Sound Bible Interpretation

Got new Bibles! by kahunapulej
Got new Bibles!, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

Sound Bible Interpretation

Bible Interpretation just means figuring out what the Bible is really saying. Sound Bible Interpretation is figuring out what the Bible is saying in a right way. It is possible to misinterpret the Bible, just like it is possible to misunderstand or misinterpret just about anything someone says or writes. If you keep the following principles and guidelines in mind as you read the Bible, then it is much easier to understand what God is telling us.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

We understand Bible passages in the context of other Bible passages. If one passage looks like it might mean one thing, but that would contradict another Bible passage, then obviously that interpretation is wrong. When you understand the correct interpretation, then it will agree with the rest of the Holy Bible, because God doesn’t contradict Himself and it is impossible for Him to lie.

Literal Where Possible

What the Bible says, it means. The natural meaning of a passage should be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech syntax, and context. In other words, when the Bible says that by Jesus’ stripes we are healed, then you can be assured that by Jesus’ stripes we are healed.

Consider the Form

There are different forms or kinds of writing in the Holy Bible. Each of these forms is normally read and understood a little differently, so it helps to understand what kind of writing you are reading. Kinds of writing include:
History – stories about what happened in the past
Narrative – reports and commentary about events
Parables – stories that use a familiar situation to teach an abstract truth
Prophetic – messages from God that may include revelation of things to come
Poetic – usually Hebrew style poetry, based not on rhyme, but on sets of phrases that compare, contrast, or complete a thought.
Teaching – telling people about God’s nature and how we should live
Proverbial – relating wisdom and truth about the way people and things are

Consider Grammar

Know basic rules of language and how language is used. Sometimes it helps to understand some things about the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) of the Holy Scriptures. In those cases, pastors and teachers often explain them to us.

Consider Culture and History

Understand the culture and history of the people involved. For example, it helps to understand that in the time of Jesus’ ministry on Earth, Israel was under Roman occupation.

Ask the Author

The same Holy Spirit who inspired the holy men of old to write the collection of books and letters we call the Bible lives in and among us, today. If something is unclear to you, ask God to make it clear. He is happy to help you.

Useful Guidelines

The following ten guidelines help us to read what God intended for us to read in the Bible, and not just what we or anyone else wants us to see in the Scriptures.

The Bible is to be read and understood like any other book. The Bible is different, in that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, but it was written by men who used normal language, just as we use normal language to communicate.

Read yourself into the life situation of the story or character. Use your imagination. Imagine yourself marching around Jericho, watching Jesus feed a multitude with a little boy’s lunch, or whatever applies to what you are reading.

Historical narratives are to be interpreted in the light of teaching portions of Scripture. History records what happened. Teaching tells us what should happen.

What is implied is interpreted by what is explicitly stated.

Determine carefully the meaning of words. Use a dictionary.

Understand parallels and figures of speech.

Note the difference between a proverbial saying and a moral law. Moral law carries much more authority with respect to what we should and shouldn’t do, but proverbs give us good guidance as well.

Observe the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law. In keeping the spirit of the law, we seek to please God by honoring His intentions. Keeping the letter of the law may involve looking for loopholes and alternate interpretations that may be more or less restrictive than God intended.
Parables usually have one main point. Look for that one main point, but don’t try to stretch the analogy too far.

Old Testament moral law is still in force unless the New Testament states otherwise.


Inductive Bible Study

Inductive Bible Study by kahunapulej
Inductive Bible Study, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.


1. Simple reading and listening

2. Meditation – speaking out loud and thinking about a passage of Scripture

3. Topical Bible study – search through the Scriptures to see what the Bible says about one particular topic, such as marriage, money, angels, etc. It helps to have a concordance or computer in doing this kind of study.

4. Inductive Bible study – examine one passage, such as a book of the Bible, very closely, using observation, analysis, and application. This is actually one way to meditate on God’s Word.


1. Observation – Start with prayer asking God to help you understand this passage with both your mind and your heart, then read the passage through. Read it again. Read it aloud or listen to someone else read it aloud. Make sure you understand it. Look up anything you aren’t sure about, or ask someone about it.

2. Analysis – make sure you understand every word used. Look for patterns. Pray for God’s help in interpreting Scripture properly. Is something repeated? What kind of passage is this? Is it history, teaching, prayer, or what? Look for themes and reasons. Look for logical divisions in the text. Can you make an outline from this passage? Compare this passage with other relevant Scripture passages. Underline, highlight, take notes, circle things, etc.– whatever helps you focus on the text and meditate on it. Talk about it.

3. Application – apply this Scripture to your life. Believe God’s Word. Obey what God is saying to you through it. Make any changes and corrections you need to make in your life. Let God help you make these changes.


1. It is Biblical. It is really a form of what is called “meditation” in the Bible, which has nothing to do with mystical emptying of the mind and such dangerous nonsense, but with contemplating, thinking about, analyzing, speaking out, repeating, and studying God’s Word. See Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2, and Psalm 119.

2. It is balanced. The technique encourages study of each passage in context, making it far less likely that someone will go astray based on a misunderstanding based on one isolated fragment of the Bible. The approach to the text keeps asking “What does this mean?” rather than just trying to find proof texts for someone’s pet doctrine.

3. It is relational. Discussion among followers of Jesus Christ is encouraged, as is prayer.

4. It is easy. This isn’t something that requires a seminary degree or special skills. Almost anyone who has participated in an inductive Bible study can lead an inductive Bible study, because it is all about God and what He says in the Holy Bible, and not about the leader. The leader mostly just facilitates the discussion, and hopefully also participates.

5. It can be done for both personal and group study of the Holy Bible. Obviously, there is a richness in a group Bible study in discussing passages together that you don’t get by yourself, but it is still of great benefit to do this on your own, as well.

