Then god said "Hey! Don't eat that apple, okay?"
April 23, 2010 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Is there a version (translation?) of the bible written in plain, contemporary english?

As someone raised completely without religious instruction, I like I'm missing references and understanding that other people take for granted. I've tried reading bibles I've come across over the years but I always get bogged down in the language and formatting. I don't care about denominations and versions and such. I do want the whole thing, not some over-simplified kid's version. Bonus points if there is an academic or secular orientation to its editing. Bonus points too for an interpretive accompanying text.

After reviewing previous help-me-read-the-bible questions, I see I need to emphasize the plain-language part of my question. What I'm after is almost like a Cliffs-notes treatment.
posted by werkzeuger to Religion & Philosophy (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yep. It's called The Message.
posted by carsonb at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2010

The Message Bible might be worth looking into.
posted by miratime at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2010

Sorry, that should be "I feel like I'm missing references..."
posted by werkzeuger at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2010

...too late!
posted by miratime at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2010

Bible Gateway will let you look up a passage and then compare across numerous versions. Pick which one you like! The only foreseeable problem w/r/t references is that quotes in the social ether tend to come out of the KJV, although I may be wrong.
posted by griphus at 7:27 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might also consider the New American Standard version (see Ps. 23 for an example of the language). If it's supporting materials you are looking for, study bibles usually contain copious footnotes and marginalia, though they will tend to support the theological POV of the editors.
posted by jquinby at 7:27 AM on April 23, 2010

You should also know that there ARE Cliffs notes for the Bible. They were (and I promise I'm not making this up) required reading for my high school AP English class back in the day, with the specific goal of not missing references/allusions. At the time, we read separate Old Testament and New Testament*, but a very brief search on Amazon indicates that it's available all in one now.

*Old joke popular amongst Jews: "Nu, a sequel you wrote??"
posted by JMOZ at 7:27 AM on April 23, 2010

Part one: Latin

Part two: Latin Bible redefined

Part three: Latin verbs become apparent, via syntax
posted by Mblue at 7:28 AM on April 23, 2010

A word of caution about The Message: it isn't actually a translation. It's a paraphrase. Wikipedia has some passage comparisons.

While The Message is obviously an easy read, it tends to play very free and loose with metaphor and imagery. As this is actually a pretty huge part of what Scripture is doing a lot of the time*, and The Message tends to flatten these out, if not choosing different metaphors entirely. Each individual passage may be presented in clearer language, but this comes at the expense of seeing how passages fit together.

In addition, many passages lend themselves to multiple layers of meaning, and by paraphrasing, The Message generally tends to go with only one of these.

In short: if you like Eugene Peterson's take on the Bible, it can be at least minimally helpful, but understand that what you're getting really is his take on the Bible rather than an attempt to present the Bible in its own words.

For your purposes, The Message may be uniquely unsuitable, as it differs so strongly from canonical expressions of Scriptural texts that you'll almost certainly continue to miss references in other contexts.

My recommendation: Go with the English Standard Version. Most classic quotes from the Bible in English are from the King James Version (or Authorized Version), but the language there is indeed rather archaic. The ESV is definitely in contemporary English, but retains enough similarities to the original languages that you'll at least notice when someone is quoting the Bible even if it sounds different than what you're used to.

*What is water? Bread? Light? All of these are rich with meaning throughout Scripture.
posted by valkyryn at 7:35 AM on April 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

Not sure if this is exactly what you mean, but I think a lot of the biblical idioms and phrases that are still in use today refer to directly to traditional Bible translations. So, a translation like The Message will take colorful (if not always linguistically accurate to the original) terms that you'd find in KJV and convert them to kinda banal modern vernacular, often leaving very little trace of the what made the verse so quotable in the first place.

For instance, if you wanted to look up the whole reference to the phrase "pearls before swine" found in Matthew 7:6, The Message will give you "Don't be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don't reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you're only being cute and inviting sacrilege." while KJV will tell you "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."

So, The Message might be ideal for translating the import of the text, but if you don't have one already I'd pick up a KJV (you can find 'em for like a dollar at virtually any thrift store) just to also get the full literary reference.
posted by hegemone at 7:39 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or, what valkyryn said.
posted by hegemone at 7:40 AM on April 23, 2010

What about a companion text/textbook written in plain, contemporary language to help you through a translation? The "easy" translations are almost always "dumbed down" too far, so that you won't get the references. The richness is in the details.

I like Stephen L. Harris's "Understanding the Bible," which is a popular textbook for college intro courses on the Bible. He writes from a non-theological point of view, but with a vast knowledge of the various theological interpretations. It's very focused on appreciating the Bible as a literary and historical document with a wealth of information for scholars. You might do best reading the Harris chapter on, say, Judges, and then reading Judges in one of the popular, well-regarded translations like the NACB or the NRSV.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:58 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had the same aims and chose The New Oxford Annotated. It was written for secular academics, and the annotations are generally pretty helpful.
posted by phrontist at 8:13 AM on April 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding what valkyryn said. The Message is not a translation. ESV is the way to go.
posted by yoyoceramic at 8:20 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, note that reading the entire bible is a major project.
The bible (KJV) contains 788K words (Ref.)
This is more than War and Peace or (l'havdil) Atlas Shrugged, which weigh in at about 500K words each (and are much easier reads, too) (Ref.)
And reading the bible without exegeses will miss much of the message.

It's easy to be fooled because most bibles are printed on very thin paper in tiny type, so the book is of 'normal' size.

The quick solution is to just google "famous bible quotes" and skim the results.
Or, for a taste, try just Genesis (the first book of the bible)
posted by hexatron at 8:28 AM on April 23, 2010

I've read another paraphrase - I think it was "the Living Bible" mentioned in the "differences in bible translations" section of the wiki page. It had less contemporary slang and was just ordinary language, but I remember finding it very funny when I was a snot-nosed kid finding ways to make fun of religion, since it really was like "and then god said, hey buddy, don't do that" and it just seemed hilarious to me.

However, when studying or trying to understand religion, I did find it useful as a secondary reference - read a real translation (one translated from the ancient languages, unlike these ones which are based on already translated text) but if you aren't sure what's meant, check the popular paraphrase.
posted by mdn at 8:31 AM on April 23, 2010

Would an annotated Bible do?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:39 AM on April 23, 2010

When I was in Catholic School, the Good News bible was what we used. What little I read in it seemed more readable than the King James.

You can't get too bogged down in detail, however, because everyone who translates a bible has their own interpretation going on.

There is a crazy lady that is on in the middle of the night on one of the local UHF channels- I think she used to be a porn star- and most of her schtick is exploring the different meanings of the different words and how they have been translated over the years. It is delightfully brain-scrambling.
posted by gjc at 8:45 AM on April 23, 2010

The New Oxford is a good translation; I think the annotated version would be useful for your purposes.
posted by devinemissk at 9:03 AM on April 23, 2010

Personally, I have picked up a lot of the stories I missed out on by not having religious instruction from reading my kids The Beginners' Bible. It's in kid-level language ("When Isaac saw Rebekah, he fell in love with her. Soon, they got married. Isaac and Rebekah had twin boys names Esau and Jacob.") so it would probably be pretty tiresome to actually read much in one sitting. But it's been very fruitful for me!
posted by not that girl at 9:12 AM on April 23, 2010

The New Living Translation (NLT) should be what you're looking for.
posted by lazydog at 9:20 AM on April 23, 2010

The Bible's not like the Quran or even the Collected Works of some author. It isn't one book -- at least, that's probably not a helpful way to think about it. It is more like 70 (ish-there are some books that are not universally accepted), covering a wide variety of voices, times and genres.

