The Gospel of Matthew as a graphic novel

Simon Amadeus Pillario, the artist who’s creating the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic novels, has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help him complete the next volume in the series, the Gospel of Matthew. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a biblical-theological consultant to this project (unpaid), and so I get an inside view of its workings and an advance glimpse of its progress. I must say that I’m just as excited about this next book as I have been about all the others, right from the start: Judges, Ruth, Mark, Joshua, and Esther. Let me give you a little peek into how this next volume is shaping up, and I think you’ll be excited too.

First, as always, biblical scenes are depicted in the comic based on painstaking historical research, so that the customs, clothing, buildings, means of transportation, etc. are all shown accurately and faithfully to the actual events. As I said in my very first post about this series, “One might argue that this is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. This series instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.” Here, for example, is a detail from the scene in which the forthcoming Matthew comic shows Joseph “taking Mary home” to be his wife:

But because of this concern for historical authenticity, in some cases the comic has to make reasonable judgements about the likely historical background to certain episodes. For example, all Matthew tells us is that Joseph and Mary went to “Egypt” with Jesus when they fled from Herod. However, one short episode in the gospel takes place during their time of flight, and it has to be set somewhere. Where should that be? The comic places the family in Alexandria. Readers of this blog will know that that’s exactly where I think they stayed (see my post, “Where did Jesus live in Egypt?“), so naturally I think that is fair enough. Here’s the panel showing the location, with the famous lighthouse in the background:

Also in this next volume, the artist continues to demonstrate delightful and amazing creativity in presenting the text of Scripture visually. For example, consider what he does with Jesus’ genealogy—just a list of names, right? No, each figure in the genealogy is accompanied by a little picture that captures a key moment in his life. I have to admit that I had a lot of fun trying to determine what was going on in each picture, based on how the person’s story is told in the Old Testament. Isaac, for example (the second from the left in the top row in the panel just below), with eyesight failing him in old age, is trying to figure out whether Esau or Jacob stands before him asking for his blessing. The three sections of this genealogy are shown on three separate panels of the comic, so that the visual presentation also respects the literary structure.

One more thing to add about the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic is that it will use the New International Version (NIV). Previous volumes used the World English Bible, which is in the public domain, but the artist has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of the people who license the NIV so that the comic can now feature a translation that is itself acknowledged and trusted for its accuracy and reliability. I recognize that the licensors are expressing a real vote of confidence in this project by allowing the NIV to be used with necessary alterations such as the removal of quotation marks and formatting required for the printed page, as well as adaptations for the graphic novel format such as adding emphasis by using bold type or all caps, and replacing commas with ellipses that connect speech bubbles.

At this point I’m sure you’d love to see more, and you can—you can download a PDF sampler of the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic here. And you can see everything that’s happening in the Kickstarter campaign at this link. I invite you to support the campaign and become a part of this project!

Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic: Another tour-de-force

Esther, the next volume in the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic-novel presentations of biblical books, is now available. I find it another tour-de-force by the artist, Simon Amadeus Pillario. It’s particularly impressive that he has researched and portrayed a third cultural and historical context, that of the Persian Empire, after the land of Canaan in the settlement period for the Joshua, Judges, and Ruth volumes and the first-century Mediterranean world for Mark. All the sumptuousness of the Persian court, where the story of Esther takes place, comes through in the detailed and historically accurate artwork.

The cultural and technological achievements of the Persians are also depicted, for example, the way the emperor could communicate rapidly and effectively in multiple languages throughout his far-flung territories.

Even though I’m a lifelong student and teacher of the Bible, seeing another volume of the Word for Word Bible Comic, as always, has given me insights into the biblical story that I never had before. For example, because Mordecai won’t grovel before him, Haman wants to have him hanged on a gallows “fifty cubits high.” We read this and don’t think much of it, as we may not know how to translate the ancient measurement into modern terms. But in the panel that shows Haman being hanged on his own gallows, the comic illustrates that this actually works out to seventy-five feet high! (A small-scale replica here would not do this justice; the image takes up an entire page, and it stops you in your tracks. You need to see it for yourself in the comic.) Haman not only wanted to kill Mordecai, he wanted to make an example of him for all to see, far and wide. He was a terrorist in the true sense of the word—he wanted to create terror that would keep anyone from opposing him.

