UPDATE: Paul Franklyn, Project Director for the CEB, informed us in the comments that the text originally featured on the new CEB website would be revised taking into account the concerns laid out below. I sincerely commend Abingdon for their gracious response to criticism and for their willingness to promptly put suggestions into practice. Further, I am pleased to report that the text quoted below has been removed from the website and that the new presentation of the CEB is much, much better.
As most of my readers know, the Common English Bible is a new ecumenical Bible translation project sponsored by Abingdon Press. News of the project appeared throughout the Biblioblogosphere last year, and over the past few days, the buzz has been about the release of the text of the St Matthew’s Gospel, which was finally made available for download yesterday. I expect to make a few comments about the translation later, but at the moment I only wish to discuss the perplexing statements featured in the brand new website for the CEB, which was launched in connection with the release of its translation of the Gospel of St Matthew. Below are two blocks of text from the website’s front page, each followed by my comments.
A TRANSLATION FOR MAINSTREAM CHRISTIANS
While new translations abound for part of the church, for mainstream denominations the choice is limited. The NRSV revision began in the 1970s and is now 20 years old. It reads at an 11th grade level (which is higher than the typical college graduate), and it was a modest revision of the 1951 RSV. In the past 20 years alone, the English language grew from 300,000 words to over 1 million words. In our quickly changing world, we need a translation of Scripture that connects with the kind of people who worship and study the Bible in our congregations. The Common English Bible can connect people to God once again. What happens next, when we study the Scripture, can take our passion for loving God and neighbor to the next level.
The first question here is what exactly constitutes a “mainstream Christian” or a “mainstream denomination.” By any count, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and news of the controversies at their annual convention often make the national news, so they have a large degree of public visibility. Further, they have recently produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and hardly lack choices of other translations to use. Evidently, then, “mainstream” denotes here neither numbers nor public visibility, since Southern Baptists have both of these, and the opening statement still does not apply to them.
A possible solution to the dilemma is that “mainstream” is used here as a synonym of “mainline,” a proposal that has much to commend to it: after all, a majority of the CEB’s translators and consulting readers hail from such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Traditionally African-American denominations are also well represented, as is even the Roman Catholic Church. But then the Church of the Nazarene, a 20th-century revivalist denomination of Wesleyan-holiness heritage, is represented by 5 translators and two readers—more than, for instance, the very mainline UCC. Further, there isn’t a single Orthodox translator or consulting reader in the CEB team, though one would certainly think that the Orthodox Church is considered by all to be at least “mainstream.”
It is unclear, then, to whom does the CEB website actually refer when it speaks of “our congregations” and of the “kind of people (!) who worship and study the Bible” in them. What is clear, however, is that the CEB is being marketed with a regrettable “us versus them” mentality from the start, even though who falls into which category is not explained. Still, whoever belongs to the “us” can rest assured that the CEB will “connect [them] to God” and stir them to “take [their] passion for loving God and neighbor to the next level”—presumably in a way that the NIV will not (see below).
I cannot help but to comment on the incredible (and linguistically naive) statement that “[i]n the past 20 years alone, the English language grew from 300,000 words to over 1 million words.” Imagine that: a mind-boggling 700,000 new words coined in two decades, whereas the previous six or so centuries before that only managed to produce a mere 300,000! Clearly our Anglophone ancestors were lazy and unimaginative in the extreme. This sort of figure is usually produced by counting words in a dictionary or another lexicographical corpus and comparing the tally with previous editions of the same, or yet more fantastically, by swallowing whole the claptrap advanced by Paul J. J. Payack’s Global Language Monitor. But let us suppose for a second that English has really expanded at a rate of 35,000 new words per year over the past 20 years: how many of these new words do you suppose would find their way into a new Bible translation? There are no New Testament passages, alas, that recount how St Paul wrote his email to the Seattleites from his laptop while using the wireless connection at Panera.
Several Bible translations were produced over the past 20 years. However, most of these translations represent a particular conservative theology and are revisions or updates from prior translations (e.g., ESV from the RSV, NKJV from KJV, TNIV from NIV). The revision is generally less than 5 percent. Or they are paraphrases of the biblical text (e.g., The Message, The Voice, or the New Living Translation—a revision of the Living Bible). The NIV will be marketed again in this crowded conservative field in 2011, by merging the TNIV with the aging NIV, which originated among Reformed groups in the 1970s.
There are a couple of glaring errors in this paragraph. For one, we hear the same old tired canard that the New Living Translation is a paraphrase of the Biblical text. It is not. Like the Good News Translation, it is a functionally equivalent translation, not a paraphrase. Also, the New International Version had its origins among Reformed groups in the ’50s. By the ’70s, when the translation was finally published, the members of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation hailed from no less than 13 different denominations, all Evangelical, but not all Reformed or Calvinistic. (For details on how the NIV came to be, see this article by the late great John H. Stek.)
More importantly, however, here we learn where the perceived divide between “us” and “them” in the previous paragraph lies: it is something ominously called “conservative theology.” By this I suspect that they mean Evangelicals and others with a so-called “high view of Scripture,” since they are the ones who by and large have produced the revisions mentioned above, and also the ones who make the most use of them. This is a shocking proposition on which to market a Bible translation, particularly taking into account the fact that Evangelicals and others with a “high view of Scripture” are the primary market for Bible translations. If it is hoped that the dying demographic of the mainline will suddenly become energized by the publication of the CEB and return handsome profits to Abingdon for their enormous expense on this project, I’m afraid that such hopes are built on quickening sand.
From the above we would be led to think that no individuals who espouse a “conservative theology” are involved in this translation project, but a brief glance at the list of translators and readers quickly dispels that notion. Indeed, three of the translators belong either to the Evangelical Free Church of America or to the Baptist General Conference, two bodies that unambiguously affirm Biblical inerrancy in their statements of faith. There are also several translators who serve on the faculties of Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Denver Seminary, all of which are, at the very least, decidedly Evangelical schools who affirm a “high view of Scripture.” Why, then, stir the hornet’s nest of “liberal” versus “conservative” Bible translations? Why the gratuitous indictment of the “conservative theology” that several of the CEB’s own translators espouse?
I realize, of course, that framing the matter in this way likely responds to the recent news that a new edition of the NIV will be released in 2011, which is also the target publication year for the CEB. One can practically hear the terror behind the lines quoted above about “the aging NIV” and the hideous progeny that will surely result from its “merger” with the TNIV (which descriptions are, incidentally, very disingenuous). It is understandable that those responsible for marketing the CEB should want to have the first strike against its putative rival, especially when it said rival is a new edition of a translation that has over 300 million copies in circulation. However, the point that they have chosen to emphasize in their campaign isn’t only misleading (because the CEB is not a “liberal” translation, and plenty of “conservatives” are involved in its production), but it is also a classic example of shooting oneself in the foot.