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Bible? Obviously. English? Mostly. Common? I Wouldn’t Count on It

I’m grateful to have received a complimentary copy of the Common English Bible (New Testament) from the publishers. The 115 scholars who produced the CEB translate the text thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word. It is thus closer in overall style and readability to the New International Version than the New Revised Standard Version or the King James Version. Like the NRSV and unlike the NIV, the CEB translators, reviewers, and editors largely represent mainline Protestant denominations, although scholars from other faith traditions—Roman Catholicism, some more conservative Protestant denominations (Nazarenes, Evangelical Free Church), and Reform Judaism—were also involved. The translation is sponsored by an alliance of denominational publishers including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, The United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ.

My first impression of my review copy is that this is a beautiful Bible. The two-tone leather cover looks classy but still modern. The text is arranged in one column per page rather than the usual two, so it looks more like what people today assume a book should look like. Old Testament quotations are italicized and footnoted. The maps in the back are produced by the National Geographic Society, which should speak for itself.

The translation is generally quite readable and seems to be mostly accurate. I did a quick spot-check on some of my favorite cruces interpretum and found that, though I might have preferred a different rendering of a Greek expression here or there, the CEB renderings are well within the parameters of mainstream scholarship. The generous use of contractions gives the CEB a more conversational tone, which is to be commended. I also commend them for including the Apocryphal/Deuteroncanonical books in their full translation, slated to become available next year.

Some readers may find certain wordings disorienting because they don’t echo the Tyndale-Geneva Bible-King James style they may have grown up with. Some of these may be overlooked, but others seem to me rather jarring. Glossing ὑιός ἀνθρώπου as “Human” or “the Human One” rather than the more traditional (and literal) “Son of Man” doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s not that I think “Son of Man” sounds like natural, fluent English; it’s just that I don’t see “the Human One” as an improvement.

The way CEB handles weights and measures is inconsistent and sometimes mystifying. First the inconsistent: linear and spatial dimensions are converted into feet and inches, thus eliminating archaic units of measure such as cubits, rods, etc. Terms for measurements of weight and capacity, however, are transliterated rather than translated, so we still get homers, baths, and talents in the text, with a footnote to the approximate U.S. English equivalent. The same procedure is followed for monetary values.

I’m not sure why linear measurements are handled differently than the rest. If feet and inches are good enough for the English text, why not gallons, pints, ounces, and pounds? Conversely, it seems something rather important is lost in the CEB translation of Revelation 21:15-17, for example:

The angel who spoke to me had a golden measuring rod with which to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. Now the city was laid out as a square. Its length was the same as its width. He measured the city with the rod, and it was fifteen hundred miles. Its length and width and height were equal. He also measured the thickness of its wall. It was two hundred sixteen feet thick, as a person—or rather, an angel—measures things.

The Greek text says,

καὶ ὁ λαλῶν μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ εἶχεν μέτρον κάλαμον χρυσοῦν, ἵνα μετρήσῃ τὴν πόλιν καὶ τοὺς πυλῶνας αὐτῆς καὶ τὸ τεῖχος αὐτῆς. καὶ ἡ πόλις τετράγωνος κεῖται, καὶ τὸ μῆκος αὐτῆς ὅσον [καὶ] τὸ πλάτος. καὶ ἐμέτρησεν τὴν πόλιν τῶ καλάμῳ ἐπὶ σταδίων δώδεκα χιλιάδων· τὸ μῆκος καὶ τὸ πλάτος καὶ τὸ ὕψος αὐτῆς ἴσα ἐστίν. καὶ ἐμέτρησεν τὸ τεῖχος αὐτῆς ἑκατὸν τεσσεράκοντα τεσσάρων πηχῶν, μέτρον ἀνθρώπου, ὅ ἐστιν ἀγγέλου.

The one who was speaking with me had a golden measuring rod, so that he could measure the city and its gates and its wall. The city is laid out as a square, with its length the same as its width. With the rod he measured the city to twelve thousand stadia—its length and width and height are equal. He measured its wall to be one hundred forty-four cubits by normal human (or angelic) measurement.

