McCormick lends expertise to new Bible translation

03-01-2010 by

Geoff Ashmun
From faculty to students, alumni/ae and trustees, the McCormick community is bringing its cross-cultural and ecumenical values to bear on a major new project called the Common English Bible

The Common English Bible (CEB) is a translation of the Bible designed to maximize accessibility to ancient scriptural texts and enhance church worship and personal study for a broad spectrum of contemporary Christians. The project is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2011, and a free PDF download of the Gospel of Matthew is available now at

According to Dr. Lib Caldwell, an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA), Walker Professor of Pastoral Theology at McCormick and Readability Editor on the CEB’s Editorial Board, one of the most inspiring aspects of the project was simply the diversity of the participants.


"This new translation of the Bible represents the work of a diverse and ecumenical group of translators who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, African American, Latino/a, Asian and Caucasian.  In my work with reading groups in local congregations, I wanted as much or more diversity with groups who would be assessing the readability of our work. - Dr. Lib Caldwell

One of the overarching challenges in the project has been striking the right balance between readability and faithfulness to historical context. On the front line of this tension are the translators.

“One of the basic issues I wrestled with is the introduction of footnotes,” says Dr. Sarah Tanzer, a Reformed Jew, Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at McCormick, and Secondary Translator of the Book of Ruth.

“Getting rid of archaic language that sounds so stilted to modern ears is, from my perspective, very important. However, there are also opportunities to provoke the reader’s curiosity and to foster an awareness of the differences between the modern world and the ancient world. The two are often collapsed into one. In Ruth, for example, it talks about ‘gleaning’ in the fields. The choice is between finding a more modern, familiar word or using ‘gleaning’ with a footnote so that the reader doesn’t gloss over what he or she doesn’t understand. For the translators, there are judgment calls like this at every step of the way in which we have to weigh what is at stake."

Seventy-seven dedicated reading groups representing 13 faith traditions embarked on a rigorous process of assessing the translation, which by then had passed through two different translators. The primary translator was given the role of providing the initial translation and setting the tone and scope, while the secondary translator would offer a critical second pass and make relatively specific revisions.

“One of the most interesting things about the group I convened is the demographics,” said PCUSA student Abby Mohaupt, who served as Readability Group Coordinator for the second half of the Book of Numbers. “I worked with a relatively young, very diverse group – a couple of Presbyterians, a Southern Baptist, a scholar of Jewish history, and a non-denominational Christian among others. We all brought our different theological and political sensibilities, which at times made for some lively debate and moments of ‘I love you, but you’re wrong.’ But in the end, I was struck by how much the text ended up reading like a narrative. It was really exciting to be a part of that.”

Find out more about the Common English Bible, its leadership and participants at