Interview: Scholars bring Bible to life in The Voice

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.This week, we recommend The Voice: Step into the Scriptures as one of our 12 Best Books for the Holidays 2012. TODAY, we welcome Bible scholar David Capes, who holds the title Thomas Nelson Research Professor and is an eloquent spokesman for this milestone in Bible publishing.

Why is this such a big deal? TIME Magazine captured The Voice’s unique style in its recent headline: “Lights! Camera! Worship! New Translation Reads Like a Screenplay.” TIME’s opening paragraph explained: “The next director looking to turn the Bible into a blockbuster movie might have a head start with this latest translation, titled The Voice.”

To clarify, The Voice is hardly a screenplay, even though many passages are set up like dialogue and there is a greater attention to setting the stage as modern readers explore these ancient stories. The overall goal is to improve the way the Bible is read aloud—along with greater clarity for individual readers who are more familiar with the formats of TV shows and movies than ancient texts. In its roots years ago, the project sprang from preachers, teachers and educators who love The Bible and want more people to enjoy reading these scriptures aloud.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews David Capes.


CRUMM: We’re going to highly recommend your new Bible to our readers. But I know the first question that readers will want me to ask: How is this different from The Message? Thousands of congregations nationwide read the more traditional English translations of the Bible, Sunday after Sunday—but they have learned how powerful it is to mix up those readings with occasional passages from Eugene Peterson’s more dramatic version, The Message.

David CapesCAPES: The Message inspired our project, but our project is not the same. The Message set a different tone for Bible translation. Many people call it a paraphrase of the Bible, but Eugene Peterson worked from the original languages in preparing The Message, so I would call it more of a translation that Peterson prepared. In The Voice, we had writers, scholars and poets all working in this huge team. It’s a different kind of a project than The Message. We also wanted to avoid some of the colloquialisms or trendy language that have appeared in other contemporary versions of the Bible. We wanted to use more timeless language so this version will have a longer shelf life and longer appeal with audiences.

CRUMM: The team working on The Voice was a Who’s Who of strongly evangelical professionals and institutions. But you’ve also got some more mainline figures on your team. I’m thinking here of Dr. Leonard Sweet from Drew University, who I know worked on Genesis for you. He seems very proud of the outcome from the whole team. He calls The Voice a “choral masterpiece.”

CAPES: That’s right—Len Sweet was one of the writers who worked on Genesis. That’s one of the most important books in the Bible; it’s among the most frequently read books of the Bible. We wanted to have a variety of voices here and I think we achieved that. Brian McLaren also worked with us. He worked on Luke and Acts. Brian is a terrific writer and he’s very sensitive about this kind of work.


CRUMM: In addition to the screenplay-like format in many passages, The Voice also is unique for some of the striking choices you made in translating the text. One of the first ones readers will encounter in Genesis is “The Eternal God” and just the words “The Eternal” to refer to God. I’m going to help our readers by linking to three short blog posts you wrote about this particular choice. (Here is Capes’ blog post on “The Eternal” Part 1, then Part 2, then Part 3.) That’s a fairly important choice by your team, because this particular name for God appears, by your count, about 6,000 times in the Bible.

CAPES: That’s right. I did a book in 1992 where we counted all the occurrences of YHWH and we came up with about 6,000. Sometimes we translate that as The Eternal One or The Eternal God or just The Eternal. But it’s all the same idea. Other translators choose to use the world LORD, with all the letters capitalized, but we felt that our culture today is likely to think we’re talking about some ancient world of Lords and Ladies. Using LORD may have worked back in the King James era, but I know that today it isn’t a good translation of the meaning of the word we are trying to express. The Hebrew YWWH means “the one who is” or “the one who was and the one to come”—in other words, like our modern word: Eternal.

CRUMM: Even though your team was strongly evangelical, one effect of the Eternal translation is that you’ve increased the gender neutrality over some other translations. Was that a goal?

CAPES: Not exactly. We are aware of the debates going on about gender and language. But in the references to God in Genesis, male has no greater claim to the image of God than the female. So, no, we weren’t stepping back and saying: “Let’s find ways to make the language more gender neutral.” For instance, when we use pronouns to refer back to the noun Eternal, we use He, Him or His. This comes from the Hebrew and is typical of gender forms in Hebrew.

One of the scholars on our team suggested that we repeat the word God every time—saying “this is God’s” rather than “this is His.” But our goal was to produce a Bible that was more readable with audiences. That suggestion of avoiding the pronouns just didn’t read as well when we tested it with audiences.

CRUMM: Are you the first to make use of The Eternal in this way? I’m not familiar with it in years of writing news stories about new translations.

CAPES: In our work with the team, we didn’t pick up the idea from anyone else as far as I know. But, I’ve subsequently learned that James Moffatt’s Bible did make some use of this translation. I’m now working on a book that tells the story of how we created The Voice. I guess there’s nothing new under the sun, so Moffatt’s use of the term could very well have been a seed planted somewhere in our minds at one point. But this use of The Eternal really was discussed by our team as an innovation. No one in our discussions brought up the Moffatt translation. I only discovered that earlier translation after we had completed our work.

CRUMM: What’s coming next? I’m sure that a project like The Voice includes various expansions and later editions.

CAPES: Well, there is the book I’m doing about the way we created The Voice. Like all new translations, we will collect thoughts on various issues that we encounter as more people read it and use it in Bible study. I’m sure there will be some changes in another version we will publish in a few years. We’re also filming some short portions of The Voice as videos that we’ll put online, so look for that. And, God willing, we’ll see a Spanish version of The Voice, too.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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