But beyond these realistic and informative touches, the real genius of this latest volume is its characterizations of Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman. The story revolves around those four figures; it moves back and forth between scenes with each one  at the center. While the comic is faithful to the biblical narrative, reproducing every word, it tells much of the story just through their facial expressions—and they are eloquent. Here, for example, Ahasuerus is contemplating whether to spare Esther’s life after she steps uninvited into his throne room.

Through such portrayals, readers of the comic are drawn immediately and irresistibly into the intrigue between Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman, and thus right into the fast-paced story itself. But as it should be, Esther herself is at the center of the book and the story. Her portrayal, in which she develops from a little girl in pigtails to a stunning natural beauty who is also a woman of strength, courage, and character, is the highlight of the comic. You’ll have to get the book yourself to see this entire development unfold. But here’s a preview of how it begins:

You can order Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic series at this link.

And, as a special bonus this time around, you can download and preview the first chapter at this link.

I was going to say, as I have for all the previous volumes, that I highly recommend this book. But I think if you download the preview, I won’t need to say another word. You’ll see for yourself!

Disclosure: I am an unpaid biblical-theological consultant to this project. (It’s a great privilege!)


That was a big temple! (And other realizations from a graphic-novel version of Mark)

Update: The artist behind the Word-for-Word series has successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next volume, the Book of Esther. Follow that link to see several pages from the new work already taking shape.

One of my professors in seminary compared reading Paul’s letters in the New Testament to listening to only one side of a telephone conversation. The two people in the conversation have a shared understanding of the situation they’re discussing, and they’re talking to each other in light of that understanding. But if a listener doesn’t have the same background, things will make a lot less sense to them.

I think the observation actually applies to the Bible as a whole. The biblical writers were addressing an audience that shared an understanding with them of the historical and cultural background they were speaking into. We today typically don’t have that same understanding, and so we either find that some things in the Bible don’t make sense to us, or else we think we understand them when we really don’t.

That’s why I believe so much in the project known as the Word for Word Bible Comic. As I’ve described in some previous posts, it’s a series of graphic novels being designed by Simon Amadeus Pillario. (I serve as an unpaid biblical consultant to the project.) Each volume depicts an entire book of the Bible. The artwork is based on painstaking cultural, historical, and archaeological research, so that readers (viewers) can experience the biblical story with a much greater understanding of its background. This gives much deeper insights into the story itself.

And so I’m very excited that The Gospel of Mark has just been released as the latest volume in the series. (You can order a copy here.) Let me share a few ways in which seeing a graphic depiction of this version of the story of Jesus’ life has helped me understand it better.

One thing that always puzzled me a bit was how Jesus could teach in the Jerusalem temple, often challenging the Pharisees and other religious teachers and speaking to them quite harshly, but then slip away and escape capture when they tried to arrest him. I mean, he was in the building, right? How hard would it have been for them to find him? But when I saw some of the panels depicting the temple in the graphic-novel version of Mark, I said to myself, “That was a big temple!” And it was filled with huge crowds. I saw how Jesus could have slipped into the crowd or down a staircase and out of sight. Below are a couple of panels that show this. (There’s also a full-page panel in the graphic novel that shows the whole temple layout and the huge crowds it could accommodate. It’s just one of many full-page panels that capture key elements of the story of Jesus’ life in one sweeping glance.)

Another thing I’ve often wondered about was how people could walk in on Jesus and ask him questions, beg for favors, or even pour perfume on him when he was eating in someone else’s home. And what exactly do the gospels mean when they say he was “reclining at the table”? How could you eat when you’re lying down? The Gospel of Mark in the Word for Word series has several depictions of such meals, including the one below, that answer these questions. This particular panel is based on illustrations that come directly from the first-century Mediterranean world. It shows how people were actually allowed to enter the room and stand by the walls and listen when someone was entertaining a teacher.

