In the Beginning Was the Word

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

Christians take the individual words of the word of God very seriously. Interpretations of biblical text have kept theologians busy for centuries, and the creation of most Christian denominations was sparked by disagreement over text, not content. The gender- neutral Bible, soon to be issued by the International Bible Society, has already prompted heated debate, and it hasn't even been written. One thing is certain: the debate over what the words of the Bible actually mean will continue.

Over the years, Gallup has asked the public for its opinions on the writing of the Bible -- its veracity, translation issues, and its reader-friendliness. The latest survey, conducted in 2000 for the American Bible Society*, turned up some interesting, and occasionally contradictory, American attitudes.

American adults are more likely, at 34%, to be biblical literalists than are persons in many other nations -- only Filipinos (54%) and Poles (37%), according to one survey, are more likely to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. By contrast, only 27% of Israelis and Italians are literalists**.

Almost all Americans -- 93% -- own a Bible, usually the King James Version (KJV) (41%). However, only 13% know that the KJV is paraphrased from earlier English versions. Much like the actual King James I, most Americans (71%) either strongly or somewhat agree that biblical translations should "be closer to Greek and Hebrew texts."

Still, 61% think the Bible should be easier to read. How? Thirty percent (30%) recommend that it be "rewritten in easier-to- understand language." Could it be rewritten and still convey God's word? Eighty-three percent (83%) think so, but 14% don't. Twenty-nine percent (29%) believe there's a perfectly good reason for the Bible's literary difficulty -- "the Bible is difficult to read at times because it must convey the loftiness of God's word."

Americans will never totally agree about whether the Bible is the exact word of God, words inspired by God, or a collection of helpful stories. In fact, historically, ecumenical agreements have often been a precursor to lengthy hair-splitting. An optimistic way to look at the issue, however, is that the debate implies care and ongoing contemplation about what it means to be Christian.

*Findings are based on telephone interviews conducted in October 2000 with a representative national sample of 1,006 adults, 18 and over. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.

** Survey by the International Social Survey Program, 1991, published in The Public Perspective, August/September 1998.

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