The book you see pictured here may be familiar to some of you. That wouldn’t be a big surprise, since the last time I checked (which was actually a couple of years ago) it had sold more than 7 million copies in its various formats and incarnations.
There is something else rather interesting about the book you see here. It’s not the first one to roll off the printing press: it’s the second. This book sits on a bookshelf above the fireplace in my family room. The first copy resides about 3 miles south of my home at the residence of my friend and former colleague.
How do I know that? At the first printing of this book, I was the Production Manager for the publishing company that produced it. I stood at the printing press (located in Berryville, Virginia if you care to know) and watched the first books come off the press. It was kind of a big deal for our publishing company and I was there to make sure everything went according to plan.
The book itself is a translation of the Bible (actually, just the New Testament at the first printing) written by a pastor/scholar who would read the ancient texts in their original languages (mostly Greek and Hebrew) and then try to capture the tone, the feel, and the urgency that those words would have had for the people hearing them for the first time. Instead of trying to find exact English words that exactly match the originals (an impossibility as anyone who has ever tried to translate something from another language can tell you) he tried to put the words into the same kind of vernacular that the average person on the street would use—in much the same way that the original manuscripts would have sounded to listeners of the day.
It was an ambitious project—and one that almost didn’t happen.
A lot of people don’t like it when you mess with the Bible. They want it to sound lofty and erudite. They want it to feel grand, majestic, and elevated. After all, that’s the way it always sounded when it was read from the pulpit in their church. But this pastor/scholar knew that it hadn’t sounded that way to those who had first heard it. It spoke to them on their level and used language that sometimes hit them between the eyes.
Some people loved that approach. Perhaps most notable among them being Bono, the frontman for U2, who regularly extolled the books virtue from the stage at the band’s performances. Fairly recently a video was released in which Bono went to the Pacific Northwest home of this pastor/scholar (whom Bono also called a poet), where the two men talked at some length about the impact of the book.
But as I said before, it was a project that almost didn’t happen. How it came to be is a bit of a modern day miracle (if that’s not stretching things too much).
My friend—and at that time, colleague—had become quite familiar with the writings of this pastor/scholar/poet and was greatly impressed with it and with the potential it had to impact a vast number of people. He had read some snippets that the man had translated from the New Testament—in an attempt to help the members of his congregation grasp what the Bible was really saying.
This friend had contacted the pastor and asked him if he’d ever considered translating the whole New Testament in the same way—in order to help a larger group of people understand the meaning. The pastor responded that he wasn’t interested. He probably knew some of the resistance that would come from attempting such a work—and frankly, he had a congregation to take care of.
My friend, however, is one of those tenacious (in the best sense of the word) people who was convinced that this was something that needed to be done. He continued to pursue the pastor: writing letters and explaining the potential impact. As a trained theologian himself, he knew what he was looking at—and how to talk about it to another theologian.
After months of relentless encouragement, exhortation, and imploring, this pastor finally agreed to meet with the members of the publishing team to explore the options. I won’t bore you with the details, but as the team and the author got deeper into discussions, they realized that there was something of great significance here. Although the initial release limited itself to the New Testament, the project grew to include other books of the Bible—and eventually the entire Bible.
Sales of some 7 million copies are at least some kind of an indicator of how this work was received. It became the flagship title for the publishing company, and spawned a whole product line.
The revenues from this book basically kept the publishing house afloat in a time when traditional publishing was struggling to survive. Although I don’t know (and wouldn’t say if I did) the exact details of the author’s contract, his bank account certainly didn’t suffer.
They say that a rising tide lifts all boats. This rising tide certainly lifted the collective boats of the publisher, the author, and many a bookstore. My friend’s boat? Not so much. He received a small bonus from the publisher and continued to work on the project for several years until health issues forced him into an early retirement.
He remains good friends with the author/pastor/scholar/poet whose work he helped bring to life—something both of them treasure. But he also has the knowledge that he has helped to touch the lives of millions of people. He (and a few others) knows that it wouldn’t have happened without him.
And, he’s got the first copy of that book that ever came off the press!