Robert “Bob” Bratcher died Sunday night (July 11), and the world is a poorer place with his passing. Bratcher, a Greek scholar and one of the world’s most accomplished Bible translators, was best known for the modern English translation of the Bible called Good News for Modern Man, which sold 30 million copies in its first five years of publication, and has now exceeded 100 million copies.
Bratcher, 90 years old at the time of his death, was born in Campos, Brazil, in 1920. He was raised as a missionary kid, mainly in Rio de Janeiro, and the faith of his family took strong hold. He studied at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. before earning two degrees, an M.Div. and a Th.D., at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky. After serving as a Navy chaplain during World War II, Bratcher and his wife June were themselves appointed as Southern Baptist missionaries to Brazil. They served in that capacity from 1949-1956, with Bratcher teaching at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Rio de Janeiro.
Criticized for some aspects of his teaching, Bratcher resigned his position with the Foreign Mission Board in 1956, and not long thereafter went to work with the American Bible Society, which recruited him to produce a contemporary English version of the New Testament. Using a “dynamic equivalence” approach to translation, Bratcher sought to capture the Bible’s meaning “thought for thought” rather than “word for word,” as most other translations do.
I remember when Good News for Modern Man first came out in 1966, with its paperback cover designed to look like a newspaper. Many of us, Baptists especially, had never read a translation other than the King James Version, and Good News was a revelation. Bratcher later chaired a committee of scholars who translated the Old Testament in similar fashion, and the combined effort was marketed as the Good News Bible, debuting in 1976. It later came to be known as the Today’s English Version, or TEV. My copy was well used.
Bratcher’s penchant for wanting to translate the truths of scripture found expression in other ways, as he also insisted on telling the truth about the Bible. This, as one might expect, got him into trouble with those who believe they hold title to understanding biblical truth. In 1981, as the fundamentalist movement to gain control of the Southern Baptist Convention was advancing under the banner of biblical “innerancy,” Bratcher dared to speak the truth about it.
An Associated Baptist Press article recalls that, during a seminar in Dallas sponsored by the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, Bratcher said “Only willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty can account for the claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible,” Bratcher said. “No truth-loving, God-respecting, Christ-honoring believer should be guilty of such heresy. To invest the Bible with the qualities of inerrancy and infallibility is to idolatrize it, to transform it into a false god.”
Those comments did not sit well with fundamentalists, who raised a ruckus and led a campaign against the American Bible Society (ABS), which saw a large drop in the charitable contributions it needed to stay afloat. To save its financial skin, the organization needed to distance itself from Bratcher, so he agreed to resign from the ABS — but he continued to do the same work as a consultant under the auspices of the United Bible Societies (UBS), an international consortium of 145 Bible societies, including the ABS.
Bratcher went on to contribute heavily to a new Brazilian Bible translation, and also wrote several important volumes for an extremely helpful UBS series of handbooks designed to assist Bible translators, pastors, and teachers by providing exegetical, historical, cultural, and linguistic information about the text, along with suggestions for equivalent meanings in various languages and cultures.
In addition to his scholarly and translation-related pursuits, Bratcher was committed to his local church (Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C.), and was an advocate for the poor, for justice, and for peace. He remained devoted to his family throughout: he and June had been married for 65 years at the time of his death.
May God give us more men and women who love God truly, who love others deeply, who love the Bible passionately, and who tell the truth.