6. The Holy Bible is well worth studying. The Holy Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself, reveals an enduring message of God’s love for mankind and redemption offered to all of us.

7. It helps me remember God’s Word.

What is the best Bible copyright license?

I got some questions from some thoughtful people about why I recommended the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND+ license for Bibles, as outlined at in my last post. It is NOT because I think it is the best possible license. I don’t. It is because it is the best one I have been able to get widespread agreement on. It is a compromise, and it allows most of what we need to do without additional permission. There are some things that still need additional permission: revisions, adaptations, and selling copies (especially printed ones). Those permissions can be granted on a case-by-case basis, as requested, provided that the copyright owner is accessible, responsive, and willing.

Let’s take a look at the relevant license features in Creative Commons licenses, and some of their pros and cons. All of these alternatives allow sharing and republishing to some degree, without royalties, but they differ in some ways. Bold type face indicates my biases in the table below.

Feature Pro Con
Allow commercial use Maximizes distribution potential by allowing sales of
printed Bibles, including print-on-demand services, where paper
and ink are not free. Harnesses profit motive for distribution,
but limits excesses with competitive pressure on prices.
Some copyright owners are unwilling to allow commercial use
unless they get royalties. The motive may be to support a
ministry, or to support themselves, or both. That makes getting
this kind of permission more difficult.
Forbid commercial use Eliminates many arguments with respect to how profits should
be shared. Still allows some printing or distribution on digital
media, if it is clearly nonprofit.
Most publishers won’t publish anything with such a
restriction, thus reducing the supply of such Bibles, especially
in print. This puts a damper on print-on-demand services, etc.,
which can be very helpful for minority-language Scriptures.
Therefore, additional permission must be supplied for such cases
where necessary, requiring the copyright owner to be responsive
and willing to supply such permission when appropriate, and to
know when it is appropriate. Deciding what is commercial use or not is contentious.
Allow derivative works when shared alike. Allows legitimate updates, revisions, adaptations with no
hassle to the translators and no delay for permission. Keeps the
results in a good free culture license.
Allows changes by people who might not be qualified or
anointed to make minor changes, with possibly heretical results.
Does not prevent major heretical changes.
Allow derivative works without demanding sharing under the
same license.
Allows legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations with no
hassle and no delay for permission.
Allows minor changes by people who might not be qualified or
anointed to make minor changes, with possibly heretical results.
Revisions could be enslaved in a non-free license or no
license. Does not prevent major heretical changes.
Disallow derivative works that change the text or punctuation,
but allow changes to file formats and encoding and allow
Allows transformation to other formats, such as for
different software and platforms. Allows extracts for use in
Bible studies, Sunday School materials, books, etc.
Forbids legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations
without additional permission from the copyright owners. Requires
the copyright owner to be responsive and available to grant
permission to legitimate revisers, or risk quenching God’s work.
Copyright owner is responsible to know the difference between
legitimate and illegitimate revision requests. Does not prevent
major heretical changes.
Disallow any derivative works Allows verbatim file copies and minimal transformations in
file format.
Forbids extracts without additional permission.Forbids legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations
without additional permission from the copyright owners. Forbids
conversions to formats for different software and platforms or
different kinds of web site displays. Does not prevent major
heretical changes.
Public Domain with TradeMarked Name Allows all legitimate revisions, updates, and adaptations.
Protects the integrity of the TradeMark owner by requiring
derivative works to use a different name. Allows all copying and
publishing, free or for profit. Harnesses profit motive to
encourage printing, but limits abuses with competitive pressure
on prices. Outlasts copyright expiration.

Doesn’t prevent large or small
heretical changes, but prevents any changes, good or bad, with
the same translation name (at least legally).

GLW License

Allows any copying and extracts that don’t change the text,
for free or for profit.

Requires additional permission to
make revisions, updates, or adaptations.

As you can see, the choices of the options offered on are not necessarily clear. Indeed, the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives is downright lousy unless you add the two standing additional permissions that we added on Then it is acceptable for any kind of free distribution and redistribution of that unmodified Bible translation, but lacking in the revision department. Although copyright law isn’t about preventing heresy, and it doesn’t, there is some fear that granting general permission to make revisions might somehow make heresy easier. Nevertheless, God still protects His work, and makes plain what is and is not a good translation. The bigger danger is in not granting a license to make revisions, then disappearing, dying, or otherwise failing to be a good steward of the copyright for its life span (which is likely longer than yours). This means that affirmative permission to make revisions and updates would not be forthcoming, and this could prevent legitimate ministry. Which is the greater risk? The latter is certainly more likely, given today’s legal and social climate. Both are clearly bad.

As for me, I trust God to take care of His Word. My first shot at a Bible license, back before I had heard of the Creative Commons, and even before the Internet was a household word, was the GLW license. It was very close to a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives, with additional permission to make extracts and change file formats. There was no restriction on commercial use, except that nobody got exclusive publication rights. It was good, but by the time I got to the World English Bible project, I went with a public domain dedication and TradeMarked name. This means that I fully trust God to take care of His Word and deal with anyone who might abuse it. It also means that I really mean it when I value sharing God’s Word as much as possible, without regard to personal profit. God hasn’t let me or my children starve, yet. I also haven’t seen any grievous abuses of the World English Bible. I have seen lots of great ministry and fruit in people’s lives, though– and expect to see much more in eternity. May God bless those who support us and help make this possible!

