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.