Another incident I’ve wondered about in the gospels is the one in which the people of Nazareth try to throw Jesus off the cliff at the edge of the hill  their city was built on. This episode isn’t related in the Gospel of Mark, it’s in Luke, but the graphic novel version of Mark answers the question just the same. One panel shows Jesus and his disciples approaching Nazareth:

This is an accurate rendition of the layout and location of the city in the time of Jesus. Already we get the idea that we’re in mountainous country. We can see how there might be a cliff at the far edge of the city. But a later panel shows even more specifically how a settlement in first-century Palestine, though it’s not Nazareth specifically, might have been built in such a precarious location.

These are just a handful of the insights I got personally from reading through Mark as a graphic novel (even though I’m supposed to be a biblical consultant to the project!). I’m sure it will give you as well a greater appreciation for the historic and cultural background to the story of Jesus, and thus for the story itself.

I also can’t resist mentioning how delightful I continue to find the imaginative ways in which the artist envisions the story. It has been said that reading is a creative act, and I find Pillario reading the story of Jesus, and re-telling it visually, in consistently creative ways. For example, here’s how he envisions the cloak-and-dagger episode in which Jesus’ disciples find their way stealthily to the upper room where they’re supposed to prepare the Passover supper:

Another of my favorite panels is the one that shows Jesus answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar. He asks to see a coin and he uses it to give the perfect answer, and as he does, he tosses the coin back to the person who brought it! A wonderfully imaginative way to envision that episode.

But finally, I’d also like to stress that for the artist, this isn’t just a commercial or even a creative project. It’s an act of devotion. While the graphic novel presents the text of Mark, it visually includes episodes from all the gospels. In that way, it’s a “life of Christ.” And writing (or in this case drawing) a life of Christ is a time-honored devotional endeavor. I find many places in the novel where the artist’s faith in Jesus and appreciation for his sacrifice come through clearly. Jesus is featured on the cover of the novel bound and bloodied, not calming the storm at sea or taking the little children in his arms. Jesus’ physical sufferings for us are portrayed realistically but also reverentially, not gratuitiously. Many times, as I reviewed such panels in development, I said out loud, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!” I know that’s the response the artist wants to draw forth from us.

Along those lines, one of the most moving and meaningful panels for me, which captures the artist’s faith, skill, and imaginative power all at the same time, is the one that shows Jesus willingly surrendering  to his would-be captors in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Hallelujah indeed.

Review: Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic

Joshua, the latest biblical book in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series by Simon Amadeus Pillario, has been released today. You can order a copy here. I’m excited to offer this review. (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid biblical consultant to the project. Images in this post are reproduced with permission.)

First, I’m very pleased by the historical and cultural accuracy of the presentation found once again in Joshua. This is a hallmark of the series. As I said three years ago in my very first post about this project, “Bare printed texts . . . invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul.” The Word-for-Word series corrects this by presenting visual images based on painstakingly careful research into the findings of biblical archaeology.

For example, when Joshua commands the Israelites to carry large stones out of the Jordan and set them up at Gilgal, the comic depicts these stones being arranged in a circle. While the biblical text doesn’t say explicitly that this was how they were placed, that’s suggested by the name Gilgal, and we know that people did make “stone circles” at this point in history.

The comic also corrects a wrong visual impression we may have about what happened when the walls of Jericho “fell flat.” It shows them collapsing straight down into rubble, instead of falling forward intact like dominoes.

Along the same lines, in the episode where the casting of lots reveals Achan as the party responsible for stealing from the spoils from Jericho, the biblical text says that Joshua “brought Israel near by their tribes.” The comic shows shows only the tribal leaders coming forward at that point. And only the clan leaders assemble when Joshua next “brings near the families” of Judah. Readers of the text (myself included) may have thought that Joshua brought forward many thousands of people at a time in this episode, but this depiction makes much better sense and suits the practices of the culture.

I’m also impressed by the way this next volume once again uses a very creative presentation to pull off a transformation in genre. It draws on all of the conventions available within a graphic novel to bring a literary text to life visually.

This is particularly effective in places where the narrator speaks at length and there is little dialogue between the characters. In one such place, the comic portrays Jabin of Hazor thinking of and listing off the kings he wants in his coalition, keeping track on his fingers and pausing to think of more names, instead of just putting the list of kings in a long sidebar of written text. Similarly, the narration flows directly into Adoni-Zedek’s thoughts as he considers whether to oppose Joshua: “Gibeon was a great city . . .” And when the narrative quotes from the Book of Jashar, that book appears in the panel as a scroll, bearing the text quoted.

