Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Oregon Coast #2 A Biblical Lifetime

Oregon #2, Charles Vanderpool and a Biblical Lifetime

This is not a travel-related posting, as most of mine are, although it begins on the Oregon Coast. It’s a little story about a man who, with no previous experience or education, devoted 27 years of his life to re-translating every word of the Bible from Greek into English, word-by-word and side-by-side with the Hebrew.

1366 words, reading time four minutes.

For my first night on the Oregon Coast, Fodors, the travel guide, led me to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, named not for a strand but for a famous bookstore owner in Paris.  Sylvia Beach was her name and she ran Shakespeare and Company, a Left Bank literary headquarters for Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al in the post-World War II heydays. It’s still going strong today.

Each of the hotel’s 20 rooms honors a famous writer.  I was assigned to Oscar Wilde, across from Dr. Seuss and down the hall from Mr. Hemingway. 

Newport is a bit of a barn as beach towns go but on the lower, Bayfront section there is a quite charming quarter surrounding the hotel, with bookstores, cafes, an art center and an Irish pub.  However only a working class bar a few steps away was showing the Notre Dame-Southern California football game when I went looking.

No sooner had I ordered than a tall fellow who seems to know everyone asks if he can join me.  I’m glad for the company but warn him that I’m nutty when Notre Dame is playing, doubly so against USC.  This doesn’t bother him.  (I’m reminded of a T-shirt I saw in way, way remote corner of  Guatemala in August which read “I’m for UCLA and anyone playing USC!”)  


Charles turns out to be a fascinating guy.  I lost track of the Notre Dame game and we talk into the night.  The next day I move up the coast but we talk by phone, I visit his home and we went to dinner. 

Charles was a poor college student, he says, failing at language and barely getting by at Valparaiso, a sectarian college not far from Notre Dame.  His early life and career were undistinguished but 27 years ago he found his life’s work as a translator and publisher of the Bible.

You’d think the world wouldn’t need another translation of the Bible.  What’s left to be done, particularly by someone with no previous preparation or aptitude?  When he said God asked him to do this I might have walked away.  When he wondered if our meeting was an accident or if he is a Messenger, well, that was not promising either.  But we kept talking.

“God has seen fit to write an instruction manual for living—the Bible.” So begins one of his books.  God “breathed” his word into earthly language; precisely what God said is of utmost importance, of course.  This is best understood through the Greek language.

The Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew but the later books were recorded in both Hebrew and Greek.  While Christ’s everyday language was Aramaic, Greek was the international language at the time and the Epistles were written in Greek to people who spoke Greek (if also another language).  The writers of the New Testament read the Old Testament in Greek, VanderPool says.  Greek was the basis for all subsequent bibles in the Latin, Syria and Coptic scriptures. To understand God’s message, Charles taught himself Greek, traveled in Greece and immersed himself in biblical scholarship, for which thousands have had better scholastic training, he readily admits.

The result is “The Apostolic Bible Polyglot,” now in its third edition.  Every word of the Bible is rendered in Greek, in bold, with the English below it.  Above each Greek word or set of words a number or numbers.  These numbers refer to Hebrew words and their English equivalent.  This numbering system was developed by James Strong in l890 in the first “Concise Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible” and contained 8,674 words .  Strong also developed a “Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament” with 5,624 English equivalents of Greek words. 

Bibles with one or more languages in proximity are called “Interlineal” bibles and have been published many other times in history.  Van der Pool says his is “the first numerically coded Greek Old Testament.”  This allows the student to study both the old and the new testament in the same language.

Rendering the correct word and the correct understanding in English (or any other language) requires understanding the true meaning of the words in Greek and Hebrew and choosing between them, of course, and understanding the context in which they were used originally and subsequently.  An enormous task!  For example, when to choose the Hebrew or the Greek version of portions of the Old Testament?

His bible contains not only the three-part translation (1,600 pages) but an “English-Greek Index “(like Strong’s original text, perhaps) and a “Lexical Concordance.”  The Concordance contains all the Greek words, all the corresponding numbers for Hebrew words using the Strong numbering system, and—apparently—all the places that word is used.

Charles says he did not set out to publish a new bible.  It grew out of his private study.  He had a foundational text and then acquired microfilm copies of a 1519 bible and a l709 Greek Old Testament, working his way forward in time.  What he often saw were “paraphrased” bibles. 

“A paraphrase Bible does not exhibit the original language, as the translator can choose whatever English word suits his taste,” he writes.  “Each translator has the awesome privilege of choosing which vernacular word to use for the God-breathed word of the original.”  Which Van der Pool has done.

To publish hard copies he has several times sold everything he owned.  He is in Newport after selling his mother’s trailer following her death in Southern California (he had taken care of her) and investing the proceeds in his Bible and a house near the beach. I took home a first edition, a gift worth more than $100 and probably a lot more since this was his last copy of that edition.  A third edition was to be delivered within weeks, made possible by a wealthy Texan who distributed  his second edition to Texas prisons for free.

Van der Pool makes his bibles freely available on the Internet. Learning to do so is an exacting and every changing skill. He also offers free online classes on aspects of the Bible.  Understanding the true meaning of each word or group of words and the message it provides to guide people’s lives is his life’s work.   (You can get there by Googling Apostolic Bible Polyglot or

He walks with a decided limp because he needs an operation but there is neither time nor money.  On my last day he was re-siding his house hours before the season’s first storm hit. 

I asked about the accuracy of the Bible since some modern scholars have poked holes in it and modern critics such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have condemned religious texts without exception. To what extent is the story of Jesus historically accurate, I ask?

Van der Pool seemed less than interested in the dispute and the least bit defensive. It’s not on his radar.  He’s more interested in the prospect of selling his bibles and meeting other scholars in England in the summer of 2015.   

Is he a Messenger to me of some sort, the way an angel appears to someone in the Bible saying “Have no fear” and then telling someone to sacrifice their son?  (See a brilliant treatment of Job by Joan Acocella entitled “Misery” in the December 16 New Yorker.)  At our dinner Charles expresses the hope that God will “smack you upside the head;” however he’s as mystified as I am about whether there’s some larger intention behind our meeting. 

When I came to his house, my name had been added to the list of those he prays for each day.  Christopher Hitchens did not welcome believers who prayed for him but I’m glad to be remembered and to respect and commemorate the work of  Charles Van der Pool.






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