by Jim Snapp
The Contemporary English Version (CEV), produced by the American Bible Society, is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of “functional” Bible translations. It is incredible: sometimes incredibly clear, and sometimes incredibly oversimplified.
The CEV was advertised as being free of Bible-jargon, and it lives up to this claim. There is no “concupiscence,” “adultery,” or “fornication” in this version. Also absent are “ righteousness,” “sanctification,” “repentance,” and “grace.” For some first-time readers this will be a real plus. For others it may seem overdone: Noah's ark is now just Noah's boat, and John 11:25's “I am the resurrection and the life” is now, “I am the one who raises the dead to Life!” Generally, the normative meaning of any given verse is clarified, and its symbolic, deeper meaning (if any) is obscured. The CEV's style makes it sound like any other book. This cuts both ways.
The CEV is very appealing for story-telling. It's not just clear, it's blatantly obvious.
Passages such as Song of Songs 7:9 are thrilling - “Kissing you is more delicious than drinking the finest wine. How wonderful and tasty!”
And passages such as Hosea 13:14 are chilling - “Should I, the LORD, rescue you from death and the grave? No! I call death and the grave to strike you like a plague. I refuse to show mercy.”
Clarity is the CEV's strongest point. This clarity is not merely artistic; it is also practical. The plan of salvation is very clear in the CEV. Consider, for instance, Acts 2:38 - “Peter said, 'Turn back to God! Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will be given the Holy Spirit.”
Unfortunately, that clarity disappears in many important theological passages. The CEV is not very useful for teaching doctrine (orthodox doctrine, anyway). At times it looks as if it was designed by Jehovah's Witnesses. For better or worse, First John 5:7 is not in the CEV, not even as a footnote. The force of a substantial number of texts about the deity of Christ is diminished; these include Micah 5:2, John 10:30, Acts 20:28, Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, and Philippians 2:6. The CEV's rendering of Acts 20:28 is especially disturbing. The CEV text reads, “...the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son,” and a footnote gives the alternate reading, “his own blood.” The word “Son,” which is absent from the UBS Third Edition of the Greek New Testament (on which the CEV New Testament is based), has materialized ex nihilo.
Other theological passages which are given unusual twists in the CEV include Genesis 1:1-2, Proverbs 8:22, Isaiah 7:14, Hebrews 9:14, and Matthew 1:25. The delicate touch at Matthew 1:25 (“they did not sleep together...”), when compared alongside the explicit language of Ezekiel 23:44 (11 ... “the men had sex over and over with Oholah and Oholibah...”), seems inexplicable.
Doctrinal glitches pop up all over. Ultra-liberals who revere the goddess Sophia will probably applaud the CEV's handling of Proverbs 1:20. Feminists will be pleased to see that in Romans 16: 1, Phoebe, formerly a servant (Greek “diakonon”), has become a “leader.” And sodomites will probably appreciate the ambiguity of First Corinthians 6:9, where “anyone who acts like a homosexual” is condemned (which leaves it unclear whether or not this includes actual practicing homosexuals). Also, it's very difficult to find any endorsement of corporeal punishment in the CEV, which seems strange in a translation mainly designed for children.
Footnotes in the CEV are legion; on some pages they are 19 lines thick. In the Old Testament, many of them relate to the textual background, pointing out where the CEV's textual base (the UBS Fourth Edition Biblia Hebraica) differs from the standard Hebrew text, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls have had a decisive impact. The famous “Nahash Anecdote” at First Samuel 11: 1 is included in a footnote. Such technical data may seem out of place in a children's translation. Also, the note, “One possible meaning for the difficult Hebrew [or Aramaic] text,” which is repeated over 600 times (110 times just in Isaiah) gets a bit annoying.
Some footnotes are not just annoying; they are borderline heretical, making it appear that the Bible endorses scientific errors. Second Samuel 22:8 and its footnote describe the pillars that hold up the sky. Psalm 82:5's footnote states, “In ancient times it was believed that the earth was flat and supported by columns.” These notes belong in a commentary or an extended study-note where the questions they raise can be adequately addressed and resolved. Otherwise, inexperienced readers (the American Bible Society's target audience) are bound to say, “I understand what the Bible says, all right! It says the earth is flat!” No footnotes appear at passages such as Job 26:7 to point out the Bible's scientific accuracy.
An interesting pattern takes shape. The footnotes in the CEV concur very much with the footnotes and study-helps in the Roman Catholic “St. Joseph Edition” of the New American Bible. And, the CEV has been granted the Roman Catholic Imprimatur (mark of acceptance). And, the CEV is now available with the Apocrypha. And, in First Timothy 4:14, Titus 1:5, First Peter 5: 1, etc., the Greek word presbuterous is rendered as “church leaders” with the footnote, “Or 'elders' or 'presbyters' or 'priests,'” although the Greek word for “priests” is totally different (hierous) and the CEV's translators surely know that it is. All this leads, nigh irresistibly, to the conclusion that the CEV is not a Children's Easy Version as much as it is a Catholic Ecumenical Version. (This may say something about who's running the American Bible Society these days.)
Putting theological passages and footnotes to one side, the rest of the CEV is excellent, even beautiful. The book introductions are helpful and succinct. The CEV's careful arrangement of poetry, especially in the Old Testament, is a real advance; its lyrical arrangement of the text is superior to that of any other English translation. Also, puns and the meanings of significant proper names are well-rendered. Acrostics, though, are not noted, not even in Psalm 119.
Despite its easy, vivid style - which is best in narratives and poetic passages - the CEV has very little usefulness for people who want to use the Bible as anything more than a storybook. The Contemporary English Version is painfully weak in its presentation of numerous doctrinal passages. That is enough to make the CEV a version which, although it is great for entertainment and for consultation at non-doctrinal passages, should be used for any other purpose only as a last resort, and with great caution. What kind of Bible is that? Can it truly be called a Bible?