Four Modern Versions of the Bible that Are Ruining the Bible

In a era with more Bibles than ever before, biblical literacy is in serious decline. Maybe the problem is all those Bibles.

I was standing in the ruins of one of the world’s oldest synagogues when I realized I didn’t want to be a Bible publisher anymore.

The epiphany came at a rather inconvenient moment, since the whole reason I was there was to convince our guide, a respected Bible teacher, that he should do a study Bible. Or, as they like to say in the publishing business, I was trying to “acquire” him.

I’d been working for an evangelical publisher for almost five years. I loved my job. I loved publishing Bibles — and I published a lot of them. Study Bibles. Youth Bibles. Audio Bibles. We had a Bible for everyone…or at least we aspired to.

We wanted more people to read the Bible. And for a time, I thought publishing more Bibles was the best way to make that happen.

But standing in that synagogue — hearing about the role scripture played in the lives of those who had gathered there — I started to question that assumption.

At synagogues in and around Galilee, young Jewish children would memorize large chunks of scripture. We’re not talking about your average memory verse; we’re talking whole books. In truly exceptional cases, a student might memorize the entire Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Each Sabbath, the community would gather for worship. They would celebrate as whatever scroll they had in their possession was carefully unfurled to show everyone that the words were still on the page. God was still speaking to them.

They had nothing like our access to the Bible. No one dreamed of owning his own personal copy of the scriptures. Most rural synagogues were lucky to have one or two scrolls, and whatever they did have was likely shared on a rotating basis with other nearby synagogues.

Yet they loved the text. They couldn’t get enough of it — literally.

Standing in that synagogue, it occurred to me that we have the opposite problem today. We have more Bibles than ever. I had never stopped to ask whether this was a good thing. I just assumed more was better. Yet for all the Bibles out there, one thing we don’t have is more Bible reading.

What if that’s not just coincidence?

What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?

What if familiarity and abundance breed indifference?

I’m not convinced commercial Bible publishing is a bad thing in itself. There have been too many positive effects, not least of which is the publication of many genuinely high-quality Bibles. Yet the commercialization of scripture has also given us four iterations of the modern Bible — which I believe are causing us to value the Bible less and read it less.

1. The commodity Bible

There’s a certain rationale to publishing niche Bibles — and, arguably, some value as well. Targeting a specific audience allows you to highlight content or themes in scripture that may be especially relevant to a particular group of people. I used to hear from kids who didn’t think God had anything to say to them until someone gave them a Bible designed just for them.

But taken too far, the nichification of scripture can have unintended consequences, turning holy writ into a commodity, a “marketable item produced to satisfy [our] wants or needs.”

As any economist will tell you, a commodity’s value is determined by the market — i.e., you and me. Turning the Bible into something that’s tailored to suit my needs and interests puts me in the position of deciding how much value it has. Once a niche Bible ceases to be relevant to my immediate situation, its value is diminished.

Put another way, if we market the Bible like any other commodity, is it any wonder when people start treating it like one?

2. The disposable Bible

The commodity Bible was good for business (at least up to a point). If you can persuade someone to buy a Bible tailored to their particular demographic — whether it’s grandmothers or college students — once they move out of that demographic, they’re going to need a new Bible. So people started buying a lot more Bibles.

According to the Barna group, the average American household owns three Bibles. A quarter of all households own six or more. And of course, that’s not the whole picture, because it doesn’t count all the Bibles given away — or thrown away — when the time comes to upgrade to a newer model.

Bible publishers were masters of planned obsolescence way before Apple.

3. The accessory Bible

There was a time when your choice of Bible cover seemed to be shaped by the Henry Ford philosophy of car design: “Any customer can have any color he wants, so long as it’s black.” At least with Bibles, you also had your choice of burgundy, brown, navy blue, or perhaps avocado green.

Then, a little more than 10 years ago, Bible designers started playing with new materials and color combinations. Many of the designs they produced were stunning. Suddenly, people didn’t mind being seen in public with their Bibles.

Before long, there were more bindings, styles, and color choices than you could shake a stick at. The whole process of designing a Bible began to look more and more like something out of the fashion industry. There were even seasonal Bibles — a spring line and an autumn line.

The result? The Bible became yet another accessory, one you could color coordinate with your outfit, if you liked. But the thing about accessories is that they’re…well, accessories. They’re add-ons. Attachments. They’re not the sorts of thing you reorient your whole life around, which is what the Bible calls its readers to do.

4. The “have it your way” Bible

Commoditizing the Bible is no longer limited to the peripheral elements — study notes or the style of binding, for example. Now it’s affecting the scriptural text itself.

Some experts project there will be more than 100 new English Bible translations this century, more than three times the number that were produced over the last hundred years. Factor in the ongoing digital disruption, and we’re rapidly coming to a point where you’ll be able to create your own customized version of the Bible — something one technology expert aptly dubbed the Franken-Bible.

Don’t like the translators’ choice of wording? Swap it out for an alternate rendering in the footnotes. Or mix and match from all your favorite translations. You don’t even have to know Greek.

Celebrity pastors could make their own Bible versions with the push of a button and market them to their followers. Imagine that. Echo chambers everywhere, each equipped with their own Bible, tailored to their own distinctive theology.

* * *

This is where the freedom to dictate what kind of Bible I want is heading. But we don’t have to go there.

