William Beck’s “Bible in the Language of Today” (1976)

William F. Beck, The New Testament in the Language of Today. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1963.

William F. Beck et al., The Holy Bible in the Language of Today, An American Translation. New Haven, Missouri: Leader Publishing Co., 1976.

William F. Beck (1904-1966) was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota. He became a minister himself after graduating from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1927. For the next sixteen years he served as a pastor in Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregations in Iowa. In 1943 he left the pastoral ministry to work for the LCMS Office of Publicity and Missionary Education in St. Louis. In 1946 he was hired as an editor at Concordia Publishing House, where he was responsible for the production of Sunday school materials, devotional pamphlets and periodicals for young people. During this time he was also a doctoral student at Concordia Seminary. In 1956 he received a Th.D. in New Testament, and in the following year he taught courses at the seminary. In 1959 he published an English translation of Gospel texts arranged in the form of a harmony, entitled The Christ of the Gospels.

According to an article written by his son, 1 Beck first began to prepare translations of parts of the New Testament during the 1930's and 40's, while he was a pastor in Iowa. At that time, his congregations were using the King James Version, but he "discovered that even his Sunday school teachers were having a difficult time understanding" it. He became convinced that "a simpler text was needed, if his people—young and old alike—were to grow in their knowledge and love of Scripture," and so he began to provide his students with his own translation of the texts used in the Sunday school lessons.

As one might expect from such an origin, Beck's version of the New Testament (1963) was a modern English translation, informal in style, and at a rather low reading level. Although Beck was theologically conservative, he did not believe that it was practical to expect laymen to learn the meaning of important theological terms such as "justification" and "grace." In his version he avoided such terms; he used "become righteous" instead of "justified," and translated charis with "love" instead of "grace." The need to explain the ruling presbuteroi ("elders") of the early churches is avoided by calling them "pastors" (Phil. 1:1, Acts 20:17, 1 Tim. 5:17, Titus 1:5). Beck also avoided all literary-sounding words, such as "blessed," for which he substituted "happy" (in the beautitudes we read that those who mourn are "happy"). 2 The text is full of the clichés, contractions and elisions of colloquial speech, in keeping with Beck's idea that the words of the New Testament authors were utterly casual in tone. In his preface to the New Testament (1963) Beck maintained that the language of the New Testament is the sort of language people use "at their coffee and doughnuts." This idea about the style of the New Testament was in vogue among American scholars during the the 1930's and 40's, but by 1960 it had been abandoned by most. In any case, it seems inappropriate to picture Jesus holding a doughnut as he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," or a cup of coffee as he says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." There is something peculiarly tactless about this attempt to give a conversational tone to the discourses of Christ and his apostles, which are anything but casual. Beck maintains that "when we let God speak the living language of today" (i.e. when we confine him to the jejune expressions and ordinary words of common speech) then "a reader can instantly get into the spirit of the words." But the spirit of the words is betrayed when Christ is made to talk like our chum.

At the time of his death in 1966, Beck was working on a translation of the Old Testament. He had finished the first draft, and was revising it. After his death, his friends gave the manuscript to two scholars: Elmer Smick (professor of Old Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary) and Erich Kiehl (Concordia Seminary). Smick and Kiehl recommended certain revisions, and the text with these revisions was published together with the New Testament as "An American Translation" (ATT) in 1976. In this edition of the complete Bible the New Testament was also revised somewhat, in order to correct problems in the version pointed out by the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations 3 The complete Bible was not published by Concordia Publishing House, but by Herman Otten's "Leader Publishing Company" in New Haven, Missouri. Soon afterwards a second edition was issued, containing a text further revised by one of Beck's friends, Dr. Phillip B. Giessler. In this second edition "grace" replaced Beck's "love" as a translation for the word charis, "blessed" replaced "happy" in the beatitudes, and "justified" replaced "became righteous" in some places. We give a sample passage from this second edition of the AAT below.

After the publication of the second edition of the AAT, Giessler continued to work on a revision of Beck's New Testament, which was published as the God's Word to the Nations (GWN) New Testament in 1988, and reissued as the New Evangelical Translation (NET) New Testament in 1990.

Michael Marlowe

1. Reu Beck, "The Life and Work of Dr. William F. Beck," Multi-Language Publications Newsletter (quaterly publication of Multi-Language Publications of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) 27 (March 2003), pp. 2-3.

2. Several other versions of the Bible have used the word "happy" instead of "blessed" to represent the Hebrew word ashre (Psalm 1:1) and the Greek makarios (Matthew 5). But, as D.A. Carson puts it, the problem with "happy" is that "it focuses too narrowly on one's psychological state rather than on God's approval." (D.A. Carson, "A Review of the New Revised Standard Version," The Reformed Theological Review 50/1 [January-April 1991], p. 3).

3. Comparative Study of Bible Translations and Paraphrases. Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, September 1975. This report examined several versions and criticized them for failure to agree with the interpretations in A Short Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1943).

