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A new Bible for the smartphone generation

January 21, 2021

While interest in religion decreases, a new Bible for the digital age, with simpler words and short sentences, aims to reach young people in Germany. 

Symbolbild Jugendlicher mit Smartphone
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Hildenbrand

In 1517 a monk named Martin Luther set in motion a religious revolution known as the Reformation. It would form the Protestant church and remains one of Germany's main religious institutions. Yet it may not come as a surprise that Germany's population, like that of many other countries, has become more secular in recent decades. 

In an attempt to reach young people, the German Bibelgesellschaft (German Bible Society) has released an updated version of the bible, called the BasisBibel, designed to be read online and adapted to the language and style of the smartphone generation.

Billed as the "Bible translation for the 21st century," the new work released on January 21 is described as featuring "clear language, short sentences, extensive explanations in the margins," which the organization hopes will attract those who have never before come into contact with this ancient text.

Most importantly, it's available in a digital format that its creators fully expect to be scrolled through on a smartphone. It's a follow-up to the New Testament which was published in the same format in 2010.

A bible by Martin Luther with colorful pictures and images
Martin Luther translated the New Testament of the Bible into German in the 16th centuryImage: AP

According to Dr. Michael A. Schmiedel, an expert on religion who teaches at Germany's Bielefeld University, the concept of updating the Bible to fit modern times is nothing new — it's simply a necessity.

Whether we speak of the past or present, he says, "the goal of every translation is to reach the people. No matter if I translate old Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese in the Third Century or how Martin Luther translated the Bible, or the Quran translations today." Readers of each new translation could already be devout followers or those simply interested in dipping their feet into the holy waters of the religion, so to speak.

But can a Bible translation really reach a society that is becoming more secular as a whole? Generally speaking, Germans are moving away from organized religion, particularly Germany’s two primary religions — Catholicism and Protestantism.

Yet the departure from Christianity is not related to immigration of people from other religious traditions to Germany, such as Islam, as some extreme right-wing politicians espouse, but simply the fact that fewer Germans are interested in religion — a trend that has grown in recent decades. After WWII, more than 90% of Germans in East and West belonged to one of the two major Christian denominations. The percentage fell to 72% after Germany's reunification, and today it is approximately 55%, according to the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research.

A photo of Dr. Schmiedel outdoors next to fall leaves
Religion expert Dr. Michael A. SchmiedelImage: Petra Schenk-Schmiedel

Germany is losing its religion

Schmiedel says that in Germany "continuous secularization is becoming stronger and stronger, because people not only reject certain forms of religion or religiosity, but generally have no more interest in transcendental questions, metaphysical questions and the like." He points out that this has been a gradual process over the last 500 years, since the emergence of the natural sciences during the Renaissance. "A function of religion is also to explain how the world works. However, science has increasingly taken this function — and on this level they are in competition with one another: Religion claims one thing, while science claims another."

People dressed neatly pray together international conference of Jehovah's Witnesses in Croatia
Some religions that have traditionally taken a harder line have become more liberal in the last century, such as the Jehovah's WitnessesImage: picture alliance/Pixsell/G. Jakus

This divide has led to fragmentation within religions that has been gaining steam, especially in the last 30-40 years, he says.

The New Apostolic Church, for example, a Christian denomination known for its strictness, has become more liberal in the last century. "They used to have a ban on reading the newspaper, playing sports and watching TV, but now they've been lifted," says the religion scholar.

On the other hand, those representing fundamentalist views are becoming stronger because they feel "pushed into a corner and thus become louder and more aggressive, and can become connected with the increased nationalism in the USA or Germany," he points out.

This present clash of perspectives within one religion can be confusing for young people who are interested in exploring religion and looking for a way to orient themselves. "I think such a Bible translation can of course help a bit," says the scholar.

A stack of BasisBibel editions with colorful covers
The print and digital versions of the BasisBibel will launch on January 21Image: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft

A modern language update

Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German made the text available to ordinary citizens, beginning with the New Testament in 1522. It cost one and a half guilders, the equivalent of an entire calf at the time. Nevertheless, the first 3,000 copies were sold out quickly. Twelve years later, Luther's first translated complete edition of the Holy Book appeared — with the Old and New Testaments.

Yet now, even relatively well-known phrases like "Don't hide your light under a bushel," penned by Luther in his translation, are likely in need of an update to suit modern times — one wonders how many in gen Z have ever come into contact with a bushel, anyway. 

A portrait of Christoph Rösel of the German Bibel Gesellschaft, smiling
Dr. Christoph Rösel, General Secretary of the German BibelgesellschaftImage: Julian Meinhardt

But not all terms that are used less frequently nowadays have been removed from the text. Younger people may not be familiar with the term "Messiah," for example, but can read an explanation about it in the margin of the BasisBible.

"The challenge with the BasisBible was actually to find the language style with the short sentences and few subordinate clauses and terms that are also understood by people today," explained Dr. Christoph Rösel, General Secretary of the German Bibelgesellschaft.

The organization worked with a team of over 1,100 people who read texts or participated in surveys to make sure the translation was done correctly and in a way that can be understood in the 21st century.

Correction: This article was revised on January 22 to mention the New Apostolic Church, not Jehova's Witnesses, as previously stated

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist