By Lee Karl Palo
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo
Disclaimer: The following represents the opinion of Lee Karl Palo, and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cokesbury or the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH). That said, I used to work for UMPH (as a Cokesbury Store Manager), which is one of the denominational publishing houses that sponsored the translation, and I know Paul Franklyn, the Project Director of the Common English Bible (CEB).
When you work for a publisher, even in as different a division as Cokesbury is from Abingdon Press, you often hear of coming publications in advance. In the case of the CEB, I learned about the as-yet-unnamed forthcoming translation quite some time before its publication. My initial thoughts brought to mind other recent translations.
A Very Brief History of Recent Translations
The last ten years have seen the publication of such significant translations as the Message, the English Standard Version (ESV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). The Message found a niche, being at the same time a translation and a paraphrase, as a kind of personal devotional Bible translation. It doesn’t always lend itself to serious Bible study or to use in corporate worship, but I love it for what it is and think it will be around for years to come.
The ESV and the HCSB were both designed as multi-purpose translations (for use in worship, Bible study, devotions, etc.). When I learned of the translation philosophies behind them, I was a little perplexed. My first thought was that there already was an updated New American Standard Bible (NASB), so the ESV and the HCSB seemed a bit redundant to me. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Though by this point, the primary translation I was using was the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which was also an update of the RSV. I had started using the NRSV as my primary translation in Seminary, after having used the NASB in college.
The ESV and the HCSB both opted not to use any inclusive language, and given the value I place on inclusive language, that meant I wasn’t about to switch to using them instead of the NRSV, which does use inclusive language (along with many other translations like the New Living Translation, the Message, and the 2011 update of the New International Version). The HCSB was sponsored by the Southern Baptist publishing house, and as such was translated to be used by Southern Baptists and others of a similar theological persuasion (I’m not Southern Baptist).
Initial Thoughts on the CEB
There are financial advantages to a publishing house owning a Bible translation aside from Bible sales alone. It costs money to use translations in other material, so having your own translation would save money. Aside from that, after hearing that my company was going to produce a new Bible translation, I wondered what would set it apart from all of the other Bible translations out there.
Features of the CEB
The Common English Bible is a multi-purpose translation designed to be used in many different settings and contexts. Two of its main features are…
I was pleased to see that the CEB is sponsored by several denominational publishing houses: The United Methodist Church—Abingdon Press; The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—Chalice Press; The United Church of Christ—Pilgrim Press; The Presbyterian Church (USA)—Westminster/John Knox Press; The Episcopal Church (USA)—Church Publishing. The translators and editors are from even more denominations. I’m not sure there is an English translation with a more diverse range of the Christian faith represented.
The CEB translation process paired each translator with a “readability editor.” This was, among other things, to make sure the CEB reads well aloud. A local Seattle area pastor I know, Donald Schmidt, was one of the readability editors (on Leviticus: knowing how hard Donald fought to make sure it would be readable, I am quite pleased with the end result). The CEB was also tested in reading groups as well. The English of the CEB is the same as what you find in USA Today. From what I’ve been told it also works well with those for whom English is a second language.
My Own Writing Alongside the CEB
As some of you may know, I am working on writing a book. It is a Bible study on Genesis 1-11. The CEB text of Genesis was made available on the CEB website prior to the publication of the Old Testament. I was pretty impressed with what I was reading, and decided that I would like to try using it with my Bible study. However, the Genesis text available on the website would not allow me to “copy and paste” into a document. Thus I put in some inquiries with certain people at UMPH that resulted in a really fun meeting, in person, with the Project Director of the CEB, Paul Franklyn (I am such a Bible-geek, so it was awesome to talk with someone who has a job like Paul Franklyn). Not only did Paul provide me with the text of Genesis, but I was also entrusted with the rest of the Pentateuch. So when I got home, I was able to use the text on handouts in the Genesis 1-11 Sunday School class I was teaching (I also wrote a rough draft of each chapter of my book for every Sunday I was teaching in January-February 2011). The result of that experience was that I certainly gained an appreciation for the translation when working that closely with it.
Scholarship Advances in the CEB
I have noticed that there are a few people who assume if a translation is designed to be easier to read, it must somehow not have as much scholarly depth. I would strongly disagree. I have found a number of improvements in the CEB.
– No “Soul”
A lingering problem of Bible translation has been that when the word “soul” is used in the Bible it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. Platonic and Hindu conceptions of the “soul” have for thousands of years confused the ancient Biblical understanding of human existence. Given the pervasive confusion over the use of the word “soul,” perhaps it is time to find better words to translate the Hebrew and Greek. That is precisely what the CEB has done, and in the process helping us to understand God’s Word better than ever before! That the Common English Bible has almost completely eliminated the word “soul” in both the Old and New Testaments was a cause for my rejoicing.
