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.

Celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible

This year will mark a special anniversary: the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible.  This Bible, so beloved by Christians worldwide, has become a staple in all of human history.  It represents one of the most enduring icons of Christianity as a whole.

The King James Version of the Bible got that name because of its historical roots.  Around the sixteenth century in England, King James (originally king of Scotland) ascended the British throne and found himself in one of the most chaotic eras in the empire’s history.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, was shifting dramatically because of the Protestant Reformation.  When King James took the throne, Puritans and Separatists–Christian groups on the margins–were wreaking havoc with the Church of England.

The middle class was gaining wealth; the literacy rate rose dramatically; Bible translations, such as the Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva Bibles were being published on the Gutenberg printing press at an astonishing rate.

King James saw the fractured empire and sought to increase his authority throughout Christendom.  He had a two-pronged strategy:  He sought political power (nothing new in Europe), and he sought religious power.

Part of this religious power came in competing with the variety of Bible translations that existed at the time. In 1604, King James decreed that a new, authoritative translation would be issued.  Thus, the idea for the King James version was born.

James’ committee of translators consisted of some fifty scholars separated into six panels.  Three panels worked on the Old Testament; two panels on the New Testament; and one panel on the Apocrypha.   After the translations were completed, the panels met and revised eachother’s work.

Upon the Bible’s completion in 1611, it adopted a very authoritative name:  The Authorized Version.

Despite its popularity at the time, the original King James Bible actually had several thousand errors and mistranslations.  Once it went public, many of these errors were marked and corrected.

For instance, a 1631 edition failed to put the word, “not”, in Exodus 20:14, thus reading, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  The edition was coined the “Adultery Bible.”

Eventually, by the late 1700s, most of the kinks were ironed out, and we got what many Christians today consider the greatest translation in the English language.

The translation has seen the rise and fall of many nations and churches, the shifting dynamics of imperialism, and the evolving nature of missions, congregational leadership, and evangelism for nearly four centuries.  It is even popular enough for a bumper sticker or two: “If it ain’t King James, It ain’t the Bible.”

There are many reasons why the version has endured over time.  For one, the Shakespearean language is absolutely gorgeous.  Can you imagine reading Psalm 23 from, say, the Good News Bible, at a funeral?  I would never!  How about opening a night-stand drawer in a hotel and finding a New Living Translation?  Perish the thought.

Or what about all of those King James-inspired Christmas stories we read in church, in which the old-fashioned word for donkey still makes children in the pews snicker?

Also, many of our hymns are based on the translation.  In the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” no one really knows what “raise thine Ebenezer” means, but–by golly!–it’s from the King James and that’s good ‘nough for me.

For many people, it is enduring because it escaped the issues that recent translations have raised.  The King James defies contemporary English, so there is no need for tough editorial decisions on the part of modern translators.  It is not gender inclusive, so we know for a fact that it’s not “liberal.”  And it’s what Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa used, and we know that the Bible helped make them more faithful than anyone living today.

Let’s wish the KJV BIble a happy 400th birthday, with blessings for many more centuries to come.