Bible Copyright vs. the Church

Bible copyright notices and liberal licenses should be accurate and clearly published with Bibles, lest we hinder the Church’s fulfilment of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Thousands of years ago, over a span of at least a thousand years, the Holy Spirit of God moved a number of people to write the collection of inspired books we now call the Holy Bible. At that time, there was no such thing as copyright law. Indeed, the Holy Bible itself contains no restriction on copying other than warnings in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32, and in Revelation 22:18-19 that should make you want to make the copies and translations accurate. In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, the Kings of Israel are commanded to write themselves a copy of “this law” (i.e. the Torah, or the first 5 books of the Bible) and read it all their life. There are also references to non-royal scribes copying the Scriptures by hand. This copying was essential to the preservation of the Bible, because of the fragility of the media onto which it was copied, especially when heavily used. Even prime leather scrolls would wear out, dry out, crack, and become unusable, but the inspired words would live on and even multiply in fresh copies.

Fast forward to the year 1455 AD, when Gutenburg invented the printing press. The first book printed on that press was, appropriately enough, a Latin translation of the Holy Bible. As the impact of that invention on society and the creation of a publishing industry developed, various laws and decrees from government and religious officials were issued concerning the printing of books. Initially, governing officials seemed more concerned with censorship and controlling this influential channel of communication or with favoring certain publishers than with encouraging creative work. You can read more about that in the history of copyright law on Wikipedia. There were attempts to censor and forbid the publication of some Bible translations by religious officials that are documented various places.

The oldest surviving legal restriction on printing Bibles is in the form of letters patent granting exclusive printing rights of the King James Version of the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer a small set of publishers in the United Kingdom. To the best of my knowledge, these letters patent have no effect outside of the United Kingdom except possibly in the case of imports of printed King James Version Bibles into the United Kingdom.

There are currently other legal restrictions on Bible publishing in some of the countries that need God’s Word the most. For example, selling of Chinese-language Bibles in China is restricted by law to only the older Chinese Union translation, and then only in limited quantities sold directly by the highly-regulated 3-Self church. In some other countries that are dominated by atheism or a non-Christian religion, the printing, publishing, and even possession of the Holy Bible is restricted or totally banned.

In the part of the world where we have religious freedom, we pride ourselves on our freedom to publish the Holy Bible, but there are still serious legal restrictions on publishing the vast majority of the translations of the Holy Bible. These restrictions are enacted in copyright laws and treaties, and enforceable by civil lawsuits with huge damage settlements as well as, in some cases, criminal penalties. Copyright law grants the copyright owner a legal monopoly on making copies in any format: print, digital, and even formats not yet invented. The copyright owner is the one whose copyright notice appears in a work, if it appears, and who can decide if anyone else can make a legal copy in any format or not. If there is no copyright notice, you cannot assume that the work is not copyrighted. (That used to be true, but has not been true for many years, now.) Indeed, under current copyright law, every creative work of writing, recording, or artistic expression is born copyrighted. You own the copyright on a photograph the instant you press the shutter release and the image is recorded in my camera’s memory (or on film if you are using an older camera). You own the copyright on a poem the instant you compose a new poem and write it down or recite it into an audio recording device. More to the point, someone owns the copyright on a new translation of the Bible the instant it is written or recorded. It is either the translators, or, in the case of work for hire, the employer of the translators who own the copyright. Copyrights currently expire, but not for 75 years after the last surviving author dies or 95 years after creation for a work owned by a corporation. (Those numbers vary a little by country, but it is always long enough to throw a damper on waiting until copyright expires if you want to see it with your own mortal eyes.)

The most serious problem with copyright law is this: it prevents or restricts the publication of translations of the life-giving Word of God, as if it was just the same as any other creative work, for the purpose of creating a means for the copyright owner(s) to profit financially from their copyright ownership. I lost track of the number of people who have come to me asking for permission to publish some or all of the World English Bible after being denied permission by copyright owners of some of the big name commercial Bible translations. I always say “yes” again, but it seems that I’m an oddity in the world of Bible publishers.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10, World English Bible

Denying permission to publish God’s Word as widely as practical is at odds with the goals of The Great Commandment and The Great Commission in the Holy Bible, itself. It also begs the question: “Who really owns God’s Word?” Now, it doesn’t have to be this way. Seriously, copyright owners are perfectly free to allow as much copying as they like, and to not require payment of money for that copying. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. Copyright owners are free to transfer copyright ownership to others (usually done by written contract, but often just by allowing another party to print their copyright notice in a work). Copyright owners are also free to dedicate their work to the Public Domain (i.e. making a public and irrevocable declaration that they give up all of their exclusive rights to control the making of copies of that work). Copyright owners are also free to publish their Bible translations under an appropriate license that allows free copying and publishing. That has happened in some refreshing cases.

Because copyright is no longer something you have to apply for or even give notice of, omitting or giving misleading copyright notices tend to cause more problems than they solve. (Seriously, some publishers insist on getting permission even for Public Domain works. This is extreme, but it happens often enough that I have lost count of requests to republish public domain Bibles from Reputable, law-abiding publishers won’t publish copyrighted works without authoritative permission from the copyright owner, but if they don’t know who ask, they just don’t publish the work. If this work is a Bible, this makes the enemy of our souls’ work easier, but it grieves me. Sometimes such a situation can be recovered from by doing a diligent search to find anyone who claims ownership of the copyright, and if none is found, you can treat it as abandoned property, and publish anyway. If you were right, nobody will sue you for that. If you were right.

Like a frog in water slowly heating to a boil, the Church has acclimated to the changing copyright environment, and even embraced it. The verso page of one early English Bible translation published in the USA says “Copyrighted to protect the integrity of the text.” That copyright has already expired, since that Bible was published before 1923. Is the integrity of the text no longer protected? Or is it just that the survivability and utility of that translation is better now that anyone can copy or publish it legally without asking permission of anyone? The urban legend that copyright can protect the integrity of a Bible translation lives on, in spite of a lack of supporting evidence and considerable evidence to the contrary. (The more “creative” and heretical a translation of the Holy Bible is, the less likely it can be claimed that it is an illegal copy or derivative of an existing work, and therefore heretical and error-filled Bible translations are better protected by copyright law than legitimate translations.) Somebody fill me in again on how God ever managed to protect the integrity of His Word prior to copyrights, and how He managed to preserve His Word even in the face of persecution and censorship in the thousands of years before copyright laws existed, lest I start believing this idea, myself, please. Seriously, God is well able, even though He chooses to keep working through fallible people to do this.

