The Old Testament of the Bible cut in half? The New Testament reduced by one-quarter?
That might strike some as blasphemy. But could a careful condensing of some biblical books make them more accessible to more readers? Consider the seventh chapter of Numbers, where 12 princes each bring to the dedication of Moses' tabernacle the same offerings of silver and gold, bullocks, goats, oxen, rams, and lambs. Could the 71 repetitive verses that describe these offerings be condensed without losing the significance of the passage?
Yes, says Bruce Metzger, author of some 25 books on the Bible and professor of the New Testament for the past 43 years at Princeton Theological Seminary. As chairman of the National Council of Churches' committee on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Dr. Metzger continually looks for ways to improve biblical translations. For the past 31/2 years, he has been serving as general editor of the planned condensation of the Bible by the Reader's Digest.
The Reader's Digest version will shorten the Revised Standard Version by 40 percent overall, condensing portions of the Old Testament by 50 percent and trimming the New Testament by 25 percent. Due to be published in September as an 800-page, standard size book, it will sell for about $15.
Putting it together has taken seven years, with the past three spent on page by page editing. When he agreed to serve as chief technical adviser to the project, Dr. Metzger says he first made a list of some sections of the Bible that probably could be omitted, and then drew up a list of passages that he thought shouldn't be changed in any way, including the Ten Commandments, Psalm 23, and the Lord's Prayer.
In addition to condensing large repetitive blocks of writing, there were many other relatively simple changes, according to Dr. Metzger. ''In the New Testament, for example, four words occur together frequently: 'he answered and said.' These usually were changed to 'he answered' or 'he said,' a deletion of 50 percent.''
Dr. Metzger notes that a number of shortened versions of the Bible have been published before, including ''The Abbreviated Bible'' (Van Nostrand, 1971), ''The Shorter Oxford Bible'' (Oxford University Press, 1951), ''The Short Bible, an American Translation'' (University of Chicago, 1933), and the ''Cambridge Shorter Bible'' (Cambridge University Press, 1928). But in each of these versions, he says, some books of the Bible were dropped entirely. That has not happened in the Reader's Digest version.
Jack Walsh, project director at Reader's Digest's Pleasantville, N.Y., headquarters, says that the staff at Reader's Digest was in a ''unique position'' to take on the job because of many years of ''literary condensing'' of books. The new publication is not meant as a substitute for the Bible, Mr. Walsh adds, but as a ''supplementary aid'' to reading the Book of books. ''We hope it will send people to read the full version.''
Although reluctant to release excerpted passages of the new version five months before it's published, Walsh did provide an example of the kind of condensing that's been done by his team of seven editors.
In the Revised Standard Version, second chapter of Genesis, verses one through three, reads: ''Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done , and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.''
This 66-word passage has been shortened to 37 words in the forthcoming Reader's Digest version: ''Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God rested from all his work. God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, because on it he rested from all his work of creation.''
Criticisms of tampering with the inspired words of centuries are already being leveled at Reader's Digest by a number of church groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Moral Majority. But Walsh says recent publications of new versions of the Bible indicate to him that ''there is a hunger in the public for a version which can be easily read and understood.'' Shortening the Bible by 40 percent, he adds, should make it more accessible than ever.