When I was still in commercial publishing, other conversations were taking place, too. People were starting to wonder aloud whether it’s good enough to just keep selling more Bibles, or if we also have some responsibility for what happens after the sale. Some of us went through an exercise where we asked what is and isn’t sacred about the modern Bible, and we realized many of the things we’d put in our Bibles, like chapter and verse numbers or red lettering, have unintended consequences for how we read — not all of them good. There were even some who suggested that maybe the time had come to start doing “fewer but better” Bibles.

All of this is to say, even at the center of the storm people are asking what can be done to correct some of the problems caused by the ongoing commoditization of the Bible.

It’s not too late to chart another course. It’s not too late to remember that while the Bible was given for us, that doesn’t make it ours to tailor as we see fit. Scripture, as it turns out, is not that interested in catering to my personal “felt needs.”

It’s not too late to remember that the Bible is not just another commodity — that the whole point of owning and reading the Bible is not so I can fit bits and pieces of it into my life, but so I can fit my life into its story.

It’s not too late.


Image courtesy of Bright Adventure.

Ben Irwin
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  • HildyJJ

    Perhaps the problem is not the number of bibles but the attitude towards the bible. For too many christians, the bible is a golden calf to be idolized rather than read. Reading it only causes them problems because they have been taught, and accept, that it is their god’s word, not their god’s message.

    As an example, in reading Genesis 1 and 2, one notes that the order of creation is different. A christian might wonder why god wrote two different stories (or, more realistically, they would ignore it). A jew, on the other hand, could turn to the commentaries that accompany the torah and, since they believe it a message rather than the word, accept, as Rashi puts it, that “the scripture did not come to teach the sequence of the creation.”

    The bible is an anthology of books, many of which were not created when they say they were created or by whom they say they were created. Furthermore, most of the actual writings capture oral tradition which was sometimes generations old. To confuse it further, many books were created for a specific audience and reason (which can be clearly seen in the gospels).

    A christian seeking meaning rather than a christening gift should seek out commentaries such as Bishop Spong’s but few will.

    The average christian is much more comfortable getting his bible readings from the pulpit; Jesus was right to label them sheep,

    • Pea-Tear

      “…seek out commentaries such as Bishop Spong’s…”

      As in John Shelby Spong? A dude who denies the resurrection, the virgin birth, even *theism* lol. That guy?
      Nobody should ever seek out his writings, lest they are seeking to be led away from the Gospel we received, as of ‘first importance’. Also Jesus, after ‘labelling them sheep’, labelled himself the shepherd. That’s my king =]

  • nwcolorist

    This paradox between the number of Bibles available and the public’s interest in it can be understood by the concept of supply and demand. The more of a particular item there is available, the less it’s valued, and it’s opposite, the less there is of it, the more value it assumes. During the communist control of Russia, when Bibles were illegal, great value was placed on possessing one. Stories about smuggling Bibles into the country, and the dangers involved, are well documented.

    Also a distinction should be made between the the Bible as a physical book and the contents. A book is just a medium through which the contents are passed along. It can be used to communicate just about any information. I suppose God could have waited until the internet age arrived to reveal His plan, or sent it out on complimentary CDs.

    I don’t see any harm in marketing these niche Bibles, as long as they are faithful translations.

    • Martin Hughes

      I would rather have a situation where people can see variant readings, of which there are many that are quite significant, than the situation of my childhood when the King James version was regarded as sacred and the whole nature of the Bible, as an ancient text with many of the same characteristics as others handed down from so long ago, hidden.

  • Adam Shields

    Isn’t this more about culture than the bible? By no long publishing specialized bibles you don’t restrict people’s desire for specialized products.

    And while I think it is great to memorize scripture, in our modern world most people will never memorize large portions because we have google and bibles on our phones.

    I think you have a point that we need to value scripture, but I am not sure you are identifying the problem, but rather a by product of the problem.

    • Pastor Wynn

      Adam, I understand your point concerning the readiness of Scripture availability (i.e., Google, Smartphones, etc). However, David said the point of memorizing the Scriptures (i.e., hiding it in our hearts), is that we “might not sin” against God (Psa. 119:11). Thus, the holy discipline of giving ourselves to the memorization of the Scriptures is still a required exercise.

      • Adam Shields

        Sorry I was not clear about my point. I agree that scripture memorization is good and a spiritual discipline. But it needs to be presented as a spiritual discipline not a cool trick.

        In our current world where we don’t memorize much of anything because we have things readily available on google and our ubiquitous cell phones, we should not expect people to readily or easily memorize large portions of scripture. And I think we need to be clear that it was never large percentages of people that were memorizing large portions of scripture. So we need to have realistic goals for people about scripture memorization and we need to present it as a spiritual discipline, not a reaction to having too many bibles sitting around.

  • AKEK

    I would add two others. First, corporate Bibles–texts owned by publishers that are not freely available. That is the good thing about the KJV. However, that benefit is outweighed by all its other drawbacks, especially the taste that it leaves in our culture’s mouth of irrelevance as well as its predating important scholarship that gives us much better texts today. So I would add the KJV to the list. To preserve the KJV’s benefit of openness while avoiding its overwhelming weaknesses, I advocate and use the NET Bible. Sorry, I know I just threw a burning match into a gas tank, but God’s word should be “as free as possible” and as well-translated as we know how to do.

  • Pastor Wynn

    Amen! You have accurately stated the issue. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • Guest

    New Bible translations should be called by the church, and not boardrooms of publishers responding to a perceived need (a response I suspect is spurred by the profit motive).