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Torchbearers of the Truth: Quatercentenary of the King James Bible (3)

J Brown, Peterhead

"As that we have great hopes that the Church of England shall reap good fruit thereby."

In these terms the Translators expressed their vision in The Epistle Dedicatory, and, four hundred years later, good fruit continues to be reaped in a field wider than those worthy men could ever have imagined.

The success of the translation was not immediate as many Puritans clung to their Geneva Bibles, replete with marginal notes and references, but in time the Authorised Version, as it came to be known, captured the affection of English speaking people world wide. On an historical scale the sheer longevity of the AV is a phenomenon without parallel.1 Much credit is due to Tyndale who combined the requisites for successful translation, i.e. technical skill and fluency in the original tongues with sensitivity to the idiom of the language of the translation. Tyndale was outstanding in matching varieties of English to the differences in Hebrew and one of the first to appreciate the Hebrew influence on New Testament Greek.2 He translated with clarity and accuracy using simple English syntax. The reading of his text gave impetus to the development of modern English. It has been observed that "without Tyndale no Shakespeare", and one could add, "…no Donne, Johnson or Spenser". Through the decades following Tyndale’s martyrdom English prose and poetry gained a new vibrancy, and King James’s translators applied themselves to their task in that bright spring-time of English literature. Their great achievement was to bring a Jacobean richness of beauty and dignity to their Revision, expressing the extraordinary power and flexibility of the English language. The result has been to give us the Bible in language of musicality and rhythm eminently suited for public reading!

The twentieth century witnessed a plethora of modern versions, many of which swiftly sank into well-deserved obscurity, while the AV sails on majestically, still the best selling book in the world. A serious post-war endeavour was the New English Bible proposed in 1946. The Joint Committee overseeing the work met in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, where Lancelot Andrewes and his Company had gathered. Perhaps they hoped for inspiration! But contrast the banality of the NEB rendering of John 21.4-6: Morning came and there stood Jesus on the beach…He called out to them "Friends, have you caught anything?" They answered "No". He said, "Shoot the net to starboard, and you will make a catch.": with the atmospheric AV narrative: But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore…Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. T S Elliot wrote that the NEB "astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic". The attempt in modern versions to translate in language claimed to be more easily understood by a modern reader has usually resulted in a flattening of the tone, in a sense that the sublime has been sacrificed for the prosaic, leaving one feeling the loss of something "so touching in its majesty".3 Furthermore, serious doctrinal questions have arisen regarding verses and passages in certain modern versions that have been found to express, not always fully and sometimes not faithfully or completely, the truth contained in the original.

The tendency to use modern versions for public reading has been regrettable, although the cadences of the Authorised Version may still be heard on great occasions, as if there lingers, amidst the rush for mediocrity, a desire for old certainties and things of beauty. Some argue that its language is archaic, and incomprehensible to young people, and thus we need to use a version in the language of our time. But one then questions whether the language of our time is really capable of conveying the sublime truths of the Word of God. Allowing for the current failings of State education, it remains true that most people are well able to understand a reading from the AV. Its language is timeless, and memorable phrases remain in the national consciousness. People express what they regard as proverbial wisdom, not realising they are quoting Scripture. "Escaped with the skin of my teeth" (Job 19.20) is one example. "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Gen 4.9) is another. Winston Churchill could quote Scripture to good effect as when, in a wartime speech, he declared of the Nazis, "They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind" (Hos 8.7).

J N Darby was an accomplished linguist who translated the Bible into both French and English. In the Preface to his New Testament published in 1871 he made the following interesting observation: "Those who make a version for public use must of course adapt their course to the public. Such has not been my object or thought, but to give to the student of scripture, who cannot read the original, as close a translation as possible". Obviously Darby intended his translation to be used for private study rather than for public reading. He commented on the Authorised Version: "Its value and beauty are known, and I need not dilate upon. I have lived upon it, though of course studying the Greek myself".

Some venerate the Authorised Version to the extent that they claim inspiration for the translators, but only the writers of the original text were inspired. Paul makes this clear in 2 Timothy 3.16: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God". Peter, referring to the Old Testament, wrote that "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet 1.21). In the same letter, the epistles of Paul are put on a level with "the other scriptures" (3.15-16). A thoughtful reader will see that these verses refer to the original documents as inerrant and authoritative Scripture. Inspiration cannot be claimed for the process of translation. That process will depend upon the skill and integrity of the translator(s), to ensure accuracy as far as humanly possible, and upon Divine help and blessing in their work. It should be appreciated that original documents had ceased to exist long before 1611. The translators, like others, used Hebrew and Greek texts derived from manuscripts which themselves were copies, and in which there may have been minor errors.

It would take a bold man to assert that the AV is perfect. Perhaps there is no such a thing as the perfect translation. The AV does have unfortunate readings at various points. A well known example is at Hebrews 2.17 where the Greek hilaskomai, which has the meaning of "to propitiate", was translated as "to make reconciliation for the sins of the people", although the noun form of the word was translated as "propitiation" in 1 John 2.2 and 4.10. At Hebrews 2.17 JND gives, "to make propitiation for the sins of the people", which is more satisfactory.

Notwithstanding such matters, the AV is an excellent and reliable English Bible. Three reasons may be adduced to support that assertion. First, the providence of God overruling in a work which history has shown to be of global importance. Second, the basic reliability of the Hebrew and Greek texts used. Third, the translation coinciding with a flowering both of language and of literary genius.

Miles Smith, Bishop of Gloucester and one of the First Oxford Company, wrote the lengthy Preface to the King James Bible entitled "The Translators to the Reader". It includes these memorable words: Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy Place; that removeth the covering of the well, that we may come by the water. Successive generations of Torchbearers of the Truth have drawn from that well, and multitudes have been refreshed.

To be continued.

1The Bible in English by David Daniel. Published by Yale University Press.

2The Bible in English by David Daniel. Published by Yale University Press.

3From Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth.

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