Open Scriptures

Until today I was unaware of the demise of the RE:Greek project (formerly known as Uncertainty about the fair use of copyrighted materials led the founder to shut down the site. Another site is taking up the cause however and hopes to work toward increasingly “Open Scriptures.” Check out Open Scriptures and their article on RE:Greek, Redeeming the Ill-fated Re:Greek Project: a Call for Participation.

  1. Who owns the Bible?
  2. Who owns the copyright on the Bible?
  3. Who owns the copyright on editions of the original languages?

Interestingly, Zack Hubert who created RE:Greek now works for Zondervan who recently purchased Bible Gateway. What we’ve seen in the last century is publishers becoming the key players in Bible distribution in the developed world. We are at an interesting transition period in which Bible Societies are fading, Bible publishers are being snatched up by secular publishers, and an open source movement is afoot that is redefining the concept of “The Bible.” What is The Bible? Is it that book on your shelf? Or the software on your computer? Or the mp3s on your iPod? And the seemingly endless array of specialty editions of the Bible have further eroded the concept of “The Bible.” Study notes, cross references, little boxes with devotional thoughts in them. The list goes on. Is all that stuff “The Bible?”

Mainstream media paradigms are shifting. Publishing is in upheaval. The Bible market will not be unaffected. In fact the Bible has actually led the pack in open source and online resources much like it has during each of the various technological breakthroughs that have led to more people having access to more information.

The rebel in me wants to say, “Let’s storm the gates! God wrote the book! How dare you copyright it!” But I’m hesitant to make so bold a claim since I’m not sure that “crowd-sourcing” and “open source” are going to fill the gap if Bible Societies and publishers go under.

I’m less concerned about saturated markets like the US than I am about places like Mozambique where the Bible Societies are the only source of Bibles and they are currently unable to fulfill the demand.

28 thoughts on “Open Scriptures

  1. Theophrastus says:

    The German Bible Society earns significant profit from their electronic versions of the Scriptures — especially those with the apparatus of the BHS, NA27, and their editions of the Septuagint and Vulgate. This is true for books as well: you’ve noticed that their own books are expensive, and when they license the text and apparatus, the resulting book is inevitably expensive.

    For example, Logos’ SESB CD-ROM retails for $325 — and unlike virutally all of their other projects, Logos will not discount that price — I challenged them on this and was told that their license with the German Bible Society did not allow this.

    The case with the Hebrew text is different — there are plenty of transcriptions of the Masoretic text — so it is easy and cheap to find and won’t be going away soon. The apparatus is expensive, but that is all original work by the researchers.

    In the case of the Greek text, the constant tweaking of the Greek has resulted in a situation where the most widely used version is under copyright (although I suspect that for most people, older versions of the Greek text — or even TR, would prove satisfactory.)

    I would have hoped that Bible Societies would want put their work in the public domain, or under a Creative Commons license, or license it at a low cost. But this has not been the case, and it is not just the German Bible Society that is at fault here. IBS sharply protects its NIV copyright (and its high royalty fees reportedly lead to the SBC sponsoring the HCSB.) JPS also demands people who post the text of its NJPS translation to take it down.

    It seems to me that the challenge is to convince Bible Societies to allow freer distribution of their material.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    (PS: To forestall teasing, I was using the plural noun when I wrote “their” above — not the “singular they”. Actually, if we want to fight out the “singular they”, maybe we can do it in a separate thread.)

  3. Theophrastus says:

    I’m sorry — your post is very provocative and covers lots of territory, and I cannot resist the temptation to add to it.

    I am especially focusing on this comment: And the seemingly endless array of specialty editions of the Bible have further eroded the concept of “The Bible.” Study notes, cross references, little boxes with devotional thoughts in them. The list goes on. Is all that stuff “The Bible?”

