IT is subversive literature. It has led to the overthrow of govern-ments,sparked mass migrations across oceans, and more than once has changed the course of history.Governments -- from the 16th-century English monarchy to theCommunist Soviet Union -- have gone to great lengths to restrict or even prevent its printing and distribution. Yet it has always outlasted its enemies.It is the most popular book ever printed. No other has been translated into so many languages and few have had such impact on the development of those languages.It is the Bible -- the scriptures of the Christian religion, comprising the Hebrew writings known as the Old Testament, which recount the creation ofthe universe and the history of the people of Israel up to the Greek and Roman conquests, and the Greek-language New Testament, which tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe is the Messiah, and of the early Christian church.
This report is a review of the Bible's role in society, both historically and today. It explores the development of the English Bible, looks at the importance to scholars of original copies of Bible versions, and reviews Bible translations available today. Articles also examine the meaning of the Bible for the great Protestant reformers, the role of scripture in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and a recent excavation of a Philistine city in modern Israel. The report concludes with a look at two individuals who tell why the Bible is important in their daily lives.
Interest in the Bible today remains strong. Worldwide, the member organizations of the United Bible Societies distributed 639,249,849 Bibles and Scriptural selections in 1990. Bible society distribution accounts for most of the Scriptures available in the third world. The figure does not include the millions of Bibles sold by other religious and commercial publishers, especially in Europe and English-speaking countries.
Eugene Habecker, president of the American Bible Society, says Bible distribution figures "have been holding steady ... and showing some increases."
"Worldwide, our biggest increases have been in Eastern and Central Europe, and in the Asia-Pacific area," Dr. Habecker says. Distribution in Africa and the Americas is holding steady, he says.
There are about 5,000 languages spoken in the world; the Bible or portions of it have been translated into 1,946 of them. This includes 318 languages in which the complete Bible is available, 726 in which the New Testament can be read, and 902 in which some portion of the Bible has been translated.
"I know of no other book that even comes close to those numbers," Habecker says.
The collapse of communism in Eastern and Central Europe has led to a hunger for the Bible that "has been described by many people as without precedent," says the ABS president. In China, he notes, the Amity Press has just printed its 3 millionth copy of the Bible in Chinese. "We anticipate that Cuba will be one of the very strong fields of interest in the Bible in the decade of the '90s as that country reassesses its future."
In the United States, interest in the Bible is on the rise after falling off in the 1960s, Habecker says. During his recent cross-country media tour, "the vast majority of the contacts were all secular," he says. "If the response on the part of the secular media to this subject is any indication, there is growing and very active interest in the Bible from the secular marketplace."
Habecker also points to a 1990 Gallup poll, "The Role of the Bible in American Society," which compares responses of those interviewed with responses obtained in a similar poll in …