History of the World English Bible

By Michael Johnson

A Conversation with God

In March 1994, before the World-Wide Web was something most people in the United States knew existed, I was praying. I was in a beige Volkswaken Rabbit, driving from Longmont to Boulder on the Diagonal Highway and talking with the Lord. I was asking Him directly about the lack of a modern English, quality translation of the Holy Bible that could be freely distributed and copied without royalty payments or copyright violations via electronic and print media.

To be honest, the answer startled me. The Lord clearly told me to do a Bible translation. We discussed that for a while, and the Lord prevailed over my rather lame arguments. (I'm glad the Lord is patient with me.) One message from God can change things forever.

God's Living Word

I started studying some things about Biblical Greek and Hebrew, learned to use some scholarly helps, and dug in, starting with John. The resulting translation was called "God's Living Word." I started posting drafts of the translation on appropriate groups in Usenet and on an email mailing list. Many people came along side and helped with the work by proofreading, suggesting improvements in wording, etc. Most of these people I don't even know, or know their qualifications. Some claimed to be experts, some did not, but I judged their suggestions, not the suggesters. We got through John, John's letters, and we were starting on Revelation, when I calculated my rate of progress, in verses per week, and extrapolated how long it would take to translate the whole Bible at that rate. You see, I was working full time in an engineering job, active in church, taking care of a family, and doing this translation in little snippets of time that were available after all of that. Consequently, I had to be very efficient with my time, but could not compromise on accuracy. After all, this is the Holy Word of God we were talking about. Anyway, since I wasn't happy with my projected age (about 150 years old) at the time of project completion, and I wasn't sure Jesus would wait that long to come back, I took this up with the Lord again.
Naturally, the Lord's answer surprised me. He first pointed out to me that the American Standard Version of 1901 was firmly in the Public Domain. Indeed, it was even more so than the more archaic King James Version, which is still encumbered (at least technically) by a Crown Patent that is effective in British Commonwealth countries. The ASV is also widely regarded as an accurate and reliable translation of the Holy Bible into English. It was the obvious choice for updating to modern English. Next, our Most Holy Lord suggested doing a spell-checking style update of the vocabulary.

ASV 97

I promptly went out and found an electronic copy of the American Standard Version of 1901. I then loaded it up into the then-current version of Microsoft Word, and attempted to spell-check and correct the whole thing. The sheer size of the text and large number of corrections quickly crashed Microsoft Word. I learned from that exercise, though, and wrote a couple of custom computer programs using my then-favorite programming language, Delphi Pascal. The first one scanned the ASV text for unique words that were not found in a modern English Bible, like "shineth" and "caulkers," and put them in a database table along with a suggested substitution. The suggested substitution was based on recognizing certain Elizabethan English suffixes and common words, and replacing them with their modern English equivalents. If the program logic didn't recognize one of those cases, it simply left the suggested substitution blank. It was then up to a real human (me) to look up the remaining words in context and find the appropriate substitution. The second custom program read the text of the ASV and made all of the substitutions listed in the table. This all took about a month of spare-time programming and about 15 minutes for the final run of the program. The end result, which I called the ASV 1997 revision (for lack of a better name) was not quite modern English, in that it still lacked quotation marks and still had some word ordering that sounded more like Elizabethan English or maybe Yoda than modern English.

General Bible Format

In the process of doing the above transformation on the ASV, I invented a simple-to-parse format for representing Scripture text. I wanted something that would be easy to edit, easy to process, and easy to convert to other formats like HTML and formats for printing. I didn't know about SIL Standard Format, then, unfortunately, or I probably would have used that. However, that is OK, and probably even good, because I learned a lot in that exercise. After using my format for a while, I revised it, and the revision is called General Bible Format. I still use it, and so do some other people. I plan to replace it with yet another format (USFX) when I get the programs I use that process GBF all replaced. The reason for this upgrade is to also be able to handle the wealth of Bible translations in minority languages that are in the related USFM, doing similar transformations on them for publication purposes.

The cool thing about any of these formats is that, with the proper software tools, you can have one master copy of a Bible translation and generate many formats for publication, as you can see listed on the World English Bible site, today.

World English Bible Named

I became increasingly dissatisfied with the ASV97 name for the new Bible translation, especially after 1997 had passed, so I asked the Lord in prayer what the name should be. That is when the World English Bible (WEB) got its current name. It makes sense, too, since it is targeted at English speakers all over the world, and it is distributed primarily over the World-Wide Web.

Manual Labor

Changing vocabulary from old to new was pretty quick. Some of the remaining grammatical updates concerning word order, usage, and punctuation were not easy to automate, so those have been done (and in some books, are still being done) manually, with prayer and lots of attention to detail. Every change gets checked at least twice, normally by different people.