    Well, speaking for the case of the US (you probably don’t have that many crazy Bible editions in Mozambique), I think it can be argued that a number of the editions are in poor taste (e.g., the 24-hour Bible, Bibles for recovering alcoholics, Bibles as colorful fashion accessories, etc.) I don’t really see this as a problem. The fact is that with any of the major translations, consumers have a multiple selection of “cheap plain Bibles”, “fancy Bible-text only Bibles”, “inspirational Bibles”, or “scholarly commentary Bibles.” So everyone can get what he or she wants. I can’t see the harm in that.

    Now, true, I’ve seen a number of the Bible editions offered (and I am especially point a finger at Zondervan here, although B&H and Tyndale also deserve some lumps) that just ridiculous. I can’t imagine why anyone would want one. And yet, someone does. In the vast majority of editions, the editors go to some length to distinguish the Biblical translation text from the extraneous material. Of course, the best editions at doing this are the KJV translations, which even mark words in italics that were added for grammatical comprehension. (That’s a tendency that many people dislike, but you must admit, it does help clarify a little bit the difference between “translation as commentary” and formal translation.)

    Next of course are textual footnotes in the text that explain features about the original language text — such as an ambiguity in meaning, a disagreement among different versions, etc. You may find these distracting, but in fact, they are trying to convey the meaning of the text more precisely.

    Then come additional annotations. I grew up in a tradition where Bibles were expected to be annotated, so this strikes me as completely natural. The historically most important Protestant English edition of the Bible ever published, the Geneva Bible — had extensive footnotes. Jewish Bibles have been annotated with variant versions (e.g., Targum Onkelos) and commentaries (e.g., Rashi) for centuries. Catholic Bibles, dating back to the Hexapla, have included variant translations and have been heavily annotated at least since the Rheims and Douai editions.

    In fact, I find some annotations to be so useful that I buy copies of translation I already own just to have a new set of annotations. Good annotations and commentaries become classics in themselves. They are not the Bible — no, not at all — but they can aid in understanding the Bible.

    Bibles with inspirational remarks are usually not to my taste, since I find most of the inspirational remarks to be cliched or less profound than the original Biblical text. However, even here there are exceptions. One example is the poem Paradise Lost which is a retelling of the Fall of Man/Adam. Another example is the Jewish mystical book called the Zohar which is an inspirational commentary to the first five books of the Bible. Works such as these are profound and interesting enough to have become works that have substantial inherent interest on their own.

    I also own many illustrated Bibles — some spectacular facsimile editions of medieval or Renaissance Bibles, other with illustrations by contemporary artists (e.g., I have a Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali). These are also wonderful, and I can’t imagine you would want to suppress them. Indeed, looking at illustration can often add a new layer of understanding to the Biblical text.

    So, of course, I don’t like tacky or dumbed-down or sloppy commentaries (and heaven knows, we have no shortage of those) but I don’t think you can claim that the idea of a Bible is under attack by editions which include extra material. If so, then it has been under attack for a long time — ever since the Second Temple period when bilingual Aramaic-Hebrew bibles were made, ever since Origen compiled his sixfold edition, ever since Luther wrote volume after volume of commentary, ever since the Calvinists prepared the Geneva Bible, ever since the English recusants prepared the Douay-Rheims Bibles, ever since “dynamic translation” (which incorporates interpretation into the translation) was invented, and it seems more popular than ever now.

    Today, with Amazon, print-on-demand publishing, and the Internet, the average American has access to a Bible in any form he or she might possibly desire. So, there is really no excuse for not reading it. May Mozambique someday have a similar range of different volumes.

  4. docdeer says:

    The concern I have regarding this subject is that if Bible publishing (or copyright ownership) falls into the hands of fewer and fewer companies, and these companies in turn fall to secular ownership, the bottom line becomes the driving force behind it all. Secular companies may be far too easily influenced to make “editorial” changes in order to protect other ventures. For instance, controversy hurts the bottom line, so let’s remove anything deemed too controversial. The bottom line is dictated by appealing to the masses, so will we begin to see translations fall because they only appeal to a select group of scholars, educators, or pastors? I hope not. I have no problem with a Bible translation that’s aimed at the average American reading level, and filled with full color pictures of Jesus. I just would hate to see it be the only one available.