In today’s legal and publishing environment, ignoring copyright issues in Bible translation threatens our ability to actually use a Bible translation to its greatest potential. Even doing things the way they have frequently been done before can be a serious mistake. What are the dangers? There are two major threats: (1) a Bible translation that took many man-years and a huge amount of money to create for a target language group can be blocked from publication in the channels that have the highest ministry impact, and (2) disputes about intellectual property rights can arise between brothers and sisters in Christ who should be cooperating to share what is really God’s property with those who need it most.

Please note that my intention is not to condemn those who sell Bibles for profit, but to call those who translate the Holy Bible as a ministry first to wake up and pay attention to the first principles of why we do what we do. Minority-language translations of the Holy Bible are generally not profit centers for anyone, but translations of the Holy Bible into languages spoken by larger numbers of people can be extremely profitable. In between are some cases where sales of Bibles are the only significant source of funding for some organizations that run more like publishing houses than ministries. Rationalizing selling Bibles and denying free copies, even electronically, is easy (but possibly misguided) in these cases. The challenge is to find new ways of funding ministries while still acting in ways that maximize ministry impact and distribution of the Holy Bible, especially in electronic formats that can “go viral”. I like to encourage such organizations to shift to a combination of donation-based funding and running of other businesses that don’t hurt their Bible distribution reach.

Summaries of some of the horror stories I have experienced in Bible copyright mismanagement include:

  • Failure to get written agreement from all translators at the beginning of a Bible translation project that the Bible translation will be published, and who will be copyright steward. At the end, someone says “no” to electronic publishing, and there isn’t much that can be done about it besides beg… and sometimes other members of the team are disinclined to do that. (This resulted in me being denied permission to publish more than one translation electronically.)
  • Misunderstanding between a Bible translation organization and a publisher about copyright ownership about exactly what the implications of the publisher putting their own copyright notice in a printed Bible is. The translation organization thinks they still own the copyright, but the publisher claims that they own the copyright, as clearly printed in the book. This puts the Bible translation organization in the position of having to beg for rights to publish the translation they produced in other media. (I have truly lost count of how many times this has come up. The last time was last week. In the mean time, there are hundreds of completed translations I lack permission to publish electronically because of this, since the publisher is often more profit-motivated than the translation organization. If this went to court, the publisher would be the likely winner.)
  • Secret agreements to misrepresent who the copyright owner is in a copyright notice. Besides moral issues with this problem, any such secret agreements rapidly become ineffective precisely because they are secret and the copyright notice is not.
  • Assignment of multiple Bible translation copyrights to a nonexistent corporation. Seriously, I saw this happen… and continue, even when I asked about it. In a world where you need positive permission from the copyright owner to avoid risk of lawsuit before publishing a Bible translation, there is a risk that these Bibles will not be published by reputable publishers until their copyrights expire in 95 years. This risk is mitigated a little by the fact that the people who should have been listed as the copyright owners would have trouble establishing standing to sue a publisher… but what if a hostile person registered a corporation in that name just to claim title to that abandoned intellectual property? Who wants to pay lawyers to sort that out?
  • People saying “no” to Bible publication who don’t actually have standing to do so.
  • People refusing to say “yes” to Bible publication for fear of impact on sales revenues. (These people may have legitimate ministry concerns and rationalizations, but the fact is that they are claiming the right to fund their operation by selling what rightfully belongs to God.)
  • People refusing to say “yes” to Bible publication because they mistakenly think that all they need is one publication in one format, and that is enough. In reality, increasing the number of places and ways people can access the Scriptures increases the chances that they will actually start reading and listening to it.
  • People refusing to say “yes” to electronic Scripture publication because they don’t see any computer-literate people in their village, and don’t consider the few who left there to go to big cities worthy of consideration, or the increasing access to technology that is coming soon to such remote places.

How do we improve the situation and make ministry rather than money the primary motive in publishing the Holy Bible, especially in electronic formats where the cost of publishing is very small?

  • Educate everyone involved in Bible translation and publication what the copyright issues are, and what copyright really is under current laws and treaties.
  • Designate responsible copyright stewards for each Bible translation agency, and make sure that the copyright notice leads to the correct copyright steward.
  • Publish Scriptures with an appropriate license to go along with the copyright notice. I suggest using the one at, which is the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No derivative works license with additional permission to make extracts and to port to other file formats as long as the integrity of the Sacred text is maintained. Attribution means preserving the copyright notice and not claiming it as your own work, but giving credit where credit is due. Noncommercial is a sort of compromise, because it can be hard to define in cases like print on demand, but it makes life easier, especially in Papua New Guinea, where if anyone thinks you are making money off of something involving their language or work, they want some of it. With no money to argue over, there is no sound of arguments to bother us. The no derivative works clause in the standard Creative Commons license is actually a little too restrictive. What we really want is to preserve the words and punctuation of the Holy Bible, but we also want to allow people to convert the Bible into other file formats for use in various Bible study formats, etc. We also want to explicitly permit taking an extract, like copying and pasting a passage into a Bible study. Thus the additional permissions. This should actually be put in both print and electronic versions of the Bible. This lightens the load on the copyright steward and makes it clear that we value ministry over money.
  • Make sure that copyright notices are both included and accurate. Please note that it is never necessary to assign a copyright to a publisher, but if you do, please make sure you have a public written agreement with that publisher allowing perpetual nonexclusive rights to do anything with the text you might want to do, including distributing it in redistributable formats and making revisions. (I say “public” written agreement because I have heard claims that such agreements exist in some cases, but the other party denies the existence of such an agreement. The only prudent course for a risk-averse publisher is to not publish in such a case.)

