Interview with Paul Franklyn on Common English Bible

PAUL FRANKLYN checks copies of the Common English Bible. (Three CEB photos courtesy of the CEB publishing team.)Paul Franklyn is not a household name, but in homes and congregations nationwide, his work shapes sermons, Bible studies and inspirational reading for millions.
Since the 1980s, Franklyn has played crucial roles in a long list of Bible-related publishing projects. One of the biggest was the New Interpreter’s Bible, a massive effort from 1990-2002 that produced 13 volumes of biblical commentary now used by pastors and educational institutions nationwide. Next time you visit a clergy office, look for the long row of black-and-green books with gold-and-red accents on a shelf near the pastor’s desk. That’s evidence of Paul’s influence nationwide.

For the Common English Bible, however, Paul went in the opposite direction from his role as a coordinator of the scholarly New Interpreter’s Bible. This time, rather than trying to produce an ultimate resource for in-depth Bible research, he wanted to produce a highly readable version of the Bible that everyone can carry and understand—whether enjoying a moment of daily inspiration, discussing the Bible in a small group or reading passages aloud in worship.

When Part 1 of this two-article series about the CEB appeared on Monday, we immediately received an email from writer and Presbyterian pastor Tom Eggebeen—encouraging other pastors to check out the CEB. Tom is known nationwide as a talented interim pastor in the Presbyterian system, which means he’s expert in knowing what works well in congregations. He has been reading the new CEB himself, for a while, and writes: “I’m impressed. This will give other translations a run for their money.”

For their part, the producers of the CEB want people to run with this book. Among the many choices of format are various Thinline editions (like the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha that we recommend). These Bibles are about an inch thick, yet the 9-point type is easy to read for most people. However, if your eyes are sharp and you really want a compact Bible you can carry anywhere, the CEB also comes in three Compact Thin editions (like the CEB Common English Compact Thin Bible edition with an Espresso-hued cover). If you like to tuck a copy of the Bible into a coat pocket, for example, then the Compact Thin edition is your choice—but this even-smaller size does not offer an edition with the Apocrypha and the type size falls to 6.5 points. The text still is clear, but this edition isn’t ideal for most older readers. As the coffee-sipping Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I love that Espresso theme—but my 50-something eyes prefer the bigger Thinline type.

Want to go even smaller and cheaper, too? There’s a Christmas-themed New Testament, called the CEB Christmas Outreach New Testament in softcover, which comes at a bargain price for churches who want to give away CEBs around the Advent season. Christmas Eve, now, is a popular time for evangelism and community outreach. At $1.99 a copy (Amazon’s current price for this Christmas edition as we publish this story), a church could give away 100 copies to visitors for less than $200. That’s cheaper than most holiday decorations and it’s spreading the Good News in a contemporary way.

Obviously, prompted by our own ReadTheSpirit readers, we’re high on this new Bible.
Now, here are excerpts of our interview with Paul Franklyn …


DAVID: One of the unusual and ambitious choices your team made was to organize 77 reading groups across the country to help the translators and editors actually achieve a good, smooth reading experience. These groups included a total of more than 500 readers and they read every single verse in the new translation. I know that you balanced these groups ethnically and they came from two dozen denominations. But what about age? Were these all older folks who are the backbone of our Christian churches nationwide?

PAUL: No, we made a point of including field testers who are students. Yes, of course, we did include older readers. We even organized one reading group in a rest home for older adults. But several of the reading groups were on college campuses. There was one high-school-age youth group in Nashville.

DAVID: And were the translators and editors pleased to hear from this mixed bag of readers? I love the idea of field-testing every verse but, as an editor myself, it sounds like this might have been a nightmare.