The comic even transcends its own genre in some places where the panels themselves seem to join in the action. In the battle against the enemy coalition led by Adoni-Zedek, when Yahweh “confuses” their forces, the panels are placed in every direction on the page, even upside down. With similar creativity, only a single image of the Israelites marching is needed to depict them circling Jericho seven times, because the image is sliced into seven frames. This is one comic that isn’t just a succession of rectangular boxes.

One of the things I find most powerful is the way that the comic uses its visual powers to show that later parts of the biblical story are always lived in light of the earlier parts of the story. As Caleb tells Joshua that he’s just as fit for battle at 85 as he was when he was 40, an image is shown in the background of Caleb as a young warrior leaping into a fight. He’s recognizably the same person, but his beard and hair are black, instead of white as in the foreground. This is how Caleb is seeing himself as he speaks. Similarly, as Joshua recounts Israel’s earlier story to encourage the people to renew their covenant with Yahweh, that story is illustrated in luminous background images.

Beyond this, I find the imaginative viewpoints from which the artist chooses to depict the action simply delightful. The dawn scene at start of the second attack on Ai is viewed from the angle of a bird in a tree. As the Gibeonites are producing faked evidence that they’ve traveled a long way, Joshua’s skeptical face is seen through a hole in the bottom of one of their worn-out shoes!

These imaginative viewpoints can also bring out powerful truths from the text. When the Israelites remove the stones from the mouth of the cave in which they’ve trapped five enemy kings, the artist portrays this action from inside the cave. There’s an amazing scene of the five kings hiding their eyes from the bright, unaccustomed light that is breaking in on them. Of course this happened literally, but it’s also eloquently symbolic.

The Joshua volume includes various kinds of maps that are all used for good effect. There are small inset maps that show where the Israelites are going as they move from place to place, or that trace the action in battles. I’ve often thought that the middle part of the book, in which the land is divided among the tribes, would be best presented through maps, and that’s what’s done here. When the narrative lists all the cities the Israelites conquered, a helpful map of those is offered as well.

Joshua is admittedly a difficult book in many places because of the slaughters it reports. The comic presents this violence unflinchingly but not gratuitously. It discreetly lets the narrative carry the story in places where a full depiction would be very disturbing visually. (Like other volumes in the series, this one carries a 15+ warning, i.e. it’s designed for readers who are at least 15 years old.)

Let me conclude by quoting the overall reaction I shared with the artist after reviewing the volume as his biblical consultant: “The artwork and fidelity to historical detail are simply amazing. I feel as if I’m right in the middle of the action. Every panel has interesting things to see and learn from. I’d love to teach a study on Joshua sometime using this as the text!” I heartily recommend Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series.

The Word-for-Word Bible Comic goes gospel

I’ve posted a couple of times about the Word for Word Bible Comic, first when its graphic-novel presentation of the book of Judges was being developed, and then again as Judges and Ruth were released. I’ve been so impressed with the historical and cultural accuracy and compelling visual imagery of this series that I’ve gladly agreed to become a biblical consultant to the project. And now I’m pleased to announce that it’s moving into the New Testament with a Kickstarter, beginning today, to fund development of a presentation of the gospel of Mark.

Let me share one draft image from that book, with the artist’s kind permission, to illustrate its groundbreaking approach. This is a detail from the scene where Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist:


Contrast this with the type of depiction you may have seen before:


What are the differences? For one thing, the landscape of the Jordan River is far more accurate in the Word for Word version. It shows how the area is basically desert, sloping down dramatically to the river, with vegetation appearing only near the edges of the water. The river itself is strong and rushing, which it was in the time of Jesus, particularly in that season and location. By contrast, the traditional image shows a verdant scene with hardwood trees and gently rippling water.

Another difference is that in the Word for Word image, Jesus and John the Baptist both look Jewish. Which they were, of course. In fact, readers of  the series may even recognize that Jesus bears a family resemblance to other characters from the tribe of Judah who have been depicted in earlier books, while John the Baptist resembles those from the tribe of Levi. Of course we don’t know what any of the ancient Israelite tribes looked like characteristically, but this series is adopting certain conventions to illustrate how they developed distinctively into clans, and then carrying that distinction forward right through the Bible. What better way to visualize the continuity of the biblical story? This is the kind of subtle attention to detail that’s embedded in every panel of these graphic novels.

