The Bible for Everyone – Immediate Impressions

The Bible for Everyone is a new translation based on Tom Wright’s excellent New Testament for Everyone, now with the Old Testament translated by John Goldingay.

I’ve had a copy of The Bible for Everyone, published July 2018, for just over 24 hours now.

It was a great moment when I discovered this. I’ve been reading Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone for a few years now, with some consistency, and have enjoyed its freshness and sense of narrative flow.

So I of course wanted an Old Testament to match this – readable, story-like, fresh and scholarly in its decisions.

Along comes The Bible for Everyone, and John Goldingay. I confess right away I’ve not read so much by Goldingay – I think I have a couple of commentaries, but these I haven’t touched much. So I can only comment on what I see in front of me as I look at this Bible. (I should mention of course that accompanying this from the start with Tom Wright’s translation was a commentary series, which Goldingay has continued.)

Right away, the Old Testament does look refreshingly different from what we’re used to in traditional versions in the English-speaking world. At last, a translation that renders ‘Yahweh’ on every single occasion that YHWH’s name is mentioned in the Hebrew text. Readers used to ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ which, in the Hebrew, have their own words (Adonai and El[ohim]) will be surprised but hopefully gain a clearer perspective on what is going on in the text as they read.

Secondly, only a glance at the opening lines of Genesis need inform us that passages we thought we were familiar with can be rendered otherwise and given new life:

At the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was an empty void, with darkness over the face of the deep, and God’s breath sweeping over the face of the water, God said, ‘Light!’ and light came into being.’

Genesis 1:1–3, TBFE – is that the official acronym?

Another nice feature, ancillary to the text: maps are dotted throughout the Old Testament, nicely designed and placed alongside the text where appropriate. A nice change from having to flip to the back of a Bible for a few basic, non-specific maps. With this one you get temple floor plans and city layouts along with the larger scale ones typical to a lot of Bibles, and all in-line where relevant to the text.

So far, so good. But a number of things are thrown up that are more curious.

First of all, all Hebrew names are rendered in a more transliterated form, rather than the (as Goldingay explains) Greek–Latin–English conversions we’ve all become used to. So Havvah is Eve, Mosheh is Moses; Yisra’el is Israel and Yehizqiyyahu is, well obviously, Hezekiah.

I dread coming to the genealogies.

Second, I question whether a chasuble is any less obscure than an ephod (Exodus 39 passim). I am not sure that ‘He grew before him like a sucker’ is a better rendition than the traditional ‘tender shoot’ (Isaiah 53:2). Is that an Americanism picked up by Goldingay, an Englishman who worked in the States? I’m not sure.

Third, passages with obscure meaning in the Hebrew that are usually, in traditional versions, ironed out into something more sensible are left, just, obscure. For example, Psalm 15:4 had me scratching my head:

In his [the righteous person’s] eyes a contemptible person is to be rejected, but he honours people who live in awe of Yahweh; he has sworn to bring about something bad and not changed it.

Psalm 15:4, TBFE – emphasis mine.

It took looking up another translation and commentary to figure out that the righteous person has sworn to bring about harm to himself if he doesn’t honour such people.

On each of these points, and more besides, Goldingay is clear concerning his intentions in his opening preface. And I personally don’t think I’ll find them to be insurmountable problems in reading, given as I am to a little scholarly digging from time to time, aware and resourced as I am with various translations and commentaries. But I raise them as objections because I think, were I in the SPCK marketing department, I’d have a slightly hard time selling this as a Bible for everyone.

I’m not, and they seem to be doing just fine. To offer an extra, possibly snide, remark, this Bible for everyone features a nice jacket cover that has faintly engraved a lot of names which can be read in certain lights: Bethan, Lorraine, Ronald, Georgia, Stanley, Jake, Jack, Karina, Savana, Simon, Ross, Vincent, Chelsea, Callum, Francis . . . if I went on you too might notice there’s no Gupta, Syed, Tinu, Olu, Babatunde, Samira, Vladimir, etc. etc. . .

Then there’s the pairing with Tom Wright’s New Testament. I don’t know if or how much Wright and Goldingay compared notes and ideas on translation. Tom Wright himself, having launched the project with his series and translation, and having been a scholar in first century Judaism, not doubt had a lot of thoughts, but might have humbly wanted to keep out of the picture, being chiefly a New Testament scholar (though I know he is certainly capable of translating Hebrew).

I suspect if he had translated the Old Testament, we wouldn’t have what we have with Goldingay’s translation. Perhaps that’s really what I wanted – an Old Testament by Tom Wright.

With all of Jesus’ insistent calling himself the ‘son of man’, with Tom Wright’s translation and scholarship bringing out the importance of that title, it always surprises me to find another translation that choose not to render Psalm 8:4 or Daniel 7:13 with this term, choosing instead ‘human being’. Especially in a translation that chooses ‘chasuble’ over ‘ephod’, and isn’t always exclusively gender neutral. But that’s one example of a mismatch that I’ve discovered as I’ve browsed it over the past day.

Overall the language too still feels like it might be a little less readable than Wright’s very accessible English of the new. This is because of Goldingay’s aforementioned translation choices, not wanting to bypass obscurities in the Hebrew. But where it can go colloquial, it does, yielding what in the end feels like a drunken walk in a straight line:

Yahweh spoke to Mosheh: ‘See, I’ve called for Betsal’el ben Uri, son of Uri, of the clan of Yehudah, by name. I’ve filled him with a divine spirit, with smartness, with discernment and with knowledge, in any workmanship, for making designs so as to make things with gold, with silver and with copper, in cutting stone for mountings and in carving wood, for working any craft.

And I: here, I have put with him Oholi’ab . . . and into the mind of everyone who is smart in mind I have put smartness, so they can make everything . . . ‘

Exodus 31:1–6, TBFE

In summary of my initial thoughts on the translation: all the idiosyncrasies seem to be self-confessed and executed self-aware, but I wonder if they make for a Bible for Everyone. Time will tell how I feel after reading this Old Testament for a while – I may report back.

And I should add that I’m treading on the toes of commendations from erudite scholars on this translation, which praise the glimpse it offers on the language, culture and worldview of ancient Israel, as well as its pastoral insight and linguistic scholarship. I comment as the lay person, as ‘everyone’. I suspect I’ll discover many wonders here as I read.

There’s certainly a lot to like about this Bible. It definitely is fresher to read than most other traditional versions (I’m most used to the NASB and New English Translation). The text is set out nicely which should help me as I aim to keep reading larger chunks to get into the ‘narratival flow’ of Scripture. It sure is chunky as a hardback – again, not for everyone, but it’s available on Kindle, and perhaps they’ll release a paperback one at some point.

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