NBC News
updated 3/10/2011 4:04:14 PM ET 2011-03-10T21:04:14

The most widely read book in the world, the Bible, is getting a facelift.

As Christians celebrate the beginning of Lent this week, Bible publishers are releasing updated versions of two of the most popular biblical translations, the New American Bible and the New International Version.

"It's like reading the bible in high definition. It’s the same stories you know, the same text you know, but you're seeing them in greater precision and clarity," said Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director of Bible utilization for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Scholars readily admit that translating the Bible, a book written thousands of years ago, from its original Greek and Hebrew into more modern languages, such as English, is tricky business.

The goal is to make this ancient book readable to modern audiences. And as languages evolve and new manuscripts are discovered, it becomes necessary, scholars say, to update old translations.

In the New American Bible, which is popular with Catholics, the Old Testament doesn't sound quite so – old.

  • In Leviticus, for example, instead of the faithful being instructed to "bring a cereal offering" it's now "a grain offering"
  • Isaiah doesn't speak of "booty" anymore, it's "spoils"

"It's not rewriting, it’s re-translating,” Sperry said.

Many Evangelicals prefer the New International Version. For the latest edition of that translation, scholars worked to make the Bible less gender specific (although the changes are less radical than in a 2005 translation called Today’s New International Version, which faced fierce criticism).

"We don't want to change the word of God easily or quickly, that's why we on the committee take our job so seriously," said Doug Moo, chairman of the NIV translation committee.

  • "Man" is now often "Mankind" (in the TNIV it was “human beings”)
  • "Forefathers” are now called "Ancestors"
  • And in John, the "cravings of a sinful man" have been changed to simply, "the lust of the flesh"

"I think the reason there is controversy is we have people who care so deeply about the Bible as God's word, and I think that's a good thing,” Moo said.

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Video: God 2.0: Bible updated for modern readers

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    >>> the newest best seller to hit the bookstores and the e readers tonight is a rewrite of the most widely read book of all time, the bible . two new translations, brand new editions that are supposed to be more readable, more up to date. as you might imagine, it's a job not taken lightly by any of the scholars and theologians who took on this daunting task. here is nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: for those seeking the word of god , you need a pretty big bookshelf. ever since guten berg printed his first bible back in the 1400s , there have been so many revisions, it's almost biblical. the latest are these, the new american bible and the new international version of the bible , released just as christians were celebrating the beginning of lent, ash wednesday.

    >> it's like reading the bible in high definition . it's the same stories that you know, it's the same text that you know.

    >> reporter: in the new american bible , popular with catholics, the old testament doesn't sound quite so old. in leviticus instead of the faithful being instructed to bring a cereal offering, it's now a grain offering . isaiah doesn't speak of booty anymore, it's spoils.

    >> it's not rewriting, it's retranslating.

    >> reporter: even evangelicals prefer the international version where scholars work to make it less gender specific. man is now mankind. forefathers are now ancestors, and in john, the cravings of a sinful man have been changed to simply the lust of the flesh.

    >> we don't want to change the word quickly, that's why we take our jobs so seriously.

    >> reporter: it is tricky business . critics would say we're not supposed to change the bible to fit our lives, we're supposed to change our lives to fit the bible , but scholars insist it's only the language that's change, not the contest.

    >> i think the reason there's controversy is we have people who care so deeply about the bible as god's word. in a sense that's a very good thing.

    >> reporter: no matter your beliefs, the bible is a classic that has survived more translations than any other work in history. and yet still remains a best seller . lee cowan, nbc

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