I had a dream…

Back before I went into full-time missions, before the turn of the millennium, I saw a gentle hill with windmills on it, powering a broadcast of God’s Word in text, audio, and video formats all over the world. It was a vivid dream. I was a little confused by the dream, because there was ocean by the hills, and I lived in Colorado. Now, as I walk along the beach in my morning prayer walk, the Lord keeps reminding me of that dream, what I now see, and what I am doing for Him. It is awesome, really, to have that kind of prophetic reassurance that I am in the right place doing the right thing for the Lord. He knows what I like, because He gave me the desires in my heart in the first place, then as I delight in Him, He fulfills those desires. Thanks be to Father God, who loves us all!

What do you do on the computer day and night?

Say what? by kahunapulej
Say what?, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr. The inscription on this rock reminds me of some of the digital archeology I do in processing older Bible texts.

Here is what I do in place of a full-time job, in a nutshell:

  • Seek permission to publish Bibles electronically for free, with no copy restrictions, which God moves copyright owners to provide;
  • Process Bible texts and audio recordings in a variety of formats to make them publishable;
  • Write free and open source software to assist in the publication process;
  • Operate high-capacity web servers to host Bible sites;
  • Create and maintain Bible web sites in many languages;
  • Register domain names for those web sites;
  • Coordinate with others doing similar work;
  • Continue translation work on the World English Bible; and
  • Keep communicating with you, because we really need your prayer support in this battle.

In addition to all of that, I try to keep balanced in being a good husband and father, paying the bills, helping out at church, and whatever else the Lord asks of me.

That is a long list that involves different kinds of work. In a “normal” commercial company, one person wouldn’t do all of those things. I really can’t do them all at the same time, but I concentrate on one thing at a time, then switch to something else on the list. For a while, I was moving ahead with great speed on processing Bible texts. I caught up on that (i.e. I’m getting new translations much slower than I can post them), so for the last couple of weeks, I laid that aside, and worked on software development.

My current push in software development is to make a bridge between the file formats used by Bible translators and those used by Bible study software publishers, just as I already made a bridge to go to HTML for web sites. There are many Bible study program formats, so my first priority has been to support The Sword Project, which includes free and open source Bible study programs for Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, and Linux. Converting between the two formats used to be a manual labor-intensive process, because the conversion involves much more than simple replacements. I’m trying to automate it as much as practical, because I have literally hundreds of translations to process. I just reached a major milestone in that conversion process, and I’m about half way there.

I’m excited. It isn’t just the fun of doing something technically challenging and getting it to work. It is knowing that what we do gets the life-changing Word of God to more people in more languages and more places than ever before. This isn’t just some video game. This is about working with Jesus Christ to populate Heaven with redeemed people to praise God! That is why we live on donations instead of a regular salary.

Thank you for your prayers and support!


Copyright Fact and Fiction

Hundreds of Bibles by kahunapulej
Hundreds of Bibles, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

In the process of securing permission to publish translations of the Holy Bible and portions thereof, I have had to study some copyright law in detail. I’m not a lawyer, but I can read English and understand some complex issues. I recommend that you check my assertions against the actual law and/or get competent counsel from a real legal expert who specializes in intellectual property law before acting on what I say. If you find an error in this article, I invite your correction.

Fiction: Copyright can be renewed indefinitely.
Fact: All copyrights expire and the protected work enters the public domain at that point. Exactly when that happens depends on when and where it was published, when it was created, and if the copyright is owned by a corporation or individual(s). Anything published in the USA before 1923 is in the public domain, now. Current copyright law provides a longer period of validity than earlier laws, but it is still finite and copyrights still don’t last forever. Anything published in the USA today for the first time will enter the public domain 70 years after the last surviving author dies, or for work for hire by a corporation, 95 years from this year. For details, please see and Some people claim that the Crown Patent on the printing of the King James Version of Holy Bible is a non-expiring copyright, but it isn’t a true copyright and has no effect in most of the world. It is also doubtful that it has any effect on digital editions of the KJV Bible. If you live in Great Britain and have doubts, see if you can find someone who knows for sure.

Fiction: Converting a work to another format merits a new copyright claim.
Fact: Copyright only protects substantial creative works. Typing the contents of a book into a text file is work and it is tedious, but it is in no way creative. This is true even if some sort of standard markup is applied to indicate the structure of the printed book. An example of the law working this way is a decision that merely arranging names and telephone numbers in alphabetical order does not merit copyright protection, thus invalidating copyright claims on the main part of telephone books. So, if you convert the Latin Vulgate to USFM, using hours of your time laboriously inserting markers, don’t expect to win a lawsuit against anyone who copies that work without your permission.

Fiction: Copyright can be extended by revising a work.
Fact: If the revision amounts to a substantial creative work, such as a language update, adding new material, and such, a new copyright can be claimed on the new revision, but the original, unrevised work will still expire at the same time as it would have before the revision was made.

Fiction: A publisher must be listed as the copyright holder.
Fact: Nothing in the copyright law requires such a transfer. All that is required is that the copyright owner grants permission to publish to the publisher. The normal means of doing so is via a contract. It is also possible to transfer ownership of a copyright. In that case, the copyright becomes the property of the new owner, and the original owner no longer owns the copyright. Increasingly common practice among authors and publishers is to never transfer the actual copyright, but only selected rights associated with the copyright. The verso page of a modern book will often list the author as copyright owner, and have a separate statement of who the publisher is, with still another statement of who to contact for permission to make copies of all or part of the book (i. e. to quote a portion in another book).