Majority Text

One of the troubling issues of Bible translation is which original-language text should be regarded as most authoritative. Scholarly opinion is divided between the Nestle-Aland/UBS text (NU) that is weighted heavily based on ages of manuscripts, the text underlying the KJV translation (Textus Receptus or TR), and the Byzantine Majority Text (MT). These differences are, to my way of thinking, the equivalent of no more than a theological ant hill, because the differences between texts, though numerous, are small, and often make no difference in meaning at all. None of them affect any essential doctrine that cannot be supported with other Scripture passages where there is no dispute over the wording. To resolve this issue, I did a radical thing. I asked the Author for guidance. After all, it is His Book, and I wanted to give Him the respect that He deserves. He answered clearly, not by directly picking one of the three options I asked about, but by pointing out the correct rendering of a passage as it was in the MT, but not in the TR or NU. Many people have chipped in comments, some praising this decision, and some deriding it. I was even called a heretic for believing that God could actually communicate with me, today. No matter. He did, and I fear Him and respect His opinion over everyone else's. Therefore, a couple of us working on the project took on the challenge of conforming the WEB New Testament to the Greek Majority Text New Testament, as the Lord directed. That is why, even though the WEB is derived from the ASV, it is based on the MT instead of the Greek text used by the ASV translators (which was close to the NU text).

Hebrew Names Version

At one point in time, I joined forces with Wayne Mitchell to create a Hebrew Names Version, also called the World English Bible: Messianic Edition. This is the same as the World English Bible, except for three main things. It substitutes English spellings for Hebrew names for people, places, and festivals in place of equivalent Greek/English names. It goes back to the tradition of substituting "LORD" or "GOD" for God's proper Name in the Old Testament, instead of using the transliterated "Yahweh" that the WEB uses. It also boldly renders "baptism" as "immersion." The target audience for the HNV is genuine Messianic Jews who speak English as a first language. The HNV is generated automatically from the WEB using a phrase substitution list and a custom program to make the changes on that list. In the history of that project, there was much debate on just how far to go with the name substitution (more or fewer), exactly how to handle God's Proper Name in the Old Testament, and about the baptism/immersion translation decision. The current mix seems to be a good balance. Some people are really taken aback that the Names of God are not treated the same way as other names. So far, without exception, the people making those comments have not been Messianic Jews.

WEB Publishing

The World English Bible is published electronically on the World-Wide Web at several different web addresses, including http://eBible.org/web/, http://WorldEnglishBible.org, and http://WEBible.org. Many different formats are available for browsing online or downloading. Because it is in the Public Domain, the World English Bible has found its way to many other web sites, Bible study programs, etc. I lost count long ago. The New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs of the World English Bible and the HNV are available in print. The current printed editions are printed on demand, and have prices to suit that production process, but we hope that when the whole Bible is finished, there will be some conventionally-printed editions with large enough quantities to bring the prices down to something more palatable than the current prices. In the mean time, the electronic editions are free for the downloading.

WEB Companion Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books

Without taking a doctrinal position on these books, the concensus view among WEB volunteer leadership was that the books found in "Catholic" Bibles that were missing in most "Protestant" Bibles were worth preserving and including in this work. Since the ASV didn't have an Apocrypha, the WEB Apocrypha is based on the KJV Apocrypha. The lead volunteer on this portion of the project has stepped aside, so it may have to wait until the Old Testament is finished for much more progress to be made on it. Those who value these books can read them. Those who don't can ignore them.

Audio Editions

There are at least audio two recordings of the WEB that I'm aware of: an incomplete one at http://eBible.org/webaudio/ of only part of the completed sections of the WEB, and a complete recording of the whole Bible, but with much of it still being edited, at http://www.audiotreasure.com.

Change History

In most cases, the edits made are small but very numerous, such as adding quotation marks, swapping word order to something more natural for modern English speakers, etc. Rather than log each of these individually, we rely on automated version comparison programs to keep track of what changed, when. Readers can do the same thing by keeping older versions for reference (or searching the Wayback Machine).

Global Village Checking

The World English Bible is an open text project with drafts posted on the Internet and with readings emailed out daily for for anyone to see who wants to and who has Internet access. Anyone can email typo reports, translation suggestions, etc., and many people do. We don't require a set of credentials from all contributors, but every suggestion is double-checked and evaluated before being accepted or rejected. Some people have done excellent scholarly work. Some have just noticed a typo or punctuation problem and reported it. It all adds up to some very good quality control. Sometimes people point out an alternate reading that is more clear and still accurate. Sometimes people suggest things that don't preserve the meaning of the text, or try to push some strange theological agenda, and those suggestions are summarily dismissed. Those suggestions that improve the readability and/or accuracy with no compromise in the meaning get accepted. We don't have a complete list of all contributors, but there have been hundreds. (Some early contributors' emails were lost in a hard disk crash, so we couldn't make one if we wanted to.) We don't publish a list of contributors lest people judge the Bible translation by the character or theology of the most disreputable of the contributors (whose suggestions would probably have been rejected, anyway). We do, however, acknowledge that this is far from being a one-man work, and many have helped in the process. The glory all goes to God, though, because it is His Word and He enables us all to do this work and guides us in the process.

Are We There, Yet?

The frequently asked question that is hardest for me to answer with repect to the World English Bible is when the Old Testament will be done, and the whole Bible put into print. Current status is at http://eBible.org/web/, but completion times is hard to predict. This is a volunteer project (even my part), and work tends to get done in spurts. My main job is related to Bible translation support, now, but not this translation, so it is still a hobby-level effort. Anyway, I hope it is soon. The Lord knows. Perhaps He will let me know in advance. :-) I've asked the Lord for a way to speed the project without compromising on accuracy. I'm expecting a reply, soon.


World English Bible   Rainbow Missions, Inc.   Michael