PAUL: I’ve got a doctorate from Vanderbilt in Hebrew Bible and I have worked in planning and publishing of big projects related to the Bible for many years. So, I can say that, at first—as editors and Bible scholars—we all were in our ivory-tower mode. As we got started, we would explain this field-testing process to our editors and translators—and their first reactions were: “Oh, these people are going to ask all kinds of silly questions.” Or: “We’re going to have to wade through so much stuff.” Then, we got the first batch of responses from the reading groups—and things changed! The questions and comments were very interesting. The editors and translators wanted more of this. In the end, this process worked very well.


DAVID: Over the next few years, how far will the text of this new Bible reach? Right now it’s an actual Bible. But, Bible translations find ways into devotional magazines, group-discussion materials and into books of worship used in congregations. How far do you hope to take the CEB?

PAUL: I’m making presentations to producers of all of those kinds of materials. We are hoping folks will pick up the CEB for use when they’re quoting the Bible in their publications. We’re getting very good feedback from across the country.

DAVID: What about hymnals? Regular churchgoers know that a lot of Bible passages appear in hymnals, often Psalms and other readings for worship.

PAUL: There are three denominational hymnal replacement projects underway, but hymnal projects move very slowly, as you know. In one case, a denomination pulled back for a while to try to figure out where new technology is going. But looking down the road? Yes, it’s fair to say we may be in hymnals someday. That’s definitely part of our plan.

DAVID: For our many Catholic readers, we need to explain that you have not produced a Catholic edition, so far. You had some individual Catholic translators involved in the project and you have translated all the books of the Bible typically used in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox congregations. That means you include all four books called Maccabees, for example, if people buy an edition of the CEB that includes the Apocrypha. Maccabees 1 and 2 appear in Catholic Bibles, then 3 and 4 appear in Eastern Bibles. But, so far, you haven’t produced an edition either with an official Catholic imprimatur—or with the books organized in the proper order for Catholic readers. Is that right?

PAUL: Yes, that’s right. We have translated all the books, but we haven’t done a Catholic edition yet. I have been talking to some Catholic organizations and we’ve heard from some priests who want to know if we’re going to be going after an imprimatur. At this point, though, we don’t have an official Catholic edition and I’m not sure if the CEB ever will be found in pews of Catholic churches as an officially approved Catholic Bible. That’s a very long process, as you know. But, there are millions of Catholic Bible readers who will enjoy the CEB now.

DAVID: I do appreciate that your team translated the entire collection of books called the Apocrypha. ReadTheSpirit always recommends that readers get the full Bible with the Apocrypha included. I keep hearing from Protestants nationwide who really are inspired when they discover some of those books.

PAUL: We’re hearing that, too. We heard from Protestant readers who told us they’d always wanted to read the Apocrypha. There are stories in there, like the story of Susanna, that is just wonderful and should be preached in churches, but mostly it’s unknown.


DAVID: Tell us more about how you managed all of these far-flung contributors?

PAUL: We managed the entire project online. The reading groups met in person, but then they would collect their comments and questions and upload those materials. Now, this process could have gone on for decades, going back and forth between reading groups and translators, and we never would have had a final Bible. So, we organized it this way: We selected a lead translator for each portion to do a first draft. Then, another scholar followed as a second translator. In some ways, you could describe the second translator as an editor working with the first draft. The second scholar went over everything and made revisions and then submitted that back to us. Then, that text went to a readability editor who also was a filter and made some more recommendations about the text. The readability editor was working with materials that came back from the reading groups. At that point, the translators already had given us the scholarship and we were working on the clarity of the words and the naturalness of reading. Next, we had an academic editor go over everything, again, in a final overall editing process.

DAVID: How much was changed from the first drafts to the final CEB?

PAUL: When everything was finished, less than 50 percent of the first drafts survived into the final product. We had thousands of comments and questions—so there were lots of changes all along the way.