Fiction: Copyright just applies to a particular form or expression of a work, like a single printing of a paper book.
Fact: Copyright means that the copyright owner has rights to allow or disallow copies in any format, including digital, printed, etc. See the definition of “copies” in for a very emphatic, watertight definition of anything that could possibly be a useful copy in any format.

Fiction: Copyright can actually belong to someone besides the person, group, or corporation claiming copyright in a copyright notice in a work.
Fact: A copyright notice is a legal notice of who owns the copyright, with very specific rules about the format. Essentially, there are three possibilities: (1) the notice is present and correct, (2) the notice is present and incorrect, and (3) the notice is absent. Case (1) is good. Case (2) indicates theft, implicit transfer of copyright ownership, outdated copyright ownership information, or a printing error. Unless the notice in a work is publicly and vigorously contested, the effect is one of implicit copyright ownership transfer, reducing this to case (1) either intentionally or otherwise. Copyright notices should be taken seriously, because the general public will assume that the notice is accurate. Case (3) is allowed under current copyright law, and is preferable to an incorrect notice, but makes defending a copyright more difficult. Case (2), when allowed to persist uncorrected, makes defending a copyright claim nearly impossible.

Fiction: Copyright claims on Bible translations can prevent heretical translations.
Fact: Since the original manuscripts of the Holy Bible were written well before 1923, they are firmly in the Public Domain. A new translation is a new creative work, and the more it differs from other translations, the less likely a claim of copyright violation against an existing translation can succeed. At a minimum, a translation need only differ from another translation as much as current translations differ from each other. Indeed, the more heretical, the more creative, the better under copyright law, at least with respect to overthrowing an attempted copyright infringement lawsuit. Orthodoxy is not nearly as creative, but it is preferable for some very compelling reasons that have nothing to do with copyright law. Of course, there is a HIGHER LAW concerning God’s Word, and the consequences of violating God’s Law are potentially much more serious than anything copyright law can offer. Copyright law and treaties are ignored in significant portions of the world, and enforcement may be technically possible but extremely improbable, so what “protection” is there is marginal, at best. The best you can do with copyright as a form of “protection” of God’s Word is to sue someone who makes a few simple but heretical changes to a translation you own the copyright to.

Fiction: A Public Domain work can be licensed under a Creative Commons or Open Source license.
Fact: “Public Domain” is the opposite of copyrighted. It means that a work is not copyrighted. Without a binding copyright, Creative Commons and Open Source licenses are meaningless, and cannot be enforced, because they rely on the fact that the licensed work is copyrighted. (So don’t bother suggesting that the World English Bible or the American Standard Version be licensed under a Creative Commons license.)

Fiction: There is no copyright law in Papua New Guinea (or another country)
Fact: Although there was a short time after PNG independence before a copyright law was passed and international treaty signed, that is no longer true. Even a new country like Kosovo has a copyright law.

Fiction: Copyright law is clear and consistent.
Fact: Copyright law leaves a lot to the imagination and the discretion of judges and certain administrative offices. Copyright law and respect for the same varies by country and region, even though international treaties provide some consistency and international protection. For example, the “fair use” doctrine in the USA is nice, if somewhat fuzzy as to how much of an excerpt is protected, but Australian law has no such clause.

You can read more about copyright… much more… at

Sleeping Coconuts

Coconut Tree by kahunapulej
Coconut Tree, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

The flight attendant looked at me, wondering why my eyes were watering. I asked for a soft drink, and continued reading Sleeping Coconuts. Macho or not, I think a few tears is a normal reaction to being freshly reminded of such intense disaster affecting close friends.

Our friends, John and Bonnie Nystrom, wrote a book about their adventures in Bible translation. Apparently, Bible translation in Papua New Guinea is not for whimps. This is a story of God’s grace, and His awesome ability to once again bring great good out of terrible tragedy. You might think that Bible translation sounds like a lot of detailed language work, with day after day of language learning, translating, and checking your work. It is, actually. It also involves a lot of support work (like I do). But there is also a serious element of spiritual warfare and a need for the kind of endurance that only God can empower you with.

This book is about real life with real people (most of whom Lori and I know) and real victory in Jesus Christ. I heartily recommend it. You can get a copy of Sleeping Coconuts from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format at

A miracle of slow healing

Kodiak departing Uvol by kahunapulej
Kodiak departing Uvol, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

I just read again about a dear friend of mine, Steve, returning to service as a missionary pilot in Papua New Guinea. This is an awesome miracle, really. It may not seem to be spactacular, or quick as we would like it, but it is nonetheless awesome and a reflection of a serious servant of the Most High God.

Now, for the rest of the story.

Steve was riding his motorcycle between Ukarumpa and the Aiyura airstrip in Papua New Guinea– a curvy dirt road that I’m very familiar with. It was my daily commute for a few years, by foot, bicycle, truck, or van. One day a PMV truck went way too fast around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road and smashed into him. The guilty driver ran away, abandoning the truck, and was never seen again. Broken bones, bruises, abrasions, and more threatened his life. Normal people die on impact with a truck like that, but somehow the Lord softened the blow just enough. Somehow, he was gathered up alive and flown straight to Cairns, Australia, nursed back to health. Months later, he actually was healed enough to pass a flight physical. He returned to his job, but his wife and he agreed that he shouldn’t commute by motorcycle any more. (It could be worse– going by bicycle or foot, like me, but he rode the Aviation department van, instead.)

Enraged that he failed to take the missionary pilot out, the enemy tried again.

