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The American Bible Society, the Good News Bible, and Missiology

Recently at a LifeWay chapel service, we hosted Dr. Lamar Vest, who is the President and CEO of the American Bible Society. I had the privilege of introducing Dr. Vest, and, while doing so, I shared a bit of my own background and how I was impacted by the American Bible Society.

As a new young believer, I would order Bibles in different languages from the American Bible Society to share with friends who spoke those different languages. I also collected a few of those Bibles on my own, and valued and appreciated the contribution of the American Bible Society to the distribution of the word. The American Bible Society continues its ongoing passion for making the Bible available, understandable, and read by people all over the world. It has a particular interest in Bible engagement, not just Bible distribution, but how people read, dig deeper and are changed by the Bible.

However, what many people do not know is that the American Bible Society is behind a Bible translation, and there are actually missiological impulses that undergird their translation.

After I introduced Dr. Vest, one of my fellow employees, Steve Bond (who serves as senior editorial director for Holman Bibles and Bible reference at B&H Publishing Group), sent me an email that gave me more specific background information on how the Good News Bible translation was actually created.

Before I get there, let me start with a bit of my journey. I first started to read the Bible using a Good News Bible (I believe it was in a “Good News for Modern Man” version, and my guess is that many of my readers did the same.) It was accessible, it was simple, and as a young man I first read the New Testament in that paperback version.

The American Bible Society was behind that translation due to a missiology conversation that I thought was worth sharing.

Eugene Nida is a key part of the Good News Bible journey. In my Ph.D. work on missiology, we spent a lot of time understanding and engaging with Nida’s views on Bible translation. (If you are interested, I explain more about him and his views of Dynamic Equivalence here.) In this case, his engagement with the Good News Bible was also personal.

The story of the Bible comes back to some conversations between Nida and Wendell Belew of the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board and my former employer). On November 19, 1961, Belew wrote to Nida asking if ABS could produce a translation that would be understandable by a person with a fourth grade education. Nida turned to former missionary Robert Bratcher, who completed the actual translation.

A senior general secretary of ABS, Laton E. Holmgren, once said: The “Good News Bible” is not intended to take the place of the older translations, “but is designed to attract people to Bible reading who have found these standard translations difficult or obscure in places.”

The story can be found in full on the ABS Bible Resource Center website, as well as in this edition of Baptist Press (the article begins on page 2).

It’s a fascinating story, but it undergirds a very important reality. The reason we have Bible translations is so that people can engage the Bible in their own language, culture, and reading level. Thus, Bible translations are not simply scholarly undertakings, but are actually missiological undertakings– as Nida helped all to see.

Of course, that led (and still leads) to debate and controversy. The “translator is a traitor” is always true (the phrase comes from the Latin phraze, “traduttore, traditore,” a common phrase that expresses the hard work of Bible translation and how much is lost in translation. (In the coming days, I will share more on translation philosophy and approach, but I thought this was an interesting history I would share with you.)

I’m grateful to Steve for sharing this personal detail (and sending the links). And I am grateful for a letter from Wendell Belew, who simply wanted to share the good news of the gospel. And, I am thankful that people cared enough to help a kid start reading the Bible.

That was good news for modern man!

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