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The New Yorker on the Bible Market

We’re not sure why a rash of articles analyzing the U.S. Bible market has appeared recently in secular publications. Now it’s The New Yorker’s turn. As you’d expect from The New Yorker, the article is long, thorough, and well-written.

Some highlights:

The distinction points to one way in which publishers sell multiple copies of the Bible to the same customers. “They each have a different purpose,” Hatfield told me. “It’s kind of like a tool chest. All the tools are tools, but they’re designed for doing different things.” And there are distinctions within each category. There are study Bibles that focus on theology, on historical context, or on practical applications of Biblical teachings. There are devotional Bibles for new believers, couples, brides, and cowboys….

The Good News Translation, as it’s usually known, followed the precepts of “functional equivalence”—translating not word for word but thought for thought, with the goal of capturing the meaning of the original text, even if that required massaging the words or reordering sentences. Walter Harrelson, a Bible scholar who served on the committee that produced the relatively formal New Revised Standard Version, in 1989, likes to say that formal equivalence carries the reader back to the world of the Bible, while functional equivalence transports the Bible into the world of the reader. Harrelson is a proponent of formal equivalence, and argues that preserving the linguistic qualities of the ancient text reminds readers that the Bible is “a document from another world that is luminous and transforming of our world.” Proponents of functional equivalence counter that, to the original audience, the Bible would have sounded contemporary and vernacular, and that translators should preserve these qualities….

The effect of the functional-equivalence approach on the message of the Scriptures is most striking when it comes to rendering metaphors. A literal translation of God’s words to straying Israelites in Amos 4:6 reads, “I gave you cleanness of teeth.” The New International Version eliminates the potential misreading that God was punishing the wicked with dental hygiene, and translates the phrase as “I gave you empty stomachs.” Functionally equivalent translations, at their most radical, often bypass the exotic metaphors of the Bible entirely. Matthew 3:8, in the N.R.S.V., reads, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The Contemporary English Version (1991) reads, “Do something to show that you have really given up your sins….”

The problem [with the consumerist culture of the Bible market], as [Phyllis Tickle] sees it, is that “instead of demanding that the believer, the reader, the seeker step out from the culture and become more Christian, more enclosed within ecclesial definition, we’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.’ And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?” The consumerist culture in which BibleZines and the like participate is, to Tickle, “entirely antithetical to the traditional Christian understanding of meekness and self-denial and love and compassion.” In Tickle’s view, reimagining the Bible according to the latest trends is not merely a question of surmounting a language barrier. It involves violating “something close to moral or spiritual barriers.”

(Emphasis added to a comparison of formal and dynamic translation methods.) Also see the accompanying slideshow of recent Bibles.

Via J. Mark Bertrand, who chimes in with his usual lucid thoughts. Also see the Wall Street Journal’s take and a Publishers Weekly article.

Update: Clarified that Phyllis Tickle’s quote refers to the Bible market, as is indicated later in the quote, and not to dynamic translation methods. The original juxtaposition was unintended and could be interpreted as a weird argument for formal equivalence.

December 12, 2006 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Author: Crossway Staff @ 9:20 am | (3) Comments »


  1. [...] The ESV Blog has pointed out a few secular publications that are doing articles on the U.S. Bible market. There are some interesting things in the articles. Perhaps even more interesting is the question of why secular publications are starting to talk about the Bible market. [...]

    Pingback by Secular Press and the Bible Market « RPCB Blog — December 13, 2006 @ 9:18 am

  2. Bible Translation and the Christ/Culture Relation

    The ESV Blog points to an article by Daniel Radosh in The New Yorker that discusses Bible translations. One of the sections quoted by the ESV Blog includes an argument from Phyllis Tickle against functional equivalence translation that seems to me to b…

    Trackback by Parableman — December 15, 2006 @ 7:52 pm

  3. Jeremy Pierce has written an interesting piece about a post on the ESV blog. Jeremy has discovered that the ESV blog post actually misrepresents (Jeremy uses stronger words) the article in The New Yorker which it quotes.

    Trackback by ESV blog misrepresents The New Yorker — January 18, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

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