Premier Bibles are in Fashion

By Joe LaGuardia

Several weeks ago, I discovered the esoteric, slightly geeky, intensely interesting world of premier Bibles.  I have been a Bible nerd for some time–researching various translations and study Bibles, perusing bookstores for editions and bindings–but I learned only recently that a world like this existed.

You see, for over twenty years I’ve been an Oxford man.  By Oxford, I mean those Bibles published by Oxford University, specifically the Annotated New Revised Standard Version Bibles for which Oxford is best known.  I have five Oxfords: My first was the softcover student edition required for college; then the hardcover of that same edition once the softcover edition died; and then the third and fourth editions in leather.  My most recent purchase was a leather NRSV thinline for everyday use.

With the Oxford, I meant business when it came to Bibles and Bible studies–but then (thanks to YouTube) I realized that a whole other world existed, that of the “Premier Bible.”  Let me explain:

My last Oxford Study Bible cost $90.00.  It was the fourth edition, genuine (vs. bonded) leather, with two ribbons and personalized embossing.  It was costlier than the third edition, but vastly superior in binding, notes, leather, and gilding (that’s the gold on the side of the pages).  I thought this price placed it squarely in the “premier” category.  Not so.

The real “premier” Bibles run between $175.00 – $250.00.  These Bibles have covers that range from Moroccan fine leather to calfskin.   The inside of the cover also includes leather end pages.  The binding is often hand-sown.  The materials, including the paper, is of either European (from Norway, for instance) or Italian origin.  You can run over these things with a truck, and they will last.

I also learned that there are three companies that produce these Mercedes Benz of Bibles: Cambridge University (one of the oldest publishers in the world), Schuyler (pronounced “sky-ler”, get it right!), and Allan.   They have limited runs, select translations (usually, NKJV, KJV, ESV, or NRSV; Schuyler also produces a NLT, pictured above); and they take months to produce, order and ship.  There are waiting lists.

Some collectors scour the internet searching for editions that are vintage, out of print, or at a reduced rate.  And even the most used of these Bibles can run over $100.00.

There is a community of people on the internet — YouTube, really — who review the Bibles.  They own, buy, sell, and trade multiple copies.  They compare and contrast them, show multi-year “crash” tests (to see how Bibles hold up to the test of preaching and usage); and go into minute details as to binding and features of each one.  Some of them purchase a version in every color leather.

I told you it was esoteric, but I find these videos captivating, and I confess I have spent many late nights watching reviews of pitt minions and reference Bibles and quentel (I’m not sure what that means–I think its a typesetting of some sort) versions, of rebound Bibles, and of the newest King James Versions (how many times and how many ways can one publish a Bible that’s been around since 1611?).  Very few, if any, premier Bibles are study-Bible versions, though many include concordances and Bible maps.   This goes deep, folks.

Over the last month, I had a chance to purchase a new Bible.  I dislike purchasing new Bibles (although I love looking at them, my version of retail therapy), but I needed to replace two Bibles in my arsenal of God’s Word.  I took my time reviewing these and other Bibles.

I chose another Oxford NRSV (the travel version I mentioned earlier– I’m so loyal!), but it was hard to bypass some of these beautiful Bibles that really stand the test of time and capture–if not for sake of aesthetics, then for tradition–the sacredness and value of God’s Word, which neither withers nor fades.



The year of the Bible [translations]

As the 400th birthday of the King James Version comes and goes this year, several new Bibles are hitting stores to offer “fresh” translations to a timeless word.  Whether these newbies will find a captive audience and dominate the Bible market as did the KJV is yet to be determined.

Regular readers of my column know that I have an affinity for Bibles.  Every year, I devote a column or two to Bible translations and point out the various nuances that make the world of Bible publishing an exciting one.  For this column, I offer a short report to keep us up-to-date.

One version due in September is called the Common English Bible, published by a consortium of denominational printers ranging from the United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press) to the Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press).  As a “paraphrase” translation (a mixture of word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation), it intends to reach a wide audience of all ages.

According to the CEB committee’s website, the version will be a “bold new translation designed to meet the needs of Christians as they work to build a strong and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

Although I think the use of the word “bold” is a bit brash, the New Testament (available in paperback and ecoleather since 2010) does seem to offer a rich structure and a clear, concise voice to God’s good news.  It has a single-column “readers” format, so it makes for easy reading in a favorite armchair.

I am interested to see how the CEB holds up to congregational worship, and it can’t be all that bad: One of the board members, Sharyn Dowd, is a noted New Testament scholar on staff at the First Baptist Church of Decatur.

The second translation coming out this year is a bit more controversial.  It is the “2011 edition” of the New International Version (NIV) published by Zondervan.  Unlike the Common English Bible, which is a new translation altogether, the NIV 2011 is a revision of the bestselling 1984 edition.

