As a “born again” believer, Michael P. Johnson fervently embraces Christ’s final earthly command to his disciples: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
It was the logical, 21st century computer programmer side of Johnson that wrestled with implementing what Christians call “The Great Commission.” Christ’s message of salvation is free; shouldn’t the Word of God — in a form not requiring knowledge of archaic, 15th-century English as above — also be?
Ten years ago this March, while driving his Volkswagen Rabbit between Boulder and Longmont, Colo., Johnson says he had an epiphany; God doesn’t do copyright.
“That was back before most people knew what the World Wide Web was, and I was praying, asking God what to do about the lack of a reliable and trustworthy modern English Bible translation that could be freely copied and distributed electronically,” Johnson recalls.
“God answered me, almost audibly. He told me to start working on one.”
Not that Johnson doesn’t respect a string of commercial modern English translations already in print, among them the New International Version, New Living Translation, English Standard Version or The Message. But all of those editions are copyrighted, restricting their widespread, free distribution.
That leaves only the 1611 Authorized King James Version and a smattering of other, mostly antiquated editions unfettered by copyrights. For Johnson and his band of co-translators, that was not good enough.
Thus was born a new, public domain translation of the Word of God, the World English Bible (WEB). That it resides on the Internet doesn’t seem unusual at all to Johnson. After all, the Bible always has been on the cutting edge of publication technology, whether etched on stone tablets, scratched with quill and ink on parchment or becoming the first best seller for moveable type printing entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg in the 1450s.
Since that revelatory day in 1994, Johnson has supplemented his degrees in engineering and computer science with correspondence and on-campus linguistics and biblical studies. He also has enlisted dozens of volunteers, who weigh in from cyberspace locales spanning the planet — an anonymous group ranging from ministers and laymen to scholars with theology degrees and experts in ancient languages.
Whether checking the nuances of translating the Bible’s original, ancient languages into today’s English, or merely proofreading the online text for typos and the flow of its narratives, Johnson’s World English Bible (WEB) project is strictly nondenominational. It relies on the respected, though outdated, 1901 American Standard Version as a foundation, along with the latest available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts.
“We have people helping . . . who are places including the United States, India, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain — even in Papua, New Guinea, where I am right now,” Johnson says.
What are he, his wife, Lori, and their three children doing more than 8,000 miles and a hemisphere away from their native Colorado? Johnson, 46, works in the South Pacific nation for Evangel Bible Translators as a sort of high-tech missionary, writing and updating software used to make the Bible available in the world’s mostly forgotten minority languages.
“That is my main job,” he says. “There are over 6,000 languages in the world, and over 850 of them are spoken in Papua, New Guinea. We would like everyone to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.”
After hours, Johnson — ordained a minister by the New Creation World Outreach Church in Longmont, Colo., before leaving for his mission three years ago — keeps check on the ongoing work of the WEB project, which now has a “beta” version available for download and sharing while volunteers scour the text for final revisions.
However, it is the very openness of the WEB project that concerns mainstream scholars. One is Joseph Jensen, a professor at the Catholic University of America and executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.
“Some time ago, a skit showed Gracie Allen reading a book called Brain Surgery Self-Taught,” he says. “While biblical scholarship self-taught might not be fatal in the same way, it does have its drawbacks.”
Jensen, an expert lecturer and writer on Old Testament literature, insists that “acquisition of a solid understanding of the biblical and related languages” is critical, and only comes from “lifelong dedication.”
As for the profit motive behind copyrighted revisions? Publishers may be making money, Jensen says, but scholars participating in such efforts receive “no remuneration at all or, at most, a pittance.”
John N. Oswalt, a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary who helped produce the commercial New International Version, believes the WEB poses translation challenges specific to its medium — the Internet.
“We need to utilize new technology and not simply decry it,” he says. “But the new technology also has a lot of hazards that will have to be met. One of those hazards is quality control. . . . Who decides whether someone is really capable of translating the scriptures with integrity?”
Darrell Bock, an expert in New Testament translation at Dallas Theological Seminary, supports another online Bible project, the New English Translation (NET). Sponsored by The Biblical Studies Foundation, the NET welcomes outside comment, but depends on a 10-member team of certified biblical scholars, including Bock.
“The WEB is very well-intentioned, but it just doesn’t have the right kind of people working on it, people who can assess the right resources to use as their base,” Bock says.
The NET Web site offers a free electronic download of its text for individual use, but it is copyrighted, with printed and software versions of the translation that must be purchased online.
“I admire the desire to overthrow the odd notion that the copyright to the Bible, the book we Christians believe to be the very Word of God, is held by a company,” he says. “[But] my greater concern . . . is the competence of the translators — do they really know what they are doing?”
Johnson understands the concerns, but relies on a combination of faith and technology to assure the WEB, tentatively due out in final form in December, does not go astray. Besides trademarking the name of the translation, Johnson has incorporated digital signatures as a tamper-proof seal on distributions of the WEB.
As for determining whether the project’s participants are worthy, he leaves that to a higher power: “It is our hope that between us, we have enough combined sensitivity to the Holy Spirit of God to do what he has called us to do.”
Thus translateth . . .
Here are some examples of World English Bible translations of well-known verses from the 1611 Authorized King James Version:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (KJV)
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.” (WEB)
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (KJV)
“Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (WEB)
1 Corinthians 13:1-2
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (KJV)
“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing.” (WEB)
Apr. 17, 2004