But probably the biggest difference between the two images is that in the Word-for-Word illustration, Jesus is excited! Something amazing is happening here. Not only has he “fulfilled all righteousness” by being baptized (an overwhelming emotional moment, as any who have experienced it can testify), heaven has opened up and the voice of God has spoken! (Depicted in the full image, shown below.) The crowds are excited, too. Who wouldn’t be, at such a moment? Well, Jesus in the traditional image, for one. And I guess it’s only one, since there are no crowds in that image!

One more remarkable thing about the Word-for-Word image is the standpoint from which the artist views the scene. It’s from the middle of the river, slightly above the action! No human being could observe the scene from there. It’s the visual equivalent of an “omniscient narrator” in literature. By contrast, the traditional image is from the perspective of someone standing on the shore of the river, perfectly possible, but much less remarkable and revelatory of the actions and emotions involved. (As I’ve read through the forthcoming Joshua volume in my capacity as a biblical consultant to the series, I’ve been struck over and over again by the fresh perspectives from which the artist views the story. This often gives greater insights and is a significant contribution that should not be overlooked.)

I hope these few observations on one part of one image from the planned Word-for-Word Bible Comic: Gospel of Mark are enough to give you an idea of the radical and refreshing approach it’s taking. I invite and encourage your support for the project on Kickstarter.


Did God decree that a wife’s desires would be “contrary” to her husband’s?

Crossway recently announced that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions . . . to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.”  That way “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

Update: The next month, Crossway issued a statement saying, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Crossway said it would “allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”

This so-called “permanent text” of 2016 represents a third revision of the translation, which was first published in 2001 and then revised in 2007 and 2011.  This last text incorporates what the publisher calls “a very limited number of final changes” (“52 words . . . found in 29 verses”) that are designed to make “a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding” of the text at these places.

One of these changes has already become very controversial. In the account of the fall, in previous editions of the ESV, God says to Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

The permanent text now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  I am not aware of any statement that Crossway or the ESV Translation Oversight Committee may have offered explaining the rationale for this change.  But it appears to me that the concern was that the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” would be misunderstand to mean that Eve would still want to be emotionally and relationally close to Adam, and that to accomplish this she would accept to live in a household in which he was in authority.

These phrases actually do mean something different.  They appear again, in word-for-word parallel, shortly afterwards in Genesis when God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  Sin is represented metaphorically as a wild animal poised to pounce on Cain, and this makes clear the meaning of “its desire is for you”: Sin wants to have Cain in its power, but Cain must not succumb to that power; he must remain in control of his own actions.

So it is important to correct the misimpression that Eve has a “desire for” closeness and affection with Adam.  No, she wants to have him in her power.  But he will resist and dominate her instead. In other words, after the fall, marriage is no longer a cooperative enterprise but a struggle between husband and wife for dominance.

However, I don’t think that the ESV has gone about correcting this misimpression the right way.  The expression “your desire will be for your husband” (= “its desire is for you”) is an idiom.  (Like Muhammad Ali famously saying “I want Joe Frazier,” emphasis his, before one of their fights.)  It is not describing an actual desire or longing that a person feels.  Instead, it means, as the New English Translation puts it, “You will want to control your husband.”  The New Living Translation says similarly, “You will desire to control your husband”—desire in the sense of wanting to do something.

But the ESV now uses, for the first time in any English translation, a qualifying adjective, “contrary,” instead a preposition (“for” or “against”) as in Hebrew.  The presence of this adjective requires us to understand this literally as an actual wish, desire, or longing, and one that is necessarily opposed to the husband’s wishes.  Now “he shall rule over you” means not “you won’t be able to control him,” but he will get his way, you won’t get yours!

Still, does this really matter that much, since in any event it portrays a formerly cooperative relationship dissolving into conflict?  I believe it does.  The essential issue here is interpretation rather than translation, but a given translation can serve to advance one interpretation and hinder or prevent another.