The NIV 2011 is already causing a stir because it utilizes “gender-neutral” language. This move on the part of the translators recalls the curse of the Today’s New International Version (TNIV), which came out in the late 1990s.  It, too, had gender-inclusive language and apparently flopped.  Many evangelicals and conservatives despised the tampering of God’s word, and they insured the TNIV’s death in 2009.

The same conflict is resurfacing now even though the NIV 2011 committee (according to their website) reconsidered and voted on each verse in which gender-inclusive language was used.  That, despite the fact that the new edition retains over 95% of the NIV’s original language.

At least one denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, practically banned the Bible.  Last month in Phoenix, messengers at the SBC general convention passed a resolution that warns fellow Baptists of the new translation and “respectfully requests” that Lifeway bookstores (the Baptist chain) avoid selling it altogether.

For others, there is the fear that Zondervan–the sole publisher of the NIV–will cease publication of the 1984 version once the 2011 edition hits bookshelves.  This spells the end of nearly three decades of one of the best selling Bibles in recent history, and it ironically insures the exclusive reign of the gender-inclusive enterprise.

Yet, a third hurdle for the ill-fated edition is the current phone-hacking news scandal by media conglomerates tied to Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp.  Fact is, Murdoch owns Zondervan, and the accusations can potentially tarnish the Zondervan brand for many a Christian.

My guess is that translations will continue to rise and fall with the times.  None will replace the beloved King James Version; none will be without its particular controversies.  My encouragement to you is simple and always the same: No matter what Bible you decide to use, read it and read it often.  That’s what counts in the end.

Getting Lost in Translation: Which Bible is Right for You?

I read with some interest the article in the Rockdale Citizen last week about a new “conservative” translation of the Bible.  I taught a class on biblical translations once or twice in Sunday school, so these articles always catch my attention.

Translating the Bible is a precarious business that requires grammatical approximation and scholarly decision-making.  Since we do not have any primary sources from original biblical authors, scholars use a variety of ancient manuscripts that sometimes differ with one another.

Translators make the best of what God has given them.  Usually the conflicts amongst the texts are miniscule and do not change the overall meaning anyway.

But if Bible translations matter and, yes, tend to be “biased,” then what translation is best for you?  Here are some insights that will help you the next time you’re Bible shopping.  I can only address the most popular ones because space is limited.

The King James Version is the first “authorized” English translation in history because it was made official by the British crown in 1611.  The fifty-plus translators who worked on the project used Shakespearean language, which makes the version a beautifully written and endearing text even today.

Its history is long, and the version has passed through hundreds of revisions up to our present translation today.   For some Christians, it is the only version to trust.

The KJV is hard to comprehend when reading silently, but makes for great oration in public worship. Its younger sibling, the New King James Version, balances scholarship with contemporary language that’s reader-friendly.

The Revised Standard Version is from the King James tradition and was commissioned by the National Council of Churches, USA, in the late-1940s.  It was intended to serve a variety of denominations including the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The version is sometimes branded as “liberal” because of its translation of Isaiah 7:14, which renders “virgin” as “young woman” in a passage that foreshadows Christ’s birth born of a virgin.  It also places several texts believed to be later additions to Scripture—such as the longer ending in Mark—in footnotes.

Its sibling, the New Revised Standard Version, utilizes gender-inclusive language, which makes it a wonderful text for public worship.  The version is the preferred translation among seminarians, scholars, and “mainline” pastors.  It is my personal Bible of choice.  (The newest Bible from this family is the English Standard Version, which reverts back to exclusive language and tones down the ecumenical nuances.)

The New American Standard Bible is a literal, word-for-word translation of the Greek and Hebrew produced by a private foundation in California.  In fact, it is so literal to the original languages that it is not recommended for public worship, but is for in-depth Bible and word studies.

The New International Version is a popular translation for two reasons.  One, it’s easy to read because it mixes paraphrase rendering with word-for-word scholarship.  Second, it was commissioned in the 1970s for evangelicals who preferred neither the cumbersome language of the KJV nor the interfaith flair of the RSV.

Publishers have insured its selling power by marketing it to all kinds of niche audiences, and it is useful for both public and private settings.  The “NIV Study Bible” includes some wonderful insights; I use it when I teach youth groups.

The New Living Translation, “The Message,” and others like these, are considered “paraphrase” versions because the translators script the language based on meaning rather than on a literal translation.  These are great for children, for dramatic readings in worship, and devotional study.  These versions are the easiest to understand because they are generally written on a middle-school reading level.

When all is said and done, choosing a Bible is like eating your veggies: they are all good for you, but it helps to vary the diet.