Choosing a Children’s Bible

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Introduction

A while back I got my first Catholic study Bible, and that was a difficult choice.* Recently, however, I bought another “first” Bible – this time for one of my kids. Wow, I thought shopping for an adult Bible was scary! In case you are facing the same decision yourself, here is what I found.

*Fair Warning: I am pretty OCD about buying most things (I once spent several hours picking out a $50 tennis racquet – true story!). So Bibles put me close to panic because they are expensive, extremely varied, and, you know, the word of God and all. Further, as a new Catholic I discovered a whole new world of translations (NAB, NABRE, RSV, NRSV, JER, DRS, etc.) and finally decided on either the RSV (a scholarly revision of the KJV) or the NABRE (the updated NAB translation read at Mass – the first Catholic translation to render the ancient texts directly into English). When it came to study notes, though, many versions just included short, bullet point notes at the front with some single page articles interspersed randomly throughout the text. Since the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (the best by far) had only the New Testament available in one volume, I finally decided on the The New American Catholic Study Bible. It’s the NABRE translation with over 500 pages of commentary including introductions to each book plus short essays on hermeneutics, archeology, translation, etc., marginal notes throughout the text, and in the back a glossary, index, maps, measures & weights, and a lectionary. Plus it has built-in tabs. Sold!

My Kid’s First Bible

Once again I went into my usual hyper-analyzing mode. After looking at the numerous options, I found that two major areas were at issue: translation and presentation. Within these, I had three main criteria.

  • First, I wanted it to be a children’s Bible – one designed specifically for kids (not just a standard Bible wrapped in a cartoony cover), but I also did not want a cheesy kid’s Bible that equates immaturity with youth (like this “NIV Boy’s Bible”).
  • Second, I wanted it to be a complete Bible, which meant two things: It could not just be a collection of Bible stories (I have no problem with these kinds of books – they just aren’t Bibles), and it should include the so-called “Deuterocanonical books.”
  • Third, I wanted it to be a correct Bible, by which I mean a decent translation with accurate extras (notes, articles, etc.).

These considerations made the process both easier (as they eliminated nearly all of the available choices) and more difficult (because that combination was hard to find). I quickly came to realize I was not going to get what I wanted without seriously stretching my notions of what it meant for a child’s Bible to be complete and correct.

Sigh . . . Nothing’s ever easy.

I eventually narrowed my choices to The Catholic Children’s Bible, the NIV Adventure Bible, and the ESV Seek and Find Bible. At this point you might be thinking, “Um, you’re Catholic – what choice did you have?” Well, at this point in my child’s life I mostly wanted a Bible that would be read. While the inclusion of the “Deuterocanonical” books and perfectly accurate theological notes would be nice, I figured that by the time those elements really became an issue, a Children’s Bible would probably be outgrown anyway. Thus, even though I put the most effort into researching the The Catholic Children’s Bible (and eventually chose it), the others were seriously considered.

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Translations (The Good, the Questionable, the Bad, & the Ugly)

The Good

The Catholic Children’s Bible uses the popular Good News Translation or “GNT” (formerly known as the Good News Bible or Today’s English Version) which was edited by Robert G. Bratcher. It was introduced in 1976 by the American Bible Society as a “common language” translation that was to be faithful to the original languages, but translated into simple English that children or ESL adults could understand. It was designed to meet the needs of missionaries and evangelists working in places where English was spoken but where familiarity with traditional theological terminology could not be assumed.* Thus, the GNT seems to be written at about the 4th-grade level (for comparison, the King James is nearly college level).

Upon review of the GNT, one priest said,

Do not let its simplicity fool you! Many times after pondering the difficulties of the ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac) my friend Rabbi Kline and I have been amazed at how wonderfully and accurately the GNT renders a passage! It is obvious that the translators have examined the work of ancient translators and biblical commentators, both Christian and Jewish. (Fr. Pat, Greco Institute)

A very popular (and fairly anti-Catholic) Protestant website had this to say about it:

Overall, the Good News Bible / Today’s English Version is a very good and accurate translation. It is easy to read and uses understandable modern English. If it has a general flaw, it does seem that the GNB is a little too dynamic in places, causing some of its renderings to be significantly different from what is said in the original languages. (Got Questions?)