The interpretive question is whether redemption restores God’s original intention for marriage, so that within the kingdom of God couples can live out a cooperative enterprise once again, or whether male authority needs to be insisted upon even among regenerate people.

I’d observe that we do everything we can to mitigate all the other effects of the fall as described in Genesis.  We use every technique and medication available to make sure that women have as little pain as possible in childbirth.  I don’t know one man who doesn’t try to make his work as efficient and labor-saving as possible.  (Another effect of the fall was painstaking toil to earn a living.)  So shouldn’t we also believe that we’re supposed to mitigate the distortions in husband-wife relationships, and in male-female relationships generally, that resulted from the fall?

The mandate to do this is clear if the consequences of the fall are that husband and wife will both try to be in control.  Once they become regenerate people, they will treat one another the way the New Testament says all followers of Jesus should treat each other: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Taking this attitude makes marriage a cooperative enterprise once again.

However, if the consequences of the fall are that husbands and wives will want “contrary” (opposing) things, and the solution is that the husband gets his way, and the wife has to “submit” to that—what’s there to fix?  There’s no conflict when everybody knows who’s in charge.

But leaving things this way is dismal.  How much better it is for both husband and wife to bring all of their increasingly sanctified hopes and wishes and desires to the table, and if some of them differ, for the two of them to seek God earnestly to find a greater plan, more comprehensive and far-reaching than either of them could imagine, that will catch up everything they could hope or dream for into an enterprise that calls for all of their gifts to be used to the fullest, interactively, to bless far more people than they ever could have anticipated.

We should not continue to see a husband’s and a wife’s desires, if they differ, as contrary, in light of provisional arrangements made after the fall.  Instead, we should recognize them as complementary, just awaiting the hand of the Creator to weave them together into something unified and glorious.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” Benjamin West (1791). How many of the effects of the Fall are mitigated by God’s redemption?

How much blood should there be on the cover of a graphic novel of the book of Judges?

I’ve been an enthusiastic backer of The Word for Word Bible Comic since April 2014, when the project first went public with a Kickstarter campaign.  (Here’s my original post endorsing it in its early stages: Can a graphic novel presentation of Scripture still be the Bible? In this case, yes.)  It’s been a privilege to be one of the many resource people that the artist in England, Simon Amadeus Pillario, has reached out to repeatedly over the past two and a half years to ensure that his work is “historically accurate, unabridged, and untamed . . . with a high view of Scripture.”

Today the first two books in the series, Judges and Ruth, go on general release. I can heartily encourage all of you to get your own copies!  (You can order them here.)  For all of the reasons I give in my earlier post, this project will enable you to read these biblical books—every word of them—while immersing yourself in an authentic visual experience of the culture and customs of the times.  (For example, Philistine warriors aren’t dressed like Roman soldiers. Pottery and furniture are authentic to the period.  And, as I note in my first post, the art in the series even follows the shift from four-spoked wagon wheels to six-spoked wheels, when that shift occurs historically.)

Let me illustrate the kind of choices that Pillario has had to make along the way to giving us this authentic presentation through the example of one issue he asked for advice about last month, as the books were heading for the printer.  Here’s the cover of Judges:

As you can see, it depicts several characters from the book, including (from top to bottom) the angel of Yahweh, Gideon, Deborah, and Samson.  Samson has just killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey and, as should be expected, he is covered in their blood. This is different from the visual treatments of the episode we may be used to, such as this one, in which somehow no blood is spilled:

Pillario’s question was, Does my cover simply have too much blood on it? Someone had expressed a concern that it might be inappropriate, if these “Bible comics” were going to be placed where young children might see them.  Pillario explained options such as making the blood brown rather than red, or presenting Samson as a red silhouette.  (You can see all these options in his blog post on the topic.)

But by and large the people who responded, myself included, felt that the realistic depiction should be retained.  I observed, “There’s already a 15+ advisory, so the comic isn’t supposed to be down where younger children can see it anyway. One of the best things going for Word for Word is its realism and authenticity. And, well, there’s lots of blood in the book of Judges.” (Of course we still need to come to terms theologically with how much blood is spilled in biblical books like this one. But the first step in that process is to admit that it’s there.)

Most others felt similarly. Another commented, “I think it’s cool. Top shelf in the church’s library, but cool.”  And someone else advised, “I think you should make this, and everything in your adaptation of the Bible, as close and as faithful as possible. Definitely go with the bloody original. You wouldn’t make Christ’s crucifixion any less bloody and gory than it’s supposed to be.”

So the Judges graphic novel being released today still has its original cover. Pillario also invited input on the cover for the book of Ruth, in its early stages. For a look at all the considerations that went into that design, see this post on his blog.

But I don’t mean to focus all the attention on the covers.  That’s just a way of giving you a feel for the care that has gone into these books.  As a Kickstarter backer, I already have a prepublication coy of Judges, and I can testify that these graphic novels are full of amazing things inside. (For example, here’s a post with a link to a video about all that goes into a single interior page in Judges.)

Once again, I encourage you to get your copy of these eye-opening authentic treatments of the Scriptures!

Does the NIV translation fail to reflect the “new perspective on Paul”?

I recently heard from a reader who became interested through this blog in The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that can be read without the distractions of chapter and verse numbers, etc.  However, he was initially concerned about the NIV translation, used in that edition, because, he said, “of an article I read which makes me worried that the translation of Paul’s epistles is too much in the Reformed tradition and ignores the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship.”  I think those concerns can be addressed.

At issue here is the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which is a vast and complicated discussion, but which involves questions such as whether Paul was saying that our salvation comes to us from God completely apart from works (the Reformation emphasis), or whether Paul was saying only that distinctively Jewish observances such as the Sabbath are not required of Gentiles, but that God expects everyone to produce good works as a result of their salvation.  Since the real question here is about the NIV translation, I won’t go into the “new perspective” any further, except to observe its implications for some specific translation choices.

In a 2003 public lecture, N.T. Wright, a noted exponent of one version of the “new perspective,” called the NIV’s translation of a certain phrase in Romans “appalling.” He felt it described God’s own righteousness, but the NIV rendered it as “a righteousness from God,” that is, one that would be imputed to a human being.  In the same lecture, Wright noted that the NIV, also in Romans, left out the word “or” before the question “is God the God of the Jews only?” This seemed to have been done in order to soften the impact of what would be, from the Reformation perspective, a sudden and difficult-to-explain shift from a discussion of individual salvation to the topic of how Jews and Gentiles together form the community of faith.

I don’t know exactly what article about the NIV and the “new perspective on Paul” my reader was referring to, but I suspect it may have been written before the latest update to the NIV was released in 2011, and so it was based on the 1984 second edition.  This most recent update includes changes to many of the passages that likely caused the concerns expressed in the article.  (I’m grateful to this post by T.C. Robinson on his blog New Leaven for much of the information that follows.)

For example, the statement whose translation N.T. Wright found “appalling” formerly read this way:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  In the latest update to the NIV,
it now reads, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  The previously missing “or” has  been placed in front of the statement that follows shortly afterwards: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?”

Within this same passage in Romans, the NIV now refers to God’s “righteousness” in a couple of places where it previously spoke of God’s “justice.”  And where the translation formerly said of Christ, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood,” it now reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith.”

Other material that’s present in the Greek but formerly missing in the NIV is also now reflected in that translation.  As the discussion continues, Paul asks, according to the 1984 edition, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”  This omits any representation of the phrase kata sarka, which follows the term propatēr (“forefather”).  The latest update to the NIV reads, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?”

It should be noted that some of these changes were actually made as early as the 2001 TNIV New Testament.  The TNIV was meant to be understood as the latest word from the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), and as such it was effectively the third edition of the NIV.  It would be folded into that translation as part of its 2011 update, which may be considered the fourth edition.  The TNIV NT changed “a righteousness from God” to “the righteousness of God,” for example, in the place we’ve been considering.

The TNIV also changed “through faith in his blood” to “through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”  And it referred to Abraham as “the forefather of us Jews,” not simply as “our forefather,” beginning to reflect the way that proponents of the “new perspective” see the Jew-Gentile dynamic running through the book of Romans.  These changes all followed the TNIV into the NIV in its most recent update (with of us Jews becoming according to the flesh, a more literal rending of kata sarka).