  5. David Ker says:

    Thanks for your comments, T. When I travel it’s with a 1948 Nestle edition of the Greek because I like the size (and I like old books) and it’s suitable for my level.

    Mozambique is in many ways analogous with medieval Europe. Semi-literate clergy interpret Bibles that aren’t in their mother tongue. A crucial difference is that believers are expected to own a Bible but they are often in Portuguese, a neighboring language, or an archaic translation. Mozambique isn’t illiterate, rather it’s largely aliterate. Communication is almost exclusively oral and the most popular medium is radio. A big part of my job is understanding how to make God’s Word accessible in such a situation. So I don’t ever see publishing catching on in this part of Africa like it did in the West.

    In defense of the Bible Societies, IBS is quite a different beast, established specifically for handling the licensing of the NIV. And despite the attending trivialities that you have shown, I think the free market consumer model is best in Western Society.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    Who owns the copyright on editions of the original languages?

    The best thing about Zack Hubert’s site wasn’t just openness and access (as, say, an alternative to a bound copy of the 1948 Nestle edition of the Greek or to some hugely expensive and limited to one machine bible software). Hubert had the Greek language text linked to others’ helpful resources (lexicons and such) and to his own instant (and free and anywhere anytime) concordance maker. As brilliant as Zack is (and he is – no wonder mars hill and then zondy snatched him up), there are Mozambiquans as brilliant, I hope. I love hearing about the radio and cellphone leapfrogging of technologies that those with lesser means are able to do. It’s exciting to see what you’re thinking about at There are plenty of universities and google-like orgs archiving for access the old language texts. How to interaccess them? Looking forward to seeing what brilliant women and men are coming up with.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Interesting topic. I may well blog about it myself.

    A correction concerning IBS: It was not “established specifically for handling the licensing of the NIV”. It was founded as early as 1809, under its previous name as the New York Bible Society, and so is celebrating its bicentenary this year. See this history. It never became part of the American Bible Society or the United Bible Societies, I suspect because it has remained more clearly evangelical. Clearly handling NIV and TNIV is now an important part of its work, but in recent years it has also been active in sponsoring translation and distribution of Bibles in many languages around the world.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    Perhaps it might be helpful to add this regarding the NIV and (I believe) the TNIV.

    These are the only translations which have contractual and legal separation of responsibilities for the purpose of protecting the quality of the translation from financial self interest.

    The Committee on Bible Translation (the people who did the translation) does not own the copyright and therefore can’t leverage what they don’t have for any personal gain.

    UBS owns the copyright.

    Zondervan publishes and markets the translations. They license the publishing rights from the copyright owners (UBS). They had no influence on the translation.

  9. Robert Murphy says:

    I was so inspired by Zack I opened my own original language wiki called Reformed Word dot org. I have the Greek, Hebrew, Latin, KJV and WEB for all verses of the Bible. It’s a wiki, so it’s not all there, but it uses Semantic technology, so you can search for, example, “all instances of THEOS in the Genitive Singular Masculine in the NT.”

  10. Theophrastus says:

    In fact, I believe IBS, not UBS owns the NIV and TNIV copyrights.

    Also, I think it is not at all unusual for translators to receive no royalty from the copyright holders. For example, the RSV and NRSV translators did not have financial interest in those translations — the copyright is held by the National Council of Churches, and the translators did not receive a royalty.

    The New York Bible Society (now IBS) formed and paid all fees for the CBT, just as the NCC did with the translation committees of the NRSV and RSV.

    An exception to this rule is when an individual (rather than a committee commissioned to perform a translation) translates the Bible and publishes it as a book, e.g. Eugene Peterson (perhaps Peterson donates back part of his royalties — but he is legally entitled to royalties.)