Finally, the GNT not only carries the Catholic Church’s “seals of approval”(Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat), it was also adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention! This all sounded very promising, but I soon discovered that the GNT was not above criticism – some understandable, some overly biased. A few of the more notable issues are listed below.

The Questionable

Gender-Neutrality

For one thing, in 1992 the GNT was revised to use gender-neutral language. “Blech,” I thought. Gender-neutrality is usually only brought up in the context of radical liberal feminism or other equally obnoxious political ranting. For example, as one Evangelical commentator noted, the NIV contains “disturbing the egalitarianism and gender-neutral language imposed upon the text that is manifested in a number of ways.” However, I reminded myself that the GNT is not a literal translation, and gender-neutral language can be legitimate (even St. Paul re-phrased OT quotes in this way on occasion – see Isa. 52:7 and Rom. 10:15 or Ps. 36:1 and Rom. 3:10, 18).

So long as the original intent was respected, I could live with it. For example, this change in the NIV from 1984 to 2011 should pose no (theological) problems for anyone:

  • NIV (1984): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
  • NIV (2011): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

However, when gender neutrality becomes gender neutering, there is an issue. Take Psalm 8:4 which both the GNT and the NIV mess up: “what are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?” Here a specifically messianic verse (“or the son of man, that you care for him“) is abstracted to “humanity.” Unlike the GNT, the NIV is also expressly egalitarian, which shows up in translations like 1 Timothy 2:12, which reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” where the GNT more correctly translates it “I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men.” Interestingly this same issue was brought up by reviewers of the NIV and ESV handling of 1 Corinthians 11:3 where the ESV has, “the head of a wife is her husband,” while the NIV says, “the head of the woman is man.”

So none of the three options really stood out here.

Theological Bias

One criticism of the GNT was that it sometimes sounded a bit too Catholic. Some of the examples brought forward included Matthew 16:18 which is translated as, “I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it.” The ESV translates this as, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” There is a play on words in the original Greek here that I think the GNT is making more explicit, but even for Protestants, identifying Peter as the rock is certainly an acceptable take on the passage (in fact the same accusation is brought against the NIV rendering here.)

Another was Acts 2:38, which reads, “Peter said to them,Each one of you must turn away from your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive God’s gift, the Holy Spirit.’” Here the term “for” in the original Greek is taken to mean “so that” rather than “because of” (as it is often explained by Protestants to avoid the idea of baptismal regeneration). This is not a translation issue so much as a theological one (the NIV which correctly translates the verses but adds in the notes: “Not that baptism effects forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes through that which is symbolized by baptism.”). Given that every early Church Father understood baptism as salvific, I think it’s a fair one for the GNT to make.

Further, 1 Peter 2:2, says to “be like newborn babies, always thirsty for the pure spiritual milk, so that by drinking it you may grow up and be saved.” This is opposed to “growing up into salvation” as the ESV has it. In Catholic theology, though, these two phrases can basically mean the same thing.

However – even in light of these examples, many non-Catholic Christian groups promoted the use of the GNT.

In the end, the GNT seems to sit somewhere between a paraphrase and a “dynamic equivalence” (where the meaning of the original languages is said to be translated “thought for thought” rather than “word for word), so translator bias is always going to be an issue. These sorts of translation deficiencies were noted by Catholic commentators as well:

One down side to using certain modern translations is that they do not use the traditional renderings of certain passages and phrases, and the reader may find this annoying. The “Good News Bible” or TEV is especially known for non-traditional renderings. (Catholic.Com)

The Catholic edition of the popular Good News Bible by the American Bible Society. Translated according to the principle of dynamic equivalence for readability. The same principle was used by ICEL to translate the Mass texts. Would be better to call a paraphrase than a translation. (EWTN)

In reality, though, all translations suffer from bias. For example, Philemon 1:6 in the NIV (the most popular Evangelical translation) originally said, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” The problem this verse is not about evangelism – Paul is praying for the fellowship (“koinonia” in Greek) of believers within the Church. (This mistake was corrected the 2011 version of the NIV). The NIV also inconsistently translates the Greek word paradosis – switching from the correct term “tradition” to “teaching” when it is used in a positive context (of necessity, Protestants mistrust tradition). At least with a paraphrase, you know to expect these issues going in.

The Bad

Some of the questionable translation practices are understandable and easily explainable. Others, while perhaps unimportant as such, seemed more difficult to understand due to odd inconsistency.