I would argue that belief in extra-Biblical concepts of the soul have contributed to the denigration of this world. If the essence of who we are is not of this creation, but somehow of a spiritual realm, it can cause us to devalue what is of this creation. As I know well from work on my book, the often touted “image of God” has nothing much to do with the elevating of humans beyond creation, but is instead a reminder that we are to serve God. When we recognize the image of God in our neighbor, it also reminds us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the secret to how the “greatest commandment” is linked to the “second” in Mark 12:29-31. The “image of God” is to be a reminder of humility, and not of pride or arrogance. We are “soil,” and “to the soil [we] will return” (Genesis 3:19). God greatly esteems his human creations, and any afterlife is a result of “God’s gift” (Romans 6:23). It is not the result of some non-Biblical concept of an immortal soul inhabiting our bodies. As the Apostles’ Creed says, we believe in the “resurrection of the body.” Nowhere does the Creed mention “soul.” We as Christians can look forward to a more holistic concept of the afterlife than what a disembodied, immortal, immaterial substance can provide.
The elimination of the word “soul,” in favor of using better words like “being” in order to translate the underlying Hebrew and Greek words, would already be cause for me to use the CEB, but there are many other examples of better translating in the CEB. Bible scholars have verses they love, or think are crucially important to be translated well (Revelation 21:3 is one of mine, and the CEB gets it right). But don’t just take my word for it…
I was given the opportunity to staff the Cokesbury booktable display for the Western Christian Educator’s Conference in October of 2011 at the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center by Lake Tahoe where Marcus Borg was the featured speaker. Marcus Borg was lecturing on his new book Speaking Christian. At one point he was discussing how the word “mercy” is so very misunderstood today (Chapter 11 in the book). He suggested that the word “compassion” would be a better fit, discussing particular verses as examples. When Marcus Borg got to Luke 6:36, he mentioned that he was pleased to see the Common English Bible got it right, when so many other translations did not: “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” Needless to say, Marcus Borg’s positive mention of the CEB helped me to sell copies later that day. I should add that I do not know Marcus Borg’s overall opinion of the CEB, but he was certainly pleased with how Luke 6:36 was translated.
Likewise, I am not sure what N.T. Wright thinks of the CEB, but I have found an example where he would seem to approve of how the CEB translated a couple of verses in the Gospel of John. N.T. Wright does not mention the CEB, but his suggestions on how the verses should read do correspond to the CEB. In reading N.T. Wright’s recent book Simply Jesus I discovered an interesting fact. On page 183 N.T. Wright laments the common misunderstanding that the kingdom of God is “otherworldly” due to a common translation of John 18:36 that reads “My kingdom is not of this world” (the emphasis in italics is N.T. Wright’s). The CEB uses the word “from” as N.T. Wright suggests would be better. Additionally, N.T. Wright suggests that Jesus’ final words from the cross in John 19:30 would be better read as “completed,” rather than “finished” so the echo of God’s having “completed” the work of creation by the end of the sixth day of creation becomes clear (p.184). Again, the CEB uses the word “completed” both in John 19:30 and Genesis 2:1-2, as N.T. Wright would suggest they ought to be translated.
– Jews and Women
Speaking of the Gospel of John, the CEB has more accurately conveyed who the characters commonly labeled as “the Jews,” in many other translations, really are. In this way the meaning becomes clearer, and the translation does not lend itself as easily to anti-Semitism, as other translations have in the past. In a similar fashion, other verses that have often been used to subordinate women have been clarified. 1st Timothy 2:11-15 in the CEB clarifies the context being that of spousal relationships, rather than male-female relationships broadly speaking (which, as many have noted, the broad meaning would have put it in conflict with the classical Pauline statement in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”). The CEB, as well as the NRSV and some other recent translations also do not change the name of the “prominent” apostle “Junia” to the masculine form “Junias” in Romans 16:7 (it is a dirty little secret of Bible translating that some translators have found it hard to believe that a woman could be an apostle, so they changed the name to a masculine form).
The Church today is struggling in the face of pressures to be relevant. Many churches are in decline. I believe one thing that can help is a translation of the Bible written in today’s language. Inclusive language is now a common practice of the English speaking world, and it only makes sense for a Bible translation to employ it where it is appropriate. A translation written in common English will resonate not only with those inside the church, but to those outside as well. One of the early editions of the Common English Bible is an “Outreach New Testament.” To have language that those outside the church can more readily understand is very useful for bringing seekers and others into the church.
I have a Pocket Edition of the CEB that travels with me on a daily basis. I took it to the Dedication Service for the Common English Bible at UMPH in Nashville on September 22, 2011, and it means a lot to me that, when I asked him, Paul Franklyn filled out the dedication page for me. I found it to be a moving service dedicating the CEB for the work of God’s Church in the future.
So What About the Different Translations Out There?
I have been won over by the Common English Bible, and now use it as my primary translation. This does not mean I am giving up my NRSV or other translations. I now use them in more of a supporting role in my personal Bible study (with the NRSV being my main alternative). God still speaks. God does so through many different translations. Is the CEB absolutely perfect? No, but then there is no such thing as a perfect translation.
The CEB is a translation that communicates, and recovers, the ancient meaning of the scriptures in ways that are readable and relevant to today, and can be the tool to help usher in a bright future for the Church.
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo