Monday, January 23, 2012

The strange silence of the bible #CEBtour

A few months ago, I embarked on a journey reading and evaluating the new Common English Translation of the Bible. Since the bible is such a big book, it can take quite a while to actually get into the swing of evaluating a new translation. Typically, I have found the easiest way to compare two translations is to simply open them up, side by side, and read passages one at a time, back and forth between the two translations. It is work mostly for the eye and the mind.

I have compared new translations with the NRSV before, and have typically found them wanting. As a result, the NRSV has remained my default and preferred bible translation. It is the translation most commonly in use in our denomination, it is a translation widely respected by scholars as well as the ecumenical Christian community. It is translated by "verbal equivalence," a style of translation common among some of the most respected bible translations such as the NIV, ESV, and KJV.

When I picked up the CEB, something about it caught my attention in a way no other translation had before. Since the NRSV truly is my heart translation, and the translation most common in our churches, it takes something really special to create a tipping point. I've never been attracted to paraphrase bibles like The Message or the New Living Translation, because generally speaking they represent the ideology and perspective of the translator more than the original text. And although I like word-for-word translations for study (like the NASB)--for devotional use, or use in groups or reading aloud, they lack that certain je ne sais quois.

A few weeks ago, I actually became convinced the CEB was worth experimenting with as a substitute or even a replacement for the NRSV. I've always struggled with the high level of English in the NRSV. It is difficult for children, and even many adults, to understand because it is translated at what language experts call level 11. The CEB, on the other hand, is written at level 7.

Another way to understand this is to say the CEB is translated into the English of USA Today, whereas the NRSV is written at the level expected of someone entering college.

The CEB is also verbal equivalence plus common english. This means the translators use contractions, and make other choices that ensure that the bible "reads" like people would speak common english today. If you'd like to understand this terminology better, and compare various translations and their approaches, there are some good charts out there.

So about three weeks ago we started using the CEB as our primary text for lectionary readings during worship. As much as I'd like to be able to make a decision about a translation simply by eyeballing it, the truth is that the bible was written to be heard, and it is impossible to tell whether it is a good translation until you are hearing it read out loud regularly.

Donald H. Juel, one of my favorite bible teachers, writes about this in a little essay he wrote before his untimely death a decade ago. The essay has been collected in a new volume of his work, Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. It's a spectacular little volume, and I'm saddened that Juel isn't still available to teach in our seminaries. His was a bright light.

His essay's title is, "The Strange Silence of the Bible." He points out, "For most people in the church, the Bible is part of an oral/aural culture. For scholars, the Bible is studied largely in a silent world" (35). I can mistakenly assume that judgments concerning the relative merits of translations can be made while reading silently. When we started reading the CEB in worship, I realized the only way to really judge a bible translation is by how it sounds.

This is probably why a better way of describing these translations is they focus on "verbal equivalence" rather than "dynamic equivalence." Sometimes even what you write might not be as equivalent when read aloud than when written. The difference between spoken word and written word is important.

As we have been reading the CEB in our worship, I note two things. First, I don't think very many people have noticed that we have switched. The bible simply isn't that familiar to people anymore, so for those who don't have a "heart" translation in mind, whatever we read is always new to them, rather than a replacement for a familiar text.

However, a few folks more familiar with the NRSV have commented on the new translation. They notice a few phrases that simply don't ring the same way (the most recent was in Mark 1, where God says speaking of his Son Jesus in the NRSV, "With him I am well pleased," whereas in the CEB it says, "In him I find happiness."

What I notice myself is that the readings are easier to follow when I'm listening to them, especially if I put down my bulletin and just listen.

All of us always still have work to do practicing our reading of the bible out loud in public worship. There are better and worse ways to do this. It is unfortunate that our choirs rehearse, and pastors agonize over their sermons, but lectors do a lot less (generally speaking) to prepare their reading of the Scriptures in public worship.

I intend to offer a Lectors Boot Camp some time this spring to address issues around the public reading of Scripture, because it really does matter how we read. It is a kind of performance, and rehearsal helps.

Juel has this to say about rhetoric and the public reading of Scripture,

"Students at Princeton Seminary must take a year-long required course in speech. One facet of the course is devoted to public reading of the Scriptures. Students begin with a passage like the account of Belshazzar's feast in Daniel 5 and are asked to 'play' with different ways of reading the story. Resistance is great among most students who may not know the Bible but have a fixed notion of how it should be read--usually with great reverence and solemnity, but with very little inflection. The course aims to give them a greater sense of the possibility of the spoken word and of their options as readers. Their exercises include attention to the wide variety of literary genres from narratives to psalms to letters, while exploring oral means appropriate to the public performance of such material. In view of my own experience as a member of congregations where Bible reading is a regular feature of worship and yet is almost never interesting or engaging, I can only applaud such efforts."

We will continue our CEB experiment through this spring, hearing this translation for a while to get a sense of how it "plays" in Christian worship. I have not yet decided whether to keep it or revert to the NRSV (although I suspect it is the first translation ever that is giving the NRSV a run for the money), but I do know we will only be able to judge whether it is worth retaining through regular and weekly hearing of it rehearsed and heard and sung and shouted and whispered in public worship. The bible was written for such.

* You can follow tweets on the the CEB Blog tour at #CEBtour

** In this year of the gospel of Mark, there are two essays in the Juel volume on Mark (Juel focused his scholarship on this gospel) that are worth their weight in gold. Buy the book you won't be disappointed.


  1. I can give away one free bible per week on a first come first serve basis. Post here if you wish me to send you one, with your mailing address.

    Also, I recently learned that two of my former bible professors from seminary were instrumental in translating the CEB. Mark Throntveit translated 1 and 2 Chronicles. Craig Koester was the primary translator of Revelation.

  2. Anonymous10:56 AM

    I picked up a copy recently and have been reading it, and have been enjoying the CEB. The CEB is also available on the YouVersion mobile app. I was trying out the Message since many in my church use it, but I wanted something that is not so much one person's interpretation.

    I am going to start using the CEB for our online compline service in Second Life. I will let you know what people think of it!

  3. Thanks, Cao! I'll try to join you for Compline one of these evenings soon, and if anyone wants to join us, message me and I can help you get to St. Matthew's-by-the-Sea.

  4. Hi Clint,

    I saw your post on the ELCA facebook page about the CEB. I'm a soon-to-be seminarian interested in contemporary worship, so informal translations are always helpful. The Message works fine most of the time, but as you said, I would love to find something based on more than one person's perspective. I'm intrigued by the CEB for that reason. Do you still have a Bible to give away this week? I'd love to check it out. Thanks! (you can email me for my mailing address,

  5. Anonymous7:39 AM

    i dont agree on reading all of those new bible they comeout with because God said in the last chapter of revelation not to change the word of god, not even the dot.

  6. Then I assume you read the bible in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic manuscripts (please share, we'd all love to see those) or you don't read the bible at all. :)