The electronic Bible shouldn't only be for a privileged few

David Ker has posted a claim that the Bible Societies Feast on hummingbird tongues and throw scraps to the rabble. His language is, as so often, highly emotive and somewhat exaggerated – I don’t think anyone at the Bible Societies is living in excessive luxury, although things might look a bit different from the perspective of rural Mozambique. But he certainly has a good point. Bible Societies are not living up to their mission statements if they restrict availability of electronic texts of the versions they control.

A few months ago I posted a short series about Copyrighting the Word of God (part 2, follow-up 1, follow-up 2). These posts were mainly about the original language Bible texts. But especially in the last of these posts I criticised the German Bible Society’s overblown and frankly ridiculous claims to hold the copyright of the Luther and Good News Bibles, as well as of the Greek and Hebrew texts.

David’s point is related but a bit different. He is talking mainly about Bible translations whose copyright is legitimately owned by particular Bible Societies. He doesn’t challenge this copyright, except at the end when he mentions the possibility of breaking it. But he appeals to the Bible Societies’ mission statements (I’m not sure if he is basing this on any specific such statements), which he calls “empty promises”, as the basis of his appeal for them to make their best translations available in electronic form even to “The most disadvantaged students of the Bible”.

This is a complex issue. The various Bible Societies have to fund their work somehow. They cannot do this if they simply give away Bibles, whether in print or electronically – at least unless there is a massive increase in their income from donations, or from selling at a large profit the kinds of luxury Bibles which make David want to puke. There are also complex issues of the independence of national societies: the United Bible Societies (that is, the single organisation with that plural name) does not have the power to “take action across the board” as David wants it to.

But the basic point is a good one. In an age where the poor in Africa have mobile phones but no books, the Bible Societies really should not be trying to make money by pricing electronic Bible texts as luxury items that only the rich can afford. Instead they should recognise that this has become an important way of reaching with the Bible massive audiences that would never buy books – and without the considerable expense of printing and distributing books. Once an online text has been produced its distribution is essentially free of charge and can now, as phone networks grow, reach to the remotest corners of the earth. These electronic texts should be recognised as no longer just something for the privileged but as a major way for the Bible Societies to fulfil their international mission of distributing the Word of God.

13 thoughts on “The electronic Bible shouldn't only be for a privileged few

  1. Peter you’re right in saying this is complex and I have presented it in an oversimplified way. One distinction that I have not drawn enough attention to is the difference between the Bible Societies and the Bible publishers. The “deluxe” Bibles are not produced by Bible Societies but by for-profit publishers. (I’m not sure where IBS fits in on that)

    You’ve inspired me to make a list of Bible Society mission statements!

  2. Pingback: Feast on hummingbird tongues and throw scraps to the rabble | lingamish

  3. David, I’m happy that the WBTC translations are useful for you. I know there have been questions in the past about the accuracy of some of their versions, which seemed to have been prepared rather too hurriedly. I hope their current versions are of high quality.

    Yes, you are right that luxury Bibles are not usually produced by Bible Societies. This includes Biblica formerly IBS, which is a Bible Society in ethos but more evangelical, and separate from the United Bible Societies. What do you think? Should they tap this lucrative market to fund their work in poorer countries? I guess Biblica have chosen a sensible path here: let commercial partners publish the luxury, study etc versions and collect some of the profits for their other work.

  4. Regarding Biblica, I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days. Considering that the NIV/TNIV are being retired, could they not make those available for freely available electronic download? I refer narrowly to formats like SWORD and mobile formats. Also, if they could release the NIV to Gideons it would make a wonderful substitution for the KJV still used in many parts of the world because licensing has been prohibitively expensive until now.

  5. e-Sword provides a good mobile option, but sadly only in windows.

    The free resources may not match Logos etc, but for free you get a good broad selection of materials – certainly enough for Bible study if you have no funds.

  6. Well, David, NIV and TNIV are already available to browse at the Biblica website and at Bible Gateway, and TNIV is available as a free PDF download – or it was not long ago. Obviously there is an issue concerning conversion to proprietary formats, which may be as much to do with quality control as money. Gideons in the UK already use NIV but I thought the reason they don’t in the USA is that they are a bit KJVO or at least very traditionalist.

  7. Glen, in my post I expressed some concerns about those kinds of resources because they tend to be “public-domain” and either very old or inaccurate.

    Peter, I have a copy of the TNIV as a single pdf and it’s quite nice for doing searches. I have downloaded the Portuguese NIV as pdf and plan to share it with my students.

  8. Excuse a red herring, I have recently stayed in 3 cities and each had a Gideon NT in varied languages, including English. In Prague and Vienna it was NKJV. In Budapest it was the 1611 KJV. They were an interesting variation to the NIV I usually use each day.

  9. Hi Peter,
    The only Bible’s I’ve received from The Gideons have been NIVs – the little pocket testaments given out schools etc. I’m from Ireland and so maybe Gideons Ireland have a different arrangement with the NIV.
    Blessings,
    Andrew

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