  11. Timmy C says:

    On this topic: are there any serious and well done modern English translations of the Bible that are either public domain or Creative Commons-based translations?

    I’m aware of a few that seem less than robust:

    It would seem to me that the buffer against private companies (and fewer and fewer of them as they get bought buy bigger publishers) owning the Scriptures is to exactly do “crowd sourcing” and “opensource” translations.

    A group of editors could manage a world wide group of translators helping build out this modern translation, which could be updated continually as language changes and as better translations occur.

    It would seem to be at least a Creative Commons license like this:


    Attribution, Share Alike
    Where anyone can edit, create, share, reuse, remix and improve the work and create new works BUT they have to attribute the original project and work AND they have to also do any derivative work in the exact same Open License.

    It would seem a vibrant open modern English translation here as a labor of love and devotion could be absolutely game changing, and encourage new works improving upon that base.


    Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
    All the goodness of the above license, but does not allow derivative works to be commercial in nature.

    Someone should do this. It would only help even if it were to only inspire better translations by the bigger, copyrighted sister translation projects.

  12. David Ker says:

    Tim, I am preparing a post on WikiBibles. My initial reaction has been, with the exception of the LOLCat Bible, that crowd sourced Bibles are incomplete and of poor quality. Part of the reason is that there are so many translations that can be had for free already in English. The Better Life Bible (see Versions on this blog) is available for free download. The NET and ESV are given away at Sword project and elsewhere.

    So I guess my answer to your first question is: no.

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    For a formal equivalence Bible I like the general approach of the World English Bible, although it is technically a paraphrase of ASV, which is out of copyright. I have had some contact with the project leader, Michael Paul Johnson, who works alongside SIL translators in Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea. The main issue that I have with this translation is that it has been adapted to correspond to the Greek Majority Text – but it would be legal to adapt it back to follow the UBS Greek text as Johnson makes no copyright claims and I don’t think UBS claims copyright on translations of their text.

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    Yes, you’re right–It’s IBS not UBS. I recalled incorrectly. Acronym amnesia.

    Also, to be clear, I didn’t say anything about whether or not the CBT received any money from the copyright holders. My point is that those making money on the translation and marketing the same (Zondervan) could not influence the CBT.

  15. Timmy C says:

    Thanks David and Peter:

    Can’t wait to hear your thinking on a wiki-like user created Bible translation. I agree that there is nothing really other than the paraphrase of the ASV out there in part due to the wide availability of copywrighted modern English translations… But I think for the very reasons listed in this thread, the need for a high quality, always evolving truly modern English translation will become more and more obvious.

    For example, to use the TNIV, you get this restriction:

    “The TNIV® text may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic or audio), up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, providing the verses do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for 25 percent or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted.”

    A solid, well translated modern English Creative Commons licensed work would need none of those restrictions, and a text set free would inspire other continued better translation, and would aid in envangelism, study, etc…

    And it could be done I think with a relatively small core team of editors, who then enlist the work of tons of free amateur and professional translators donating their efforts in a labor of love to produce a “Better Bible.”

    And the Creative Commons licenses I think take out the argument that the larger publishers have against freeing up the texts…their argument that if you do that you have no more control over the quality of the work.

  16. Michael Carden says:

    I have to say I like the idea of the creative commons bible, primarily because it opens up the possibility of working with the plurality of biblical texts and canons that exist now and have existed in the past. In fact I was disappointed to check the various links to sites here and see that they are working with the standard English language Protestant bible based on a Christian ordering of the Jewish Tanakh plus the standard New Testament. This canon is only one of several Christian canons and definitely the most recent. It is very much a hybrid too. The early church used the Greek bible which remains the norm for the Old Testament of eastern Christianity.