Most people ought to know that numbers have symbolic significance in the book of Revelation, and it is therefore unfortunate that these measurements of the heavenly city in multiples of twelve don’t come through in translation. (The NRSV likewise has 1,500 miles, but does preserve the 144 cubits. The NIV preserves both original measurements.) Obviously, the archaic units are not always this significant. But sometimes they are.

The mystifying part comes in the front matter, where the translators provide a list of “weights and measures.” Fortunately, most of these do not seem to appear anywhere in the actual CEB text. I say “fortunately” because some of the chosen transliterations of Greek terms are, frankly, barbaric. These forms seem to be consistently relegated to the footnotes, but I can’t fathom how anyone arrived at some of them at all!

I must say, however, that I do (usually) appreciate the effort the translators do take to render these archaic units, especially those dealing with money, in understandable terms. For example, Luke 19:12-13, 15-19:

A certain man who was born into royalty went to a distant land to receive his kingdom and then return. He called together ten servants and gave each of them money worth four months’ wages. He said, “Do business with this until I return.” … After receiving his kingdom, he returned and called the servants to whom he had given the money to find out how much they had earned. The first servant came forward and said, “Your money has earned a return of one thousand percent.” The king replied, “Excellent! You are a good servant. Because you have been faithful in a small matter, you will have authority over ten cities.

The second servant came and said, “Master, your money has made a return of five hundred percent.” To this one, the king said, “You will have authority over five cities.” ….

The footnote in the CEB gives the literal meaning in verse 13 as “He divided ten minas among them.” Therefore, each servant received one mina, and that accounts for the percentage increases given in the second part of the parable rather than saying “ten minas” and “five minas.” I think this is a clever way to avoid bogging readers down with unfamiliar units of currency. Not even the New Living Translation does so well.

I do take exception, however, to rendering “talent” (or “talanta,” if you absolutely insist) as “valuable coin,” as in Matthew 25:15-18. A “talent” was a unit of weight equal to 60 minas or about 75 U.S. pounds. Not only is that coin valuable, it will rip a hole in your pocket! The NLT’s “bags of gold” suggests a more accurate picture, though perhaps a rough approximation of spending power like “money worth nearly twenty years’ wages” is preferable to both.

I also happened to notice Hebrews 2:7: “For awhile you made them lower than angels. You crowned the human being with glory and honor.” Now, this is simply not good English. The correct phrase, “for a while,” appears at Mark 6:31; Luke 8:13; 18:4; John 5:35, and probably elsewhere, so let’s hope this was a simple typographical error that will be corrected in later editions.

The Common English Bible is so named with conscious reference to the fact that this term was used in nineteenth-century America of the King James Version because it was the most widely used English translation of the Christian Scriptures. No doubt its translators hope the CEB will some day come close to that standard, but it will not. Simply put, there are already too many English translations on the market. If the CEB is intended to provide its denominational publishing houses with an easy to read translation for which they don’t have to pay royalties, then I suppose it will serve its purpose. But people who want a generally solid dynamic-equivalence translation already have the NIV—and those who object to the NIV’s gender-inaccurate readings can wait for the updated 2011 edition! Some prefer the even looser NLT, which is a fine Bible for most uses. Those who want a formal-equivalence translation have the New American Standard Bible to use as a study Bible and either the KJV, English Standard Version, or NRSV to read in church.

For these reasons, I’m underwhelmed with the CEB. It’s a decent translation, though not without its irritating quirks. Mainly, however, there are simply other English translations that do everything I would want the CEB to do. If you write curriculum for a mainline denomination, you’ll probably want to pick up a copy in case they decide at some point to go with the CEB instead of the NRSV for the print passage in their materials. Otherwise, I’m not sure I can justify telling you the CEB is worth the bother.

Sighted Elsewhere:

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1 Comment

  1. amy says:

    If your readers are interested, the CEB has a really good website with free downloads of Genesis, Psalms, Matthew and luke, a passage lookup tool that covers the entire New Testament and a blog written by the publishers that addresses many of the more unconventional translation choices: http://www.commonenglishbible.com It’s worth exploring.

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