Steve was in the left front seat of a van full of missionaries, mostly short termers. Another good friend of mine was in the right front seat, driving. (Yes, we drive on the left side of the road in PNG and the steering wheel is on the right.) Instead of a little local road, they were on the highlands highway, heading up the infamous Barola Pass. On a blind corner, they met a huge semi-trailer truck loaded with heavy steel pipe, coming way too fast down hill on the wrong side of the road (dodging a pot hole). Wham! There was no way to dodge the truck. No way. Conservation of momentum was NOT on their side. The truck driver abandoned his vehicle and ran away, never to be seen again. (Understandable, since bystanders probably would have killed him for that.) By the time some of them regained consciousness, one of them, a short term missionary with no language or culture knowledge to speak of and serious injuries, had been taken to the Kainantu “Hospital” by a well-meaning passerby. One of them radioed for help, and our center sent both helicopters, both doctors, and a few others. The auto shop staff took off by land to help. It took a long time and a lot of cutting of steel to get Steve out. His legs were smashed like so much spaghetti in wrinkled metal. The helicopters kept shuttling people back to our hanger, where triage took place. The worst cases were sent to Cairns on our own aircraft. The next worse were sent on another air ambulance. No more air ambulances. We did what we could. At one point, Steve’s wife was almost sent to a PNG hospital, based on the fact that the doctor didn’t think she would survive all the way to Australia… but just as he was saying that, her blood pressure came back up, color returned to her face, and the doctor sent her with her husband to Cairns.

None of them died. The misplaced passenger was retrieved.

Steve’s x-rays looked like a jigsaw puzzle that had been manhandled by a toddler and fed to the dogs. It took months of prayer, surgery, external frameworks holding bones in place, etc. Finally, Steve was released. He could walk, barely. But the doctors in Australia seriously doubted that he would ever pass a flight physical again, because he didn’t have full control of his feet, and didn’t see how that could happen. But God did.

Steve kept praying and trying to walk, run, and work that foot. God answered prayer. Again.

God wins. Steve wins. The Bible translators in Papua New Guinea that get flown around the country doing their jobs win. Glory be to God!

Maximizing Ministry Impact of Electronic Bibles

by Michael Johnson, 24 July 2012

Electronic media of various kinds offer the potential of making God’s Word available to more people in more ways and in more languages than ever before. Just turning a paper book into some random electronic format is a nice start, but won’t necessarily take full advantage of the new platforms and media. It also might not take into account the needs of each audience. Here are some thoughts on how to get the life-transforming Holy Scriptures not only to more people, but into more of their hearts.

Getting God’s Word to More People

Here are some things to consider that can improve the number of people effectively reached with the Good News about Jesus Christ:

  • Translate the Holy Bible into every living language on Earth.
  • Encourage Bible sharing. Take advantage of the relative simplicity of downloading, copying, and sharing electronic media. Unlike with paper Bibles, you can give your copy away 10 times and still have your own copy. Let the Holy Scriptures “go viral” in the social media sense among those who appreciate God’s Word.
  • Make Scriptures available on multiple platforms. Bibles can be read on various kinds of computers of various sizes, running many operating systems. This includes smart phones (and even some not-so-smart phones), tablet computers (like iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.), specialized electronic book readers (like Kindle, Nook, etc.), notebook computers, desktop computers. Operating systems include Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, Android, Symbian, etc. It is great if you reach users of one platform but not so great if you leave the others out.
  • Make the Holy Bible in each language available in multiple formats, like HTML (for web pages), full web applications, Bible study programs (like Xiphos, PocketSword, AndBible, Olive Tree Bible Reader, etc.), PDF, ePub, etc. People will pick their favorite Bible study program, reader, etc., and they won’t all pick the same one.
  • Make each translation of the Holy Bible available on multiple web sites. Some sites are customized just for one segment of a language group. Others are customized for a particular country. Some are like massive libraries of Bibles and other books in many languages. Each one appeals more or less to a different segment of each target audience. Some sites may be off-putting to part of the target audience, but if there are other sites that are not, and which also distribute the same Scriptures, this problem is mitigated.
  • Include audio as well as text Scriptures. Many language groups, especially among minority languages and groups with difficult writing systems have low literacy rates. There are also some people who are visually impaired. Even among those who can and do read, listening to audio Scriptures can be very encouraging and helpful in walking the Christian walk.
  • Keep costs as low as practical. This means not only making Scripture downloads free of cost, but giving due consideration to those who pay for Internet access by the megabyte and/or by the minute. This means keeping file sizes down as far as practical without serious compromise of quality. It also means allowing and even encouraging offline local caching of Scriptures to avoid the traffic associated with redundant downloads of passages already read.
  • Allow and encourage offline access to Scriptures. Even in a developed nation, Internet access is not available everywhere and all the time. In some places, Internet access is rare and expensive, causing data to be passed around more on USB memory sticks than via the Internet.
  • Use creative means to make the Holy Bible available in places where there may be persecution of Christians. This includes, but is not limited to, allowing anonymous access to Scriptures, distributed distribution techniques, use of cryptography and steganography, and diversification of distribution methods.
  • Make each Bible translation look and sound attractive and appropriate to its target language community or communities. This is where cultural sensitivity meets graphic and typographic design, recording quality, and quality of recording and presentation. A diversity of presentations is appropriate, here, to appeal to, for example, those who like to listen to a dramatized Bible and those who prefer a simple reading. One person may like a musical background, and one person may be repelled by the same background. Nobody likes a noisy, scratchy audio recording or hard-to-read text.
  • Seek ways of cooperating with and helping others who are involved in electronic Scripture publishing, both at the organizational and personal levels. Share applicable software, databases, and most important of all, Scriptures. Why make others spend time and money duplicating effort to do what you have already done and could share with them?
  • Embrace intentional redundancy and diversity. A smart retailer will place more some items, like candy and batteries, in more than one place in a store. Likewise, a smart electronic evangelist will place the Holy Bible in more than one place on the Internet.