For example, he GNT was criticized for translating the “blood of Christ” as “the death of Christ.” While this might not sit well with some fiery preachers, it’s understandable in a very basic Bible. However, it is not as though the GNT never uses the word “blood” – in fact it uses it over 250 times (even in the context of death and salvation). For example, Leviticus 17:11 reads, “The life of every living thing is in the blood, and that is why the Lord has commanded that all blood be poured out on the altar to take away the people’s sins. Blood, which is life, takes away sins.” If this is expected to be understood, why not passages dealing with Jesus’ blood / death?

Following other modern translations, the GNT also translates the Hebrew almah as “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 rather than “virgin” (according to the Greek LXX parthenos). Thus, the “virgin birth prophecy” is stated this way: “A young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him ‘Immanuel.”” (The same goes for “virgin” in Luke 1:27.) Although explainable, and possibly more accurate, this is odd considering that the same words are translated “virgin” elsewhere in both the OT and the NT.

Neither the NIV nor the ESV suffer from these issues, but given that the GNT does not translate all mention of Christ’s blood in salvific contexts as “death,” and that the original languages, context, and a prophetic view of Isaiah 7:14 can support either “virgin” or “young woman”, neither were deal-killers for me.

The Ugly

Other mistranslations are even more difficult to rationalize, though. For example, in Revelation 1:11, Jesus’ words, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” are inexplicably left out. Why this wasn’t simply “translated” as “beginning and end of everything” or something like that is beyond me.

Other mistaken translations seem to imply heresy. Philippians 2:6, for example, reads, “He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had.” This is seriously theologically flawed. Jesus had the nature of God and was equal to God. This equality was not forced and could not be given up.

Another potentially heterodox translation is found at Romans 8:3 which says, “What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like man’s sinful nature, to do away with sin.” Although mitigated by the presence of the word “like,” this could be seen to imply that Jesus had a sinful nature which is completely false.

Finally, in Colossians 2:9 we have a translation howler that would have the Chalcedonian Fathers rolling over in their graves: “For the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity.” Wow, Monophysitism anyone???

Translation Reality

As one who prefers good word-for-word Bible translations and basically never uses anything else, it was difficult for me to get past some of these poor renderings. Many of the GNT’s issues, however, are simply ones that can come up with any overly-simplified Bible version (and often enough in so-called “literal” translations as well). While not the worst, the GNT is certainly not the best.

Although the NIV has some very irritating issues, it generally reads closer to the way people are used to hearing the Bible translated, and the ESV is generally very good (but not always, for example, in the ESV Malachi 2:16 is translated, “For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts.” The original text says that God hates divorce.)

Other resources exist for purposes of memorization or study, and this was a Bible I mostly just wanted him to enjoy reading. The GNT is not bad for a translation dedicated more to readability than theology. I doubted the errors would make a big impression at this stage of his life. His spiritual formation is largely my responsibility anyway, and as can be seen from the few examples given above, reliance on one’s Bible translation is never completely safe. If it comes down to a decent Bible with a few explainable errors that my kid will read, or one a great one that he won’t, I’ll take the former.

Presentation (Layout, Notes, and Other Goodies)

Besides an understandable translation, I also wanted good extras – ones that would help me teach my kid, but also draw him into his own reading. Here is where the The Catholic Children’s Bible really shined.

I was not super happy with the packaging, which was a bit on the cartoony side – but that’s what Bible covers are for, and even the “paperback” version has a plasticized cover that is fairly strong. Unfortunately, The Catholic Children’s Bible is rather large (over 10″ tall), so the majority of Bible covers (including the largest of the awesome one I wanted) do not fit. It was what I found inside the cover that made the strongest impression.

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The outside edges include two different colorful navigation aids. The bottom indicates what major section one is in (Pentateuch, History, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel/History, and Epistles), and the side shows individual books (no tabs):

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The Bible opens with a section on how to use it. It introduces the reader to what the Bible is exactly – a bound library. This is the same lesson I always began my New Testament classes with (which may sound pedantic, but the implications of this simple fact often remain unrealized otherwise). The colors of the books on the shelves in the image correspond to the bottom page coloration (pictured above) so the different sections can be found quickly.

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After explaining where the books are, it then shows readers how to find Bible verses. Again note the colored tabs which match the side page coloration (pictured above) so the different books can be found more quickly.