    Like Theophrastus I own a variety of Bibles: my trusty and well thumbed NRSV with all the deuterocanonicals; my first bible, the Jerusalem Bible; a Douai Rheims English translation based on the Vulgate; 2 King James bibles – a small pocket version without Apocrypha/deuterocanonicals and a larger one with both them and notes; the Lamsa bible based on the Peshitta; the NIV; the New American Bible; the JPS Tanakh; a Good News Bible; the Orthodox Study Bible; the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible; the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS); Brenton’s 19th century edition of the LXX with Greek and English text. I also have a Hebrew Bible, Greek New Testament, Rahlfs Septuaginta as well as a Latin Vulgate Bible. I subscribe to the notion that there is no original ur-text of the various versions of the scriptures and I think it really important for the 21st century that a truly ecumenical bible become available so that Christians can fully understand and appreciate the riches of their scriptures, And given the multiple versions of particular books e.g. Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther, Judges etc it might also serve as a corrective for fundamentalist literalist approaches to the scriptures.

    Augustine argued against Jerome that the LXX should sit beside the Hebrew and not be displaced by it. I would agree (and would add other ancient versions such as the Samaritan and the Qumran variants). Perhaps Augustine had something like Origen’s Hexapla in mind. That was a massive undertaking in its day and is a worthy model for what I would envisage as a future bible for the third millennium.

  17. Theophrastus says:

    Mike, I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I believe that Zondervan exercises considerable influence over the CBT. For example, in the famous Colorado Springs Agreement of May 1997 CBT (Ken Barker) and Zondervan (Bruce Ryskamp) representatives both jointly accepted responsibility. Furthermore, my understanding was that the decision to proceed with the TNIV translation was made only after consultation with Zondervan.

    I should further note that IBS itself is a Bible publisher, although it distributes (by mutual agreement with Zondervan) in separate distribution channels.

    My bigger point is that I fail to see how

    CBT :: IBS :: Zondervan

    is fundamentally different from (for example)

    RSV/NRSV Trans. Cmt. :: NCC :: Harper.

    Can you explain what distinction you see?

  18. Timmy C. says:

    Closest thing, I’d agree.

    But still quite far. Their Ministry friendly licenseing terms are a step, but unless I misread their site, the following is still true even for noncommercial use:

    “The NET BIBLE® verses may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic, projection or audio(see 1a below) without written permission, providing the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible, do not comprise 50% or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted, and the verses are not being quoted in a commentary or other biblical reference work.”

    A bit more free than the others, but not by far.

    Far from a true Creative Commons licensed work, that could allow for anyone to use the whole if it, remix or improve it, translate it further into new dialects of English, etc… and to and if they’d choose the right license, it could still protect the one reason they give on their site to retaining copyright: license fees:

    “You may ask (as we have): “Why not just make the NET Bible public domain? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?” It does solve the permission problem but stifles ministry another way….When a publisher prints a public domain KJV they pay no royalties to anyone, but they still make millions of dollars in revenue – and don’t have to spend any of that money on ministry or charity. We didn’t create the NET Bible to save royalties for such publishers.”

    And maybe I missed it but I didn’t see any simple tools on their site for ANYONE to suggest better translations of different bits of Scripture.

    It would be fascinating to see a completely new modern English Creative Commons Sharealike work being tried as a small experiment. Say being tried just with a small subset of the NT. Take the book of James, or John’s Letters.

    You could post specific translation goals and philosophies similiar to those advanced here: No Biblish, use the best modern English possible, etc…

    Have a core editing team as final oweners of the final release text, but freely allow trusted armatures and professionals to join in.

    I’ll bet even that small experiment would show the value of what could be done.

  19. David Ker says:

    Have we ever had a Bible Society rep comment on this blog? They seem to be very quiet on the Internet. Maybe they are active on mailing lists?

  20. Rob says:

    I’ve long wondered about the concept of copyrighting the Bible, as this seems to serve as a barrier to sharing the gospel. Plus since the authorship is truly of the Holy Spirit, can the work of the Holy Spirit be copywritten?

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