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Thou Shalt Not Write 'Thou Shalt Not' in the 'Good News Bible,' Says Heber Peacock

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Many young people have told me, ‘This can’t be the Bible. I can understand it,’ ” says a pleased Rev. Dr. Heber Fletcher Peacock. “But others have said, ‘Oh, they’ve taken away my 23rd Psalm.’ ”

Not really, but Dr. Peacock and seven other members of the American Bible Society’s translating team have rewritten the Old Testament, using the words and phrasings of common speech. The result is the Good News Bible: Today’s English Version. The ABS’s New Testament appeared a decade ago and has passed the 46 million mark in U.S. sales, outstripping even Dr. Spock as the best-selling paperback ever. Some 1,500,000 copies of the new, illustrated Old Testament have been sold in the U.S. since its publication three months ago.

In Good News’s Psalm of David, the King James Version’s “I shall not want” becomes “I have everything I need.” The Sixth Commandment appears as “Do not commit murder.” And in Genesis 18, a childless Sarah asks, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?” (King James: “After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure?”)

At his Black Mountain, N.C. home, Peacock is working on an updating of the Apocrypha for publication in 1978. His goal, he says, is “language that’s not baby talk to the professor nor over the head of the garage mechanic. Modern speech doesn’t have ‘thou shalt nots.’ We think the Bible’s original Hebrew was the normal, ordinary speech of the day.”

In 1967 Peacock, 59, was working for the ABS in Upper Volta, supervising translations of the Bible into African languages, when the ABS asked him to tackle translations of the Old Testament’s first four books. Peacock, who has a doctorate in theology from Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was able to draw on his fluency in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German and French and a reading knowledge of 10 other tongues.

When all the translators eventually convened in New York around a square conference table, notes Peacock, “We sometimes spent hours on a single verse or word.” (One of their knottiest tussles was over the word “tabernacle”—in many places in the new Bible, it now appears as “tent of the Lord’s presence.”) Peacock often did pushups to ease his tensions. The search for clarity, he admits, took its toll in poetic richness. “We tried to retain the flavor of the original Hebrew,” he says, “but some of it just wouldn’t translate.”

The son of a railroad man, Peacock says that guilt as a youth about his errant ways almost deflected him from the clergy. “I discovered I wasn’t a saint,” he declares, “but a damn sinner.” But after taking an engineering degree at Hardin-Simmons University and a bride—Edith, now 59, a minister’s daughter and mother of their four children—Peacock became a Baptist minister in 1941. “Edith drove me back to religion,” says Peacock. Three decades of teaching and translating posts followed and, after another period of doubt (“I didn’t know if there was a God, but then a recovery of my faith took place”), Peacock became an Episcopalian in 1974. Nowadays the hearty Peacock enjoys tinkering with cars, making bread, playing the recorder, biking and backpacking.

Criticism of the new Bible, he says, has been trifling. But he doubts that it will last as long as the 366-year-old King James Version. “Almost every translation is out of date in 25 years,” he says. “You need a revision as soon as you’re done.”