The New English Bible

Very seldom has any book of any kind been given the advance publicity blow-up that has launched this new translation of the Bible. I understand that the initial print order is one of the largest in the history of publishing. Since the first of the year editorials, pre-reviews, handouts, news stories have been appearing everywhere. You’d think it was a paperback, with illustrations from stills of the picture, of The Life of Christ by Carl Sandburg, with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. However lavish the salesmanship, it is apparent that the interest is genuine, the demand is there. What is this demand? And does this translation meet it?

Superficially, the arguments for a new translation are, as they have always been, quite convincing. The language of the King James Version is archaic. We have an immense amount of material, codices or quoted passages in other early writings, which is much older than the texts available to the Jacobean translators. We know a good deal more about the meaning of the Greek in certain ambiguous passages. We know a vast deal more about the life and times of Christ and his disciples, and even more about the Old Testament days, so that we can interpret the text with greater understanding. We certainly assume that we are far less time-bound and ethnocentric than a group of Anglican divines of the early seventeenth century. We are more self-critical and less likely to phrase the text to fit our own doctrinal or liturgical presuppositions. (The most famous example of this fault is the use of “chalice” instead of “cup” in the Douai accounts of the Passion.)

The clergy, especially the Liberal Protestant or Broad Church clergy, insist that the language of the King James Version is alien to modern congregations, and even more alien for missionary purposes to those, especially “young people,” who are outside the churches. The chairman of the committee responsible for the present translation announced it with the words, “I hope we have produced a work which will be read by the younger generation who now regard the Bible, with its archaic phrases, as a stuffy and old-fashioned book.” Time magazine, expanding this remark, goes on to say, “Despite its many magnificent drums and tramplings, the 350-year-old King James Version might as well be in the original Greek for all the sense most moderns can make of it.”

What was that? I would say that this bit of wisdom only indicates that Time thinks so little of its “Religion” section that it employs Zen Buddhists who have never read the Bible to write copy. I mean, really.

It is not difficult to suspect a fallacy in the second argument, the one from the change in the audience. The validity of the first argument is simply a matter of information. Have the researchers of paleography and archeology presented us with enough emendations, and emendations of sufficient importance, to warrant an entirely new translation? They have not. There is not a single universally accepted change in the Greek text available to the King James translators which makes the slightest difference in the facts of the Gospel narrative, or in what Catholics call “doctrine, faith and morals.” Three hundred and fifty years of research and discovery — in the text, that is — have not advanced the disputed questions of the Virgin Birth, the existence, nature and number of the sacraments, the personality, divinity and humanity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, the institution of a priesthood, the meaning of the Death and Passion of Jesus, all the other points at issue in the dogmatic disputes of the churches — not one of the questions has been advanced one iota from where they stood in the days of Launcelot Andrewes and Archbishop Laud . . . or George Fox. With few exceptions they are purely verbal emendations which have no influence on the sense of the narrative.

Are we less ethnocentric than the committee of Jacobean divines? This is a dilemma like “Cleon says all Cretans are liars. But Cleon is a Cretan.” The King James Version has a definite Baroque splendor. But the new version has a definite British Liberal Protestant tone, sometimes casual, sometimes chummy, sometimes drab. The koinĂȘ of the originals may have been the common tongue of the Eastern Mediterranean of the first century, but the language of the Evangelists and Paul is more often splendid than chummy, and it is never drab. Robbed of its Baroque splendor, the Book of Revelations sounds rather like the ravings of a crank. Perhaps this is a genuine crux. The fact is that the Apocalypse cannot be translated into the common speech of the suburbs of London and Glasgow without being totally changed in significance. Only crazy people, who live in the slums, not in the suburbs, talk or think that way anymore.

As for our increase in historical knowledge. The New Testament is one of the largest collections of primary source material for any period of history. It is itself the most comprehensive source which we have on its own time and place in history. It is in a sense self-explanatory, it carries with it its own background material and footnotes. All subsequent archeology and historical research simply broaden and clarify details of the narrative as it has come down to us . . . as far as retranslation of the text goes, that is. Of course, you might write into the original text “the revolutionary discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and all that sort of thing. But that would not be translation, it would be forgery. The Jacobean divines may have been, like all of us, ethnocentric, but I doubt if they envisaged the Apostles as British courtiers and scholars and members of the House of Lords. It was left for our time to compare Jesus Christ to an advertising agency account executive.

I guess historical provincialism is the key to the matter. The role of the translator is much like that of the actor. The success of a translation is the convincingness with which it projects a foreign or past original onto a modern stage. Are the Jesus and Apostles of the New English Bible dramatically believable? Do we feel “This is the way it would have looked to me if I had been there?” Or do we feel that the accidental present is being forcibly projected into the past, like Hamlet in Evening Clothes?

