Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"I Want to Read What Abraham Lincoln Read"

Sometimes life experience comes in handy.

T. came up to me, looking for a staff member who might know more about Bibles than he did. A customer was asking about which Bible Abraham Lincoln would have read. Formerly (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) I was married to a pastor, which gave me more than a passing familiarity with Bibles. I volunteered to see if I could help the customer.

The customer, a man in maybe his late 30's or early 40's, graying hair, beard, slight build, had an armful of books. He was standing by the Bibles. He knew that Abraham Lincoln read a lot, and he wanted to read the Bible that he would have read. There are so many different versions, he was feeling overwhelmed and not sure at all which to even look at.

I told him that Abraham Lincoln probably would have read the King James version, since that was the only English translation of the Bible at that time. All of these other translations, Revised Standard Version (RSV, which is what I grew up reading), New Living Version (NLV), The Good News Bible, etc., were released quite a bit after Abraham Lincoln was alive.

"What about the Catholic Bibles?", he asked.

"The Catholic Bibles (again, good old life experience comes in handy. I used to teach in a Catholic school) have more 'books' in them. The Protestant bible has 66 books. There were many who wrote about the Jewish faith (Old Testament), and about Jesus and his life and his teachings, both while he was alive and after, over time, there was much debate about which of those writings would be included in The Bible. It's still being debated, but the Catholics decided that more books, or more of the writings, should be included as part of the Bible than the Protestants, so the Catholic Bible includes more 'books' than the Protestant Bibles.

"Oh, I didn't know that," he said. "Abraham Lincoln read a lot, and I want to read what he read as much as I can.

"I know Lincoln wasn't Catholic (though at the time I didn't remember to what church he belonged - I just looked it up, he was raised Baptist and attended a Presbyterian Church as an adult), so my guess is that he read a non-Catholic King James version of the Bible," I told him. "The thing is, the King James version has pretty flowery language. It's kind of like reading Shakespeare. It's not always the easiest to understand, not always the most accessible for modern readers. There are LOTS more recent translations, all of which are trying to help the reader understand better AND be an accurate reflection of the original text. I grew up with the Revised Standard Version, and now there's the NEW Revised Standard Version, both of which are a lot less flowery than the King James version."

"Oh, wow," he said. "I didn't realize there were so many versions. So it might not help me to read the King James version if I want to read what Lincoln read?"

"Well, reading the King James version will give you a sense of what he read, certainly the kind of language with which he was familiar. It just may not be the most easy to understand version of the Bible for YOU."

"Ah. Right. Hmm. Well, I'll have to look some of these over and decide, I guess. Thank you so much for your help."

When I left him, he looked a bit less confused, though maybe more overwhelmed.

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