as well as literary effects of the Hebrew text.  In doing so, he recalls features of the Bible that we miss in other translations.  Alter also has a new translation of The Book of Psalms which has received excellent reviews.

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Genesis: New Translation of the Classic Bible Stories, AStephen Mitchell, the scholar who put together the wonderful edition of Gilgamesh that I've just read, has produced versions of several chapters of the Bible. I'll be looking at his Genesis, his editions of The Book of Job, Psalms, and his Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers.

One of Mitchell's goals is to tease out what he believes to be authentic from what he believes to be doctrinal reshaping of the text over the centuries.  I'll discuss the ways in which he succeeds and fails (as well as how controversial his approach is) when I get to this point in my project

Another goal the author has is to make the Biblical text relevant and meaningful in today's world.  Although he uses methods that make some critics' hair stand on in, his efforts are both fruitful and fascinating.

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Stephen Mitchell's efforts to make the Bible relevant in today's world seem tame compared to some other attempts to modernize it.  I was fascinated to run across a couple of other very respectful graphic forms of the text:

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb The Book of Genesis as illustrated by R. Crumb is stunning.  Using the full text of Genesis (inspired by both the King James Version and by the Alter translation), Crumb produces a graphic volume that is completely respectful both to religious readers and to the text itself.  His intense contemporary art--comic book style that is in no way comic here--brings new resonances to the text and pulls out themes that are sometimes not emphasized in more traditional translations despite the fact that they are in the text (especially themes of sex and violence).  As an NPR reviewer stated, "It’s a cartoonist’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. It’s awesome."

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The Wolverton Bible Another illustrated edition is The Wolverton Bible, drawn by legendary cartoonist Basil Wolverton in the 1960s and 1970s and compiled recently by his son.  In some ways similar to Crumb's version of Genesis, Wolverton uses his contemporary style of comic art to emphasize the violence and intensity of the Bible.  But unlike the Crumb edition, this is not a complete text.  And unlike Crumb, Wolverton was a devout Christian.  In fact, the drawings were made for the Worldwide Church of God publications.

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Finally, I want to mention one series of books which, although aiming at contemporary relevance, are not quite as respectful as the works by Crumb and Wolverton.  Nevertheless, the illustrations had me both engaged and amused.  The illustrations are the ones to be found in the Brick Testament.

The Brick Testament: The Ten CommandmentsIllustrator Brendan Powell Smith claims that while having his lunch in the local Taco Bell, his "bean burrito burst into flames" and he was commanded by God to illustrate the entire Bible, completely in LEGO.  Paralleling Moses's hesitation when God called him to service, Smith responded to the deity, "I am but a simple man with no special talent for building with plastic bricks."  When that did not work, he pointed out that he was an atheist.  Nevertheless, God pressed on--or so says Smith.  The artist has now produced Stories from the Book of Genesis as well as The Ten Commandments and The Story of Christmas.  Although Smith's tone in the introduction is snarkily comic--and it is hard not to laugh when you're looking at Noah's Ark and a pair of giraffes made entirely out of little cubes of interconnecting plastic--the text is a respectful abridgment of the traditional Bible and the illustrations are completely true to the original stories.  (I must say the binding of Isaac looks remarkably like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with The Princess Bride, though!)


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  2. The Lego books are hilarious - good find!

    On the King James version, you may like to read an article from last month's History Today, partly challenging the legacy of the version. There was also an article on the story of its publication but I suspect you are more interested in the literary aspect. The link is:

  3. Falaise: Thank you for the link! I'm planning posts for Monday and Tuesday of next week where I'll go into more detail about the King James--and this article is quite helpful.

  4. When I was reading your other post on the Bible, I was going to say that I was also skipping it because I read it through several times growing up. However, your comment about the Tanakh was really intriguing, I am so tempted to read at least a few passages side-by sidea.

    BBC Radio, in honor of the anniversary of the KJV, has been broadcasting readings by famous actors--here's a link to their podcasts.

  5. oh no--I really want the lego bible stories.

  6. Nancy: I'd love to have you reading some while I do. Perhaps we could work out something together? And thank you very much for the bbc link. I'll try to download them this evening!

    Susan: Absolutely!

  7. Yes, I must share this with my son who has had a lifetime love affair with Legos.

  8. Deb: Isn't the Lego version wonderful? It is amazing how much those little plastic blocks can do--completely aside from the damage they inflict to my feet when I step on the random cubes still scattered all over our house.

  9. Whew, what an undertaking! Even just weeding through all the reading options sounds exhausting. I have, however, meant to take a look at the Crumb illustrated one. I've heard it's really well done.

  10. Erin: The Crumb is fascinating. I'm really glad I found out about various translations. Each one has a lot to offer.

  11. Thanks! A big surprise tied into the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Version Bible:

    Two scholars have compiled the first worldwide census of extant copies of the original first printing of the 1611 King James Version (sometimes referred to as the "He" Bible). For decades, authorities from the British Museum, et al., have estimated that “around 50 copies” of that first printing still exist. The real number, however, is quite different!

    For more information, you're invited to contact Donald L. Brake, Sr., PhD, at or his associate David Sanford at You’re also invited to visit the website.

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