DAVID: Readers will want to know about inclusive language. I’ve been covering religion as a journalist for 30 years and I’ve seen a dramatic change in this hot-button issue. Back in the ‘80s, I heard from lots of readers who didn’t want any of the male pronouns in their familiar editions of the Bible to be made inclusive. But there have been dramatic changes, thanks largely to popular culture, I think. Now, it sounds offensive to most readers to have an excessive number of all-male references in passages where it simply isn’t necessary. But, that’s my own conclusion from years of journalism. How did you sort it out?

PAUL: I think you’re right. This issue still may be controversial in some groups, but the denominations most interested in the Common English Bible take it for granted that most language needs to be gender neutral. So, when the text refers to humans as people, we don’t want to make it sound as though the Bible is only referring to men. Readers in most denominations will find this text very similar to other texts they are using all the time.

However, there is a line that we didn’t think should be crossed in translation and that has to do with pronouns referring to God. We decided to remain fairly conservative on that issue. We did try to complete this translation with fewer male pronouns for God, where it was appropriate. One good example is in Psalms, where some translations may have “He,” “He,” “He,” “He” over and over again referring to God throughout a Psalm. In a case like that, we could use the word “God” instead of using so many “He” references one after another. That helps. But overall we took a fairly conservative approach to this issue of pronouns referring to God. If we had tried to strip out all of the masculine pronouns for God in the Bible, we would have pulled the text out of its cultural context.

DAVID: Bottom line: Your approach to inclusive language is similar to what other editors are doing, these days, in books and study materials for congregations. However, I think the bigger news in the CEB involves your choice of new phrases to clear up language that actually is confusing to readers. In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we will give readers some sample passages. Give us another example, please.

PAUL: One good example is our use of the term “immigrant” in place of words in earlier translations like “alien” or “foreigner.” Exodus 22:21 now reads: “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.” One of our Mennonite editors first raised this idea. He did a great job in his own translations and we put him on our editorial board. He pointed out the problem with using the word “alien,” today. Ever since Star Wars and Close Encounters, the word “alien” now is associated with outer space and beings who are not human or perhaps are even sub-human. Of course, that’s not what the Bible is talking about. What the Bible is describing is: people who seem like strangers as they are passing through another land. The best term for that, today, is immigrant. It’s the correct English term to describe what the biblical text originally meant. You will find some references to foreigners in the CEB. But in those passages where the Bible is talking about people migrating from one land to another—that’s where the Bible is making a very important point about God treating those people like we are treated. So, “immigrant” is the best English translation for our time.


DAVID: This idea of choosing the best English word for the times isn’t new. In fact, your new CEB makes a point of changing a famous word that William Tyndale chose about 500 years ago in his groundbreaking translation. Tyndale wanted to describe how Christ’s reconciling of the world made us “at one” with God, so he reached for the word “atonement” and put it into his new translation of the Bible. The King James Version came about a century later and atonement picked up momentum. Now, you’ve finally laid that confusing old word to rest, right?

PAUL: That’s right, you won’t find the word “atonement” in the CEB. Tyndale’s use of the term led to a lot of confusion for people, today. Instead, we use forms of the word reconcile, sometimes verb forms and sometimes noun forms. Tyndale introduced that word into the Bible 500 years ago as a compound of at-one-ment. But the word took on a life of its own apart from the Bible. The original language of the Bible is talking about reconcile and reconciliation—and that’s how we translate it.

DAVID: We will remind readers of a truth that I’ve reported in news stories about the Bible over many years: If you start by looking at your most beloved passages, the new translation may jolt you. But, if you look more broadly, you’ll appreciate the fresh language.

PAUL: Psalm 23 is now, “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” And that was one of the first passages we did as a test case. We have no illusion that people are going to suddenly switch from the King James cadence so many of us remember when reciting the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23. These are deep memories in our culture. But, it’s possible that, like the Tyndale use of “atonement,” another 100 years may give us more distance from the biblical terms we’re using today. Our goal was clarity for readers today and we worked very very hard on reaching that point through many drafts. We hope people find it helpful.

We recommend the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha with a Ribbon Marker and Leather-like Cover.

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

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