Thursday, April 19, 2012

Paraphrase Bibles

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about story/paraphrase Bibles:

Q:  Are alternative formats for the Bible a good tool for Christians to use?  What does one gain or lose by using a chronological or story Bible or a paraphrase instead of a typical translation?

Probably the earliest alternative Bible formats to be produced were intended to be used with children.  Picture Bibles were produced for children who had not yet learned to read, and illustrated Bible Story Books were produced for children in the process of learning to read.  Some of these books, particularly the older hand-illustrated ones, are beautiful works of art which also served as excellent teaching tools for introducing the Bible to children at a young age and beginning their instruction in the Faith.

More recently, books have begun to appear for adults which place excerpts from the Bible in chronological order formatted as a story or a novel.  One thing that people often find challenging when first interacting with Scripture is that it consists of several different genres arranged thematically rather than chronologically.  So the Old Testament begins with all of the history books, continues with the poetic writings, then concludes with the record of the prophets.  Likewise the New Testament is divided into the four Gospels and the Epistles (letters), with the books of Acts (history) and Revelation (prophecy) included as the fifth and last books respectively. 

The authors of chronological or story Bibles intend to make the Bible easier to understand by smoothing these various genres into a continuous narrative and placing them in chronological order, and pastors may find some beneficial uses for these attempts, such as guiding a new believer through the Bible for the first time, much like parents might use a picture Bible or Bible story book with their children.

These Bibles do serve to remind us something that has sometimes been overlooked in the most recent era of Christianity—that, beyond being a source of inspirational quotes and proof-texts for doctrine, the Bible is a record of God’s actions from creation until the death of St. John the Evangelist to rescue humanity from the deserved punishment for our rebellion against Him. 

However, this style of Bible does have its weaknesses.  The first of these is that it does not include the whole story.  Because an editor has chosen the highlights of the story, the reader is at his mercy to choose which parts of the Bible are more or less important than others.  This means that bias of the editor may result in overemphasis on certain minor themes or the omission of important details not favored by the editor.

Additionally, since these editions of the Bible are not translations of the Bible text but paraphrases, one is reading the paraphraser’s impressions of a given verse or story rather than the actual text of the Scriptures.  This was a criticism often leveled against early paraphrases of the Bible such as The Living Bible or the Good News Bible, because the biases of the paraphraser can cloud the understanding of the reader.  While this is a concern with any translation of the Bible other than the original Greek and Hebrew, the concern is amplified when dealing with a paraphrase. 

When one considers that some of the popular translations of the Bible have been rated at a 7th grade reading level, and even the King James Version is evaluated to be readable for the average high-school Senior, paraphrasing the text seems unnecessary.  This is one reason that, until recently, most seminaries required a working knowledge of at least Greek, and usually Hebrew, for every man who desired to become a parish pastor—so that he would be able to assist his parishioners in passages that may be difficult to understand or to translate concisely. 

Some pastors may find that chronological or story Bibles have a limited benefit for introducing the broad outline of the Bible for some people under their instruction, but because the various parts of the Bible are so intricately intertwined and interdependent, it would be difficult for a reader to gain a mature understanding of the Bible or a full appreciation for its depth using only such resources. 

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