We reproduce here the review of Beck's New Testament in the Language Of Today (1963) which appeared in Bibliotheca Sacra 121 (July 1964), pp. 268-269.

If in Solomon's day it could be affirmed that "of making many books there is no end," in our own day it might equally be said that of making many translations there is no end. Indeed, the proliferation of English versions of the Bible in modern times is so bewildering that each additional one ought to be required to furnish compelling justification for its existence. It is for such justification that we must look in the translation now under review.

This work has as its commendable goal to present the Word of God in "the language of today and tomorrow." Without question its translator has devoted many laborious hours to its production and can rightly be honored for his devotion to the Scriptures. Yet, at the same time, the total result is disappointing. The translator has evidently accepted a fallacy which more than one modern version displays, namely, that precision in presenting the thought of the original can be—or ought to be—sacrificed in the interests of clarity and readability. The New Testament in the Language of Today has clearly made this sacrifice throughout.

A few examples must suffice. The crucial Greek word charis in John 1:14 and 1:17 has here been rendered by "love" by which means it becomes perfectly indistinguishable from the word agape (e.g., John 15:9, 10, 13), yet the two words are certainly not synonyms. Likewise, in Titus 1:5 and 7 the Greek words presbuteros and episcopos are both rendered by the English term "pastor," which is corect for neither as well as prejudicial to the understanding of New Testament church doctrine. A doctrinal passage like Romans 7 and 8 is found to be honeycombed with interpretative renderings, some quite misleading. In Colossians 2:10 the rich phrase kai este en auto peplepomenoi becomes almost colloquial with the rendering, "And in Him ... you have a full life." And so on, for examples like these can be found on almost any page.

The effect of this mode of New Testament translation is inevitable. There is produced thereby a version interesting enough to be read through by those seeking fresh insights, but not sufficiently accurate to be read often or studied intensively. And no translation of the Bible which fails to meet these last requirements can expect to have either a wide acceptance or an enduring value.

Z. C. Hodges

Romans 9 from the AAT, 2nd ed.

I'm telling the truth in Christ, I'm not lying, as my conscience by the Holy Spirit assures me, 2 when I say I have a great sorrow and in my heart a pain that never leaves me. 3 I could wish myself cut off from Christ and damned for my fellow Jews, my own flesh and blood. 4 They are the people of Israel. They were made God's family. They have the glory, the covenant, the Law, the worship, and the promises. 5 They have the ancestors, and from them according to His body came Christ, who is God over everything, blessed forever. Amen.

6 It doesn't mean God failed to do what He said. Not all who are descended from Israel are the real Israel, 7 and not all who are descended from Abraham are for that reason his real children. No, Isaac's children will be called your descendants. 8 This means children born in a natural way are not God's children. Only the children he had because God promised them are counted his descendants.

9 God promised: I will come back at the right time, and Sarah will have a son. 10 The same thing happened to Rebekah. She was going to bear children for our ancestor Isaac. 11 They had not been born yet or done anything good or bad. Even then—in order that God may carry out His purpose according to His choice, which doesn't depend on anything we do but on Him who calls us— 12 she was told: The older will serve the younger. 13 And so the Bible says: I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.

14 Does this mean God is unjust? Never! 15 He says to Moses: I will be merciful to whom I want to be merciful; I will pity whom I want to pity. 16 Then it doesn't depend on anyone wanting it or running hard after it but on God being merciful. 17 The Bible says to Pharaoh: I raised you to the throne to demonstrate My power on you and to spread the news of Me all over the earth. 18 So He pities whom He wants to pity and makes stubborn whom He wants to make stubborn.

19 You will ask me, "Why does He still find fault with anyone? Who can resist His will?" 20 But now, who are you, man, to talk back to God? Will anything shaped by a man say to him, "Why did you make me like this?" 21 Doesn't a potter have the right over his clay to make out of the same mud one thing for a noble purpose and another for a lowly purpose?

22 God wanted to show people His anger and let them know His power, but He waited very patiently before He would punish those who deserved it and had prepared themselves for destruction, 23 so as to show the riches of glory He has in store for those He's merciful to and long ago prepared for glory— 24 I mean us whom He called not only from the Jews but also from the non-Jews.

25 So He says in Hosea: Those who are not My people I will call My people, and those who are not loved I will call My loved ones, 26 and where they were told, "you are not my people," they will be called sons of the living God. 27 Isaiah exclaims in regard to Israel: Though the people of Israel are as many as the sand by the sea, only a remnant will be saved. 28 The Lord will completely and decisively execute His sentence on the country. 29 So Isaiah said long ago: If the Lord of armies hadn't left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom and ended like Gomorrah.

30 What does it mean? Non-Jewish people who didn't search for righteousness found a righteousness we get by believing, 31 while Israel, pursuing a Law with its righteousness, didn't find it. 32 Why? They didn't try to get it by faith but thought they could get it by works. They stumbled over the stumbling block, 33 as the Bible says: I'm putting in Zion a Stone they will stumble over and a Rock they will fall over. But if you believe in Him, you will not be disappointed.