Post-War Bible Translations:
The Good News Bible

On October 8th I was privileged to attend the 21st Birthday Party for the Good News Bible, held at Planet Hollywood in London, hosted by the Bible Society and Harper Collins Publishers who collaborate in the dissemination of the Bible.

The New Testament of this version was first published in America in 1966 under the title Today's English Version, Good News for Modern Man. The cover of the paperbound edition used the mastheads of newspapers to call attention to the fact that it was as easy to read as a newspaper. In his presentation at the party, Steve Chalke, Vice President of the Bible Society, a religious broadcaster and a very compelling communicator, talked of the New Testament's being written in Koine Greek, what he described as ‘tabloid Greek’, a language to reach the people. The Good News Bible makes no pretences at literary style and a fair evaluation must take it on its terms.

The New Testament was an unprecedented success, beating novels such as those by Harold Robbins as a best-seller, and in 1967 a committee was established to translate the Old Testament, and the completed Bible was issued in 1976; the Translation of the Apocrypha was included in the 1979 edition of the whole Bible. The translation had the not-Christian in mind and was pitched at elementary school reading level, and it was also aimed at those for whom English was not their first language. It avowedly aimed at clarity rather than stylistic merit and is more paraphrastic than any translation covered in this series, with the exception of the version by J B Phillips.

The Preface outlines the philosophy and method of the translation: ‘The primary concern of the translators has been to provide a faithful translation of the meaning of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Their first task was to understand correctly the meaning of the original. At times the original meaning cannot be precisely known, not only because the meaning of some words and phrases cannot be determined with a great degree of assurance but also because the underlying cultural and historical context is sometimes beyond recovery. All aids available were used in this task, including the ancient versions and the modern translations in English and other languages. After ascertaining as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, the translator's next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers. Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid words and forms not in current or widespread use; but no artificial limit has been set to the range of vocabulary employed. Every effort has been made to use language that is natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous...’.

I give the opening of Genesis as an example of the result:

In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness and the power of God was moving over the water. Then God commanded, ‘Let there be light’ — and light appeared. God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated the light from the darkness and he named the light ‘Day’ and the darkness ‘Night’. Evening passed and morning came — that was the first day.
Then God commanded, ‘Let there be a dome to divide the water and to keep it in two separate places’ — and it was done. So God made a dome, and it separated the water under it from the water above it. He named the dome ‘Sky’. Evening passed and morning came — that was the second day’.

An unusual feature of the Good News Bible was the introduction of line drawings by the Swiss-born Mlle. Annie Vallotton. The illustrations met with a mixed reception; there were those who felt they were irreverent and inappropriate, perhaps unaware that the King James Bible contained illustrations in 1611. Those that accompany the book of Jonah are lively and, I think, effective. Readers will have to make up their own minds on this point. There follows the Good News version of Jonah's prayer which I have quoted in previous articles: ()

From deep inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God:
‘In my distress, O LORD, I called to you, and you answered me.
From deep in the world of the dead I cried for help, and you heard me.
You threw me down into the depths, to the very bottom of the sea,
where the waters were all round me, and all your mighty waves rolled over me.
I thought I had been banished from your presence
and would never see your holy Temple again.
The water came over me and choked me; the sea covered me completely,
and seaweed was wrapped around my head.
I went down to the very roots of the mountains,
into the land whose gates lock shut for ever.
But you, O LORD my God, brought me back from the depths alive.
When I felt my life slipping away, then, O LORD, I prayed to you,
and in your holy Temple you heard me.
Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.
But I will sing praises to you; I will offer you a sacrifice
and do what I have promised. Salvation comes from the LORD’.
Then the LORD ordered the fish to spew Jonah up on the beach, and it did.

By its very nature a text which sets out to be appealing to those for whom there are no hallowed terms, who probably have never read the Bible before, will arouse controversy and it would be possible (as indeed it is possible with any modern version) to list infelicities of phrasing, but as with ‘Let there be light’, the translators have not felt it necessary to change ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, though unfortunately Tyndale's ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’ (John 14.1) has become ‘Do not be worried and upset’.

The opening to Hebrews which as we have seen has been translated with varying degrees of success reads:

In the past, God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his son. He is the one through whom God created the universe, the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of God's glory and is the exact likeness of God's own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. After achieving forgiveness for the sins of mankind, he sat down in heaven at the right-hand side of God, the Supreme Power. The Son was made greater than the angels, just as the name that God gave him is greater than theirs.

Romans 8.18ff certainly reads more fluently than the NIV version:

I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his sons. For creation was condemned to lose its purpose, not of its own will, but because God willed it to be so. Yet there was the hope that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God.

The translators of the Good News Bible have made no attempt to reflect the different styles of the originals, and there is a flat sameness throughout. Whilst Tyndale's words and phrases are still with us today and are part of the very fabric of our language, a version such as the Good News will never have a universal appeal, addressing as it does a particular niche in the market. Nevertheless, 125 million people world-wide have bought the Good News Bible, 9.25 million in Britain. There has undoubtedly been a considerable loss in terms of depth of meaning and beauty of expression, but if it is a means of introducing the Word of God to people who would otherwise never read it, then it seems difficult to cavil. Tyndale worked to bring the good news to the common man. It was his genius that created a living piece of literature and whose voice has resonated down the centuries.

Hilary Day

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