2011 - Year of the Bible
So many versions!
2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the 'King James' or 'Authorised' version of the Bible. In earlier years 'the Bible' always meant this version, whether as a massive Family Bible with full page illustrations, maps, notes and a metal clasp - or as an insignificant black book with small print given to Sunday school children - or perhaps a tidy Bible for study with references and concordance, and perhaps the Scofield helps. Today Bibles come in assorted sizes and colours and in many versions. It is said that in the last century a new version of the New Testament came out every year or so. Not only are there many English versions, but also those in many other languages. The word of God is being spread by means of many different translations, and not only the one authorised by King James.
To translate means 'to express the sense of words or writing in another language'. The early English versions were often the product of a chain of translations -in an extreme case, from Hebrew into Greek and then into Latin, then to German and from German into English. Translation became more accurate when scholars began to translate direct from the Hebrew or Greek into English. But to say 'English' raises the question, what sort of English? Language changes over the years, and so does the environment in which we use it. One modern translator writes that scripture "invites us into this large, large world in which the invisible God is behind and involved in everything visible". Fine. But in this man's experience "nobody seemed to care much about the Bible…. Never read it." He felt that he lived in two 'language worlds', the world of the Bible and the world of Today. He wanted to 'translate' the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the common language of Today that we use to 'gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children'. The version that Pterson produced is a paraphrase, for reading, not for study, intended hopefully to bring people into conversation with God as He speaks through His word. What we read becomes what we live.
This is the sort of aim that inspires modern translators. J B Phillips aimed to get into the hearts and minds of the New Testament writers, with a kind of imaginative sympathy. He wanted "to understand as fully and deeply as possible what the New Testament writers had to say and then… to write it down in the language of the people of today. Nicholas King, the Catholic translator, aimed "to allow the reader to experience what it was like to hear or read the words for the first time" in the days of the apostles Encouraging people to read the New Testament, he wanted us to experience "something of the raw power that lies beneath the surface of the text". It is to be an "encounter with God who never ceases to address us, and with Jesus whom God sent and raised from the dead."
A translator aims to transmit the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew text accurately and clearly. The committee who produced the 'New Century Version' set out their aim clearly - they did not translate word by word but in sentences. They were aware that the translator is an interpreter, and in bridging the divide between the ancient and the modern cultures, has to beware of explaining with a bias of his own. They were aware of the differences which occur in the ancient copies of the original words which scholars in the past have discovered. Along with accuracy goes clarity, and they used words that ordinary people understand, changing 'cubits' into 'metres' and using modern place names. Doing this has its dangers, and it may be safer to stick closer to each individual word of the original The NES American Standard Bible, for