In the first place, the New English Bible is full of mediocre writing, as well as careless language. One reviewer has pointed to the story of the entry into Jerusalem, where the colt is tethered to a door, “a usage so modern (‘tether’ hitherto meaning to tie an animal where it can graze) that it hasn’t got into the dictionaries.” The chairman of the panel of translators, Professor C.H. Dodd, has said that his committee suspected rightly that exact scholarship does not always go with a sensitive feeling for literary style, so the experts’ prose was given lightness and grace by another panel of experts, whose names have not been officially divulged. Read that over carefully. Surely one literary grace lacking to Professor Dodd is irony. The Anonymous Lightness and Grace Committee is a notion worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sometimes provincialism can illuminate the original — but it is not usually our provincialism, but a past or foreign one on which we can gain perspective. Pope is not Homer, but from him we learn to see things in Homer we never would have known were there. T.E. Lawrence’s Homer, on the other hand, just seems bad writing. Robert Graves’s Homer is as odd as Graves himself. Even after centuries Urquhart is too odd to represent the humanist Rabelais. Do the translators of the New English Bible illuminate or distort the text?

Beyond questions of accuracy and lightness and grace, it is a question of tone. The King James translators believed the words of the New Testament in a way that a panel of modern scholars does not. The archetypical, hieratic grandeur of the narrative, as Toynbee has so ingeniously analyzed it, the transfigured schema of tragic drama — this had a significance for Anglican priests of the early seventeenth century that it simply does not have for a liberal scholar or theologian today. Furthermore, that seventeenth-century significance was enough like the original first-century significance that it had for the evangelists themselves so that identification was possible. The darkness of the Passion is not congenial to a committee of modern scholars. Again, the even darker, semi-gnostic speculations of the author of the Epistle to the Romans and the introduction to the Gospel of John are still less congenial. To the early seventeenth century such occult Platonism was more than congenial, it was positively up to date. So a cosmogonic vision like VIII Romans is far clearer, in the plain sense of that word, in the King James Version than it is in the New English Bible.

I think the committee did its best work in the Pastoral Epistles, low-keyed passages of narrative in Matthew and Mark and the straightforward historical prose of Acts. (The poetry of Luke, and the gentle, feminine tone of that Gospel seems to have escaped them altogether. Here both Moffat and Knox far surpass them.) It is obvious what is happening. Where the original is secular and “other directed” the modern, secular, other directed translators can identify with it. Where it is not, they miss the essential tone.

Where the actors and speakers of the New Testament are “like us” they seem a little closer, at least for a change, in words that are like ours. Urquhart’s Rabelais is a freakish English classic. Jacques LeClercq’s translation is not great prose — but Rabelais really was more like Jacques Barzun than he was like a crabbed Scotch eccentric, so the translation is illuminating. The trouble is, nobody in the New Testament was much like the members of a Broad Committee.

How archaic, in fact, is the King James Version? Of course it is ridiculous to say that it might as well be in the original Greek for all the sense most moderns can make of it. Most moderns seem to make sufficient sense of Shakespeare — he is rather popular on BBC TV — and the Bible is in somewhat less archaic language. An amused Time correspondent wrote in to ask if the editors thought “robbers’ cave” was less archaic and more easily understood than “den of thieves.” Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Pentecostal sects, Negro store-front churches, these are all groups of common people who seem to get a great deal out of the Authorized Version. In fact, it is amongst those sects who emphasize precisely the “archaic” text that evangelism is most successful, and it is amongst Liberal Protestants, who want an up-to-date version, that evangelism is least successful. Perhaps it is the religion that seems stuffy and old-fashioned to the “younger generation,” not the language.

I am afraid I took this assignment more seriously than it warrants. I gathered all the recent translations of the Bible I could obtain. I hoped to do an extensive, judicial, even scholarly comparison of them all. It is not worth the space and trouble. What is wrong with them all is that they are not very good. The King James translators were great writers; Goodspeed, Moffat, Rieu, Philips, are not. They are pedestrian, and the New Testament may have many faults, but it is not pedestrian. For my taste the best translations are Father Ronald Knox’s, and something that might well have been a monstrosity, the Basic English Bible. Father Knox has style, it may be a narrow style, but style it is. The New English Bible is close to styleless, it is so obviously the work of a Broad Committee. The Basic English Bible is an engaging oddity, and it is certainly simple enough for the simplest to understand.



This review of The New English Bible: New Testament originally appeared in The Nation (8 April 1961) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1961. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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