This is not a comprehensive survey, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the exact reasoning behind the changes, but it certainly appears to me that the CBT has been working, in every update it has issued since the “new perspective” came to prominence, to ensure that their translation does reflect the most up-to-date scholarly understanding of Paul’s writings.  So I see no need to avoid the NIV based on the belief that it ignores the “new perspective on Paul.”

[Disclosure: I was a consulting editor for The Books of the Bible, which appeared first in the TNIV in 2007 and was reissued in the NIV in 2011.  I have also consulted with the CBT on specific projects such as the visual formatting of material like genealogies, lists, etc. in the NIV.]

A mosaic depicting St. Paul, Ravenna, Italy, late 5th century

Seven New Bibles That You Need (Don’t Worry, They’re All the Same One!)

From time to time on this blog I review books that have to do with the Bible.  Full disclosure: I’ve been working closely with this author for over a dozen years on various projects, beginning with The Books of the Bible.

There’s a new book out that will help you understand what’s wrong with your Bible—why it’s not working the way you expect.  The book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves, is by Glenn Paauw, vice president for global Bible engagement at Biblica and a director of the Institute for Bible Reading.

When you open your Bible, Paauw says, chances are you’re getting lost in the clutter—cross-references, study notes, topical headings, call-outs, etc.—and barely making it to the text.  What you need is an Elegant Bible, one that’s clean and clutter-free, featuring “unencumbered words on a page, pleasingly set, easy to read.”

Is your Bible just offering you “snacks”—little tidbits that never really satisfy your appetite?  Then you need a Feasting Bible, one in which you enjoy full meals— whole biblical books—at length and at leisure.

Have you been encouraged to see the Bible as something that dropped fully formed out of heaven?  And aren’t you wondering why it doesn’t read as if it did?  You need a Historical Bible, one that you can tell emerged from the covenant community’s interactions with God over centuries.

Do there seem to be no connection between the things you’re reading about in the Bible?  Is it just a law here, a proverb there, and some stuff that doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere?  You need a “Storiented” Bible, in which everything is clearly tied together into a compelling story.

When it’s just you and your Bible, don’t you feel lonely?  That’s because reading and studying the Bible were meant to be shared experiences.  You need a Synagogue Bible that will enable and empower you to read and study God’s word in community.

If, when you read the Bible, all you see are free-floating phrases from some ethereal realm, then you need a Earthly Bible, in which it’s clear that God’s word has everything to do with life here on this earth.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but is your Bible just plain ugly?  Type bleeding through from the back of thin pages, crowded printing, Industrial Revolution overtones?  What you need is a Beautiful Bible, like the ones the church produced in ages past, and which it is showing signs of producing again.

How can you get a Bible that’s all of these things?   Some of it has to do with the actual physical form.  If you wouldn’t describe any of the Bibles on your shelf right now as elegant and beautiful, then you actually do need one more copy.  But the rest of these things have to do more specifically with thought patterns: what you understand the Bible to be, and what you believe you’re supposed to do with it.  And if you want a clear, comprehensive explanation of that, then read Saving the Bible from Ourselves.  It will give you a new Bible in your mind.

Why isn’t the TNIV available on BibleGateway?

Q. Do you know why BibleGateway does not have the TNIV?

The TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was officially “folded into” the updated NIV in 2011. The TNIV, published in 2005 and produced by the same translation committee as the NIV, was essentially the third edition of the NIV, after the 1978 and 1984 editions. Previously Biblica and Zondervan were publishing the TNIV alongside the 1984 NIV, but now only a single edition of the translation, the 2011 update, is being published.

Harper Collins, which owns Zondervan, also owns BibleGateway, and in keeping with this policy it does not make the TNIV available on line. For those who still want to use the TNIV online, however, it can be found at BibleStudyTools. [Update: Unfortunately the TNIV is no longer available at this site, either.]

I have to admit that the translation remains a favorite of mine for its accuracy, readability, and especially its careful work in the area of gender accuracy, and I use it often.  The Books of the Bible made its debut in the TNIV in 2007 before being reissued in the latest update to the NIV.  The TNIV was used for other notable projects such as The Bible Experience, an audio recording of the Scriptures by leading actors. The 2011 update to the NIV incorporates most of the changes the TNIV made to the 1984 edition.