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.''