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Each book begins with a brief introduction which includes “Featured Stories” instead of a detailed outline. This is another time I needed to remember the purpose of this Bible – it’s not for academic study! Kids like stories, and the ability to find them quickly contributes far more to their interest than a detailed chapter outline. (I remember when I became a Christian, all I knew about the Bible was the story of Sampson – and it was very embarrassing to not even be able to find that!). Further, these story lists are all collected in the front of the Bible right after the table of contents, so there is no need to flip through every book to find a specific story.

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The text pages are printed in a large, friendly font in two comfortably spaced columns which are laid out in book-style paragraphs. The pages have kid-friendly feature such as increased line spacing, bold vocabulary words, colorized text, and minimal hyphenation for easy reading. These pages are minimally decorated, and there is little in the way of distractions. There are no footnotes or cross-references – about the only text additions are some very rare asterisks indicating that a textual note is available in the Appendix.

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Again highlighting the importance of stories, each Featured Story is laid out more extravagantly than the regular text, so they are easy to spot as you page through a book. Each one is broken into several parts including vocabulary (Read It!), commentary (Understand It!), personal application (Live It!), and a comprehension review (Tell It!). All these are designed to help kids enjoy the Bible more (Love It!), as well as help parents teach them.

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Last, there are some fairly short additions in the back of the Bible including the above-mentioned Appendix, a brief Bible Timeline, Color Photos of various biblical places and things, Maps (which helpfully include event locations and not just place names), some devotional Practices and Prayers, and the very last page lists Bible Passages for Special Times (for when the child feels happy, sad, or afraid, or if they get hurt or hurt others).

And if all this was not enough, there is an entire family of related products available to go with the Bible such as a Leader Guide, an Activity Booklet, a Game, and an App that parents can use to teach their children using the Bible itself.

Competition

NIV Adventure Bible

NIVADV

The closest contender was the NIV Adventure Bible. It was available in many editions, and even its most “cartoony” cover had a more “grownup” feel. Each book is introduced by the “5-W’s” question format (Who wrote it?, What is it about?, etc.), and the in-text features include memory verses (Words to Treasure ), definitions, facts, and Q&A (Did You Know?), personal application (Live It!), and sections on Life and People in Bible Times. Each of these sections have good graphics (see below) – and lots of them, which might be considered distracting. It also has a good Index and Dictionary.

NIVADV1 NIVADV2

Unfortunately, although the NIV translation is more traditionally worded than the GNT, this also makes it more difficult to read. The translation also succumbs to problematic theological bias. (Note: At the time of this writing, it was still possible to find a “vintage” edition with the original 1984 NIV text.) And of course, it also lacked the “Deuteroncanonical” books of the Old Testament. These factors seriously mitigated the cool cover and other features which were about equal to the Catholic Children’s Bible.

ESV Seek and Find Bible

ESVSF

My second choice was the ESV Seek and Find Bible. The ESV is a generally solid translation, so that was a huge plus. The Bible comes in a variety of editions besides the graphically-intense hardcover, which was also nice. The Bible also has a lot of the same kinds of standard study features as those listed above (character profiles, Bible places, objects, maps, etc.).

ESVSFexamples

The basic issue was the perceived-age factor. All of the positive features of the Bible appear adult (or at least mature teen) oriented. The hardcover’s artwork is the most mature, and is reflected in the text features as well. These are all very good as far as realism goes, but not very graphically captivating. Although I appreciated the inclusion of short Bible stories right in the text, the format is not something I think would interest a child. Also, like the NIV, it lacks the “Deuteroncanonical” books of the Old Testament. The quality of the textual translation was not enough compensation for the Bible’s overall age level.

Conclusion

On a grading scale, I’d give each one about a B+, but for different reasons:

Child Complete Correct
Catholic Children’s Bible (GNT) A- (packaging cartoony and too large, great content) A (contains all books) B (translation just OK, notes good)
Adventure Bible (NIV) A (packaging excellent, great content) B- (“Deuterocanonicals” missing) B- (notes decent, translation anti-Catholic bias)
Seek and Find Bible (ESV) B- (packaging and content good, but too adult) B- (“Deuterocanonicals” missing) A- (translation good, notes good – but sparse)

In the end, the Catholic Children’s Bible sufficiently met my main criteria and edged out the competition for my purposes.

And, of course, I’ll be going through this all again in about 5 years when the oldest is a teenager . . .

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