Thinking Outside of the Box

To really get the most impact for the Kingdom of God from the Bible translations that God has given us stewardship responsibility for, we need to think some new thoughts. There are new ways to do new things, as well as new ways to do old things that can actually be more effective at accomplishing our goals. Some of these new ideas and practices are necessary to truly implement the above ideas. There are some obvious “elephant in the room” sorts of issues that need to be dealt with in any case. These include money and funding models, protecting the integrity of Bible translations, and effectiveness monitoring.

Funding Ministries

Asking those being evangelized to bear the cost of reaching them with the Gospel for the first time has not been an effective technique. It ranks right down there with insisting that people learn Biblical Greek to read the New Testament for the first time in terms of bad ideas. Therefore, we obviously need a better plan. The Good News of Jesus Christ is free, as is the gift of eternal life that He paid for already on the cross. Unfortunately, delivering the Good News is costly. Every medium of communication you can think of (and some you might not think of) cost something, be it printing, networking and computing resources, or in some cases, the very lives of the messengers. So where does the money to fund these ministries come from? Some possibilities include donations, other business ventures, self-funded missions (“tent making”), labor by “retired” people with a pension, and sales of related materials.
Because you can’t really print Bibles for free, anyway, people have long accepted draconian copyright restrictions on printed Bibles, making them a very lucrative revenue source when managed as such. Unfortunately, managing Bibles to maximize profit does not maximize distribution or ministry impact. Now that electronic Bibles files are a reality, it costs more to put mechanisms in place to limit distribution and demand payment for electronic Bible files than it does to make an actual copy. Such mechanisms are exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be encouraging people to make a copy and read it, not telling them that they are forbidden to do so unless they fork over payment.
Obviously, this leaves some ministries that rely on printed Bible sales in a similar position to Kodak Corporation before they went bankrupt. Kodak should not have gone bankrupt when their film sales plummeted, because they had developed new digital photography business models and products, but they failed to make the turn with the market. It was a management problem. If we are to learn something from this example, it is that we need to embrace reality and prepare for the change, not delude ourselves to think that the status quo can continue. This means getting serious about developing alternate funding models for ministries, including raising funds from donors, asking God for creative business ideas that don’t negatively impact ministry, and in some cases pairing ministries with business activities and services that raise money. Printed Bibles will not go away entirely in the foreseeable future, and indeed may increase some with print-on-demand services for minority Scriptures, but their monetary profitability will drop preciptously.
On the bright side, the costs associated with electronic Scripture distribution are a small fraction of the cost of print Scripture distribution, because it involves the use of mostly pre-existing networks and devices. The main costs involve software development, text preparation and formatting, and high-bandwidth web hosting.

A Near-perfect Tamper-evident Seal

Although it is trivially easy to alter most kinds of electronic books, it is also easy to sign them with a cryptographically strong digital signature. These digital signatures provide a tamper-evident seal that, when properly made and checked, assure that the text is exactly what was published by the original publisher. Such checking can (and should) be built into Bible study software, much like web site authenticity assurance via SSL is built into web browsers. The assurance provided by this sort of digital signature far exceeds the assurance provided by copyright (which is for limited terms and only effective when the copyright owner is willing and able to sue violators). Of course, both digital signatures and copyright “protections” of content are insignificant compared to what God Himself does to watch over and protect His Word.

Yielding Control to God

Working together as a team, or more accurately, as the Body of Christ, means that we must yield control to the true Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and really trust Him to guide us in areas where we just cannot humanly control and monitor the outcomes of our work. Indeed, that is really the best policy even in areas where we think we have it all under control. We may not know the full extent of the fruit of our efforts until we meet some of the people blessed by our work in Heaven.

What Now?

It is time to recognize traditional copyright licenses, “digital rights management”, legal and technical distribution and copying restrictions, and efforts to monitor Scripture “engagement” with the public for what they are: impediments to maximum ministry impact of God’s Word. We need to turn around and do something different: put the motive of God’s prophets above money profit motives, and seek God’s wisdom in implementing the changes. We need to applaud those who have started to do so, like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Bible Society of Papua New Guinea, for their good progress in electronic Scripture publishing, done in a way that maximizes ministry impact. May God be glorified in us, and pleased with not only what we do, but how we do it and our motives!

When did you last see a phone booth?

More to the point, when did you last actually use a telephone booth (or any public pay telephone)? Have you ever seen a pay phone in a rain forest?
Over 80% of the world’s population now has a mobile phone. There are over 5 billion mobile phones in the world, and over 1 billion of those are smart phones.
A friend of mine amazed me with a story of smart phone use in Papua New Guinea, on Manus Island. In that country, only about a tenth of the people have access to electrical power utilities. Mobile phone use was limited to a few cities until a few years ago. However, thanks to the government opening up mobile phone service to competition and rapid tower building by Digicel, much of the population now has access to mobile phone and Internet service, even in areas that never have had fixed line telephone service. As my friend was walking along a trail in the rain forest, he told a man he met there that the book of Genesis was available online in his language (Nali). The man took out his smart phone, and within minutes was reading Genesis aloud to those standing around him.

Welcome to our new web site!

After many months of acknowledging that our own missionary web site was in serious need of revision, both in the content and in the structure, I celebrated the President’s Day weekend by actually doing it. I tried to present the important stuff in bite-sized chunks so that important details that people might want to know didn’t get lost in the sea of information, while still providing most of the information that was there, before. I also disposed of the old frame-based structure with a WordPress/PHP structure. As for the domain name, is great, but that domain is primarily about the Holy Bible, and not about us, which left and Unless you speak Hawaiian or know my initials well, those aren’t so memorable. So, we added the new domain name (for Michael and Lori Johnson, of course) as the primary domain name, and left the others as aliases for that. Also, to avoid potential problems with unwanted advertising, we moved this journal to our own server instead of using our old free WordPress account. The net effect is less patchwork-like. We hope you like it!