It contains, to give you a taste, Ancient Near East books of legal code (Deuteronomy, Leviticus); creation-myths and national founding-myths (Genesis, Exodus, the books of the Kings and Chronicles); songs and poems (the Psalms, Song of Songs), philosophical reflections (Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon); and prophetic screeds (what we now call, after the prophet Jeremiah, jeremiads). Uh, that's just in the Christian Old Testament / the Jewish scriptures.

The New Testament contains the four Gospels, which are accounts of Jesus' life; the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church; various letters that St Paul and others wrote in the generation or two after Jesus; and St John's crazy vision, the Apocalypse (or Revelation).

So, my advice to you: Get a Bible, any bible. New Oxford Standard's great, scholarly. King James is beautiful but a bit archaic -- it's Shakespeare-era English. New International is widely available but a bit bland to my ears.

Next: You may be able to find at the library some novice-level introductions to various books. If you can get one of NT Wright's "The New Testament for Everyone" series of books, do it. He's of that rare breed of scholars in a highly controversial field who manages to be readable, fair-minded and erudite.

As for what book in the Bible you should start with? Depends. I find the Old Testament stuff more difficult to understand, since it's coming out of a more distant culture (the ancient Near East in the late Iron Age), whereas the New Testament texts were mostly written in historical, classical times -- generally accepted to date from the mid-first century to the early second century, if I recall correctly, the period of the early Roman Empire: though the dating of the texts is a highly controversial subfield!

Maybe start with Luke-Acts. That's a two-volume work: Luke's Gospel is his account of the life of Jesus and the Acts is his sequel, the account of the life of the early church. That will give you a good context for reading the rest of the New Testament. If you're more into literary stuff, poems, philosophy: Psalms. Ecclesiastes. Like short stories? The book of Esther. The books of the Maccabees.

But read this stuff. Enjoy it. It was the foundational text of Western civilization for a thousand years, so if you think you catch an allusion to something, you probably do. Trust your gut.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:40 AM on April 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

I appreciate the caution about The Message, but I want to reiterate that it is archaic language that has given me so much trouble in the past, so it has definite appeal. I'm truly ignorant of the content of the bible, something many people have a hard time wrapping their head around, so I'm looking to just get a gist of the stories. I don't want to undertake a long study of fine shades of meaning or debates about translation. I'm not going to pick up just any bible and try to plow through it, or extensively cross-reference different versions with each other.

Thanks for all the helpful answers!
posted by werkzeuger at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2010

Mrs. werkzeuger, who has more experience in this topic than me, has explained that my question is actually a very difficult one to answer because interpretation is intrinsic to reading the bible, and maybe want I want doesn't really exsist. But I wanted to say I really respect everyone's answers and the time they're taking to make them!
posted by werkzeuger at 10:24 AM on April 23, 2010

The highest-favorited comment in this thread says "The Message may be uniquely unsuitable, as it differs so strongly from canonical expressions of Scriptural texts that you'll almost certainly continue to miss references in other contexts." (emphasis added). I strongly believe that you would be making a very big mistake to use The Message for your stated purposes. It has all the drawbacks of a paraphrase (there are references that are just GONE - there is no Jacob's Ladder in The Message because the editors replaced it with stairs) and almost none of the benefits of a paraphrase (it's still several thousand pages).

valkyryn recomended the English Standard Version. Compare "You're not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it's going to blaze hot and high, God's fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what's coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God's side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!" (Romans 2:5-8 The Message) with "But because of your hard and impenitent heart* you are storing up wrath* for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works*: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." (Romans 2:5-8 English Standard Version). A few important references here: one is the continued theme of the evils of "hard-heartedness" that date back at least to Exodus and Pharoah (which underscores the importance in Christianity of the two greatest commandments - loving God and loving other people), another is the continued theme of wrath as being something that is stored up ("grapes of wrath" is a biblical reference), the last implicates important theological differences in Western Christianity -- Luther famously said that man is justified by faith alone, while Catholicism holds that man is justified by faith and (or expressed through) works. The Message misses all three of these. This isn't "modern english" vs "archaic english" -- it's Neil Gaiman's Beowulf to Seamus Hannity's Beowulf.

If what you want is a very basic background understanding of Bible stories, you can do it much faster and easier than The Message will permit. If what you want is to stop missing references and gain understanding, you need a decent translation in modern English, several of which have been listed here.
posted by thesmophoron at 11:38 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might find art a useful inroad. Hey, it worked for me!

Take, say these books. There are countless others like them; your local library probably has something along those lines. Definitely worth a flip-through.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:00 PM on April 23, 2010

You might actually really enjoy LISTENING to the Bible ... much of it comes out of oral cultures, and much of it was intended to be read aloud ... you may find the language easier to understand with a human voice interpreting it. You could listen in the car while commuting or at the gym or something. You can get complete mp3 recordings pretty cheaply. Someone just came out with a hugely produced recording with lots of celebrity voices reading the parts, all very well vocally-acted, I've heard. Music and everything. That would probably help move you along and get you the basics of the stories without getting too bogged down in the language. Just an alternative idea!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:15 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest you combine the best of both worlds. Purchase a Message parallel Bible. They basically run The Message and a Biblical translation (NIV, NASB, NKJV, etc.) side-by-side so that reading the original is just a brief eye movement away. My father has one.
posted by WCityMike at 12:48 PM on April 23, 2010

Argh, forgot handy-dandy linkage.
posted by WCityMike at 12:49 PM on April 23, 2010

I'll also note that The Message has some fairly heavy debate over it that you're seeing come out in thesmophoron's response.

Personally, I found it fulfilled the purpose it suggested -- its language certainly felt more "alive" and contemporaneous -- but after getting a ways into it, I found as I read passages that I felt the "paraphrasing" seemed to distort the meaning more than I was comfortable with, and I'm not even Christian.

In short, I ended up feeling as if reading it really wasn't reading the Bible, and I thought that if I was going to put the effort required into such a long text, I didn't feel that the Message would adequately serve my purpose of wanting to read the Bible.
posted by WCityMike at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2010

I have the same concerns about the Message that were given above. I like a lot of Peterson's other books, but to me the Message completely misses the mark again and again, and often winds up obscuring the point of the text in its attempt to clarify it.

I haven't spent much time with the ESV, although people I respect say good things about it, so I'll sort of "nth" that suggestion by proxy. But I do want to put in a good word for the New Living Translation (not to be confused with the Living Bible), which I think does a great job of being highly readable while holding on to responsible principles of translation.

But maybe the best thing you can do is just go toBible Gateway and browse various translations and see which one works for you.

By the way, since you want to get up to speed on your Bible knowledge, I'll go ahead and mention that you'll find plenty of traditional Christian references that don't actually come from the Bible. The "three kings" that visited Jesus weren't kings and there probably weren't three of them. And the apple in the garden wasn't an apple--the Bible only calls it the fruit of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Lots of things that folks think they know about the Bible are actually erroneous traditions that a close reading of the text will correct.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:24 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I grew up on the Good News. The Jerusalem Bible is also written in very accessible language. The Contemporary English Version just annoys me. New American Standard Version is okay, but the translation is sometimes ... odd. I currently use a New King James study bible which contains a concordance and a lot of useful notes on language roots. King James Version is kept around as a curiosity, although the translation is a deliberate mistranslation in parts (gotta love anglican politics), and the language opaque in any case. Yeah. I'd like to seriously study the bible one of these days for a number of reasons, but it's the sort of study one can spend a lifetime in, and I have other hobbies right now.

Perhaps visit a Christian bookstore - they tend to have a fairly wide variety, and if you're willing to say 'I'd like to study a bible, please, but I have no idea where to start' and smile and nod at the appropriate places, they are often the best people to ask, since it is domain knowledge that they deal with every day.
posted by ysabet at 11:57 PM on April 25, 2010

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