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National Bible Week, Nov. 21-28 this year, is celebrated “to raise awareness of the Bible's importance and relevance to our nation as a whole, as well as in the lives of individuals.”

No one can doubt the wide influence of this powerful book on the history and culture of our modern world, indeed on the very thought and ideals of Western civilization.

It seems that, when it comes to the Bible, there are two groups: those who are familiar with it, study it, use it, love it; and those who aren't and don't for various reasons.

Many of the first group believe the Bible to be the veritable Word of God, but may not have an appreciation of its long and difficult journey from word-of-mouth by prehistoric campfires, through wars, political and church opposition, and the blood of martyrs to its present state of translations into almost every language on earth and well over 100 in English alone.

Dummelowe's Bible Commentary calls the Bible ''the source as well as the result of inspiration.” It is a compilation by countless authors, copyists, and translators over many thousands of years. It is a tribute to their religious devotion and attention to every tiny detail that the Bible's many voices and original texts have come down to us with so little adulteration.

The Old Testament was written originally in Hebrew by Aramaic-speaking peoples of the Fertile Crescent area, now parts of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Syria. The oldest extant parts of these sacred scriptures date back to over 2000 B.C. But we know there were older copies that have been lost to the vagaries of time and plunder.

The New Testament texts, written originally in Greek, were not at first considered particularly precious or holy. In fact, the various Gospels were not even recorded until almost lost to living memory. The early Christians generally believed there was no need to keep accurate records because the world would be ending soon. As these beliefs changed, however, copies of the Gospels and letters that had been so casually written and circulated became very valued and venerated, as they are now.

There are two immensely important early translations of the Holy Scriptures on which many of the later ones are based. The Sepuagint is so named because it was the work of 70 (“septuagint” in Latin) scholars in Alexandria working from ancient Hebrew texts in the third century B.C. The other, called The Vulgate (meaning “common” in Latin) was translated about 200 A.D. by St. Jerome and intended for use by the common people.

The first complete English translation came out in 1382, the work of John Wycliffe and friends, soon followed by John Tyndales's New Testament in the 1500s. Tyndale and many others were persecuted for the ''treasonous'' acts of trying to disseminate the Bible to the general public. He was arrested and burned at the stake in 1536.

But the tide was changing; public opinion demanded access to the Bible, and the church and king had to acquiesce. New translations followed and culminated in 1611 with what has been called “The Gem of the English language,” the King James Version (KJV), also known as the authorized version. It is still widely read and loved to this day, though many subsequent translations have followed.

What makes this transforming book so immeasurably valued and revered is, of course, its ageless messages of truth, inspiration, faith, wisdom and hope as it traces man's quest for understanding our inherent relationship with God.

Interest in the Bible is alive and well, as attested by its continued high sales and the proliferation of Bible study groups and performances. What a privilege it is to hear the stirring, majestic words of the Bible read aloud or pondered in silent prayer.

A wide variety of Bibles are available at our public library and in local bookstores. Paperback editions are often given at no cost. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas catalog has an elegant edition sumptuously decorated in color and gold ornamentation, 892 pages, hardcover with slipcase for $250.

Patricia Bentley is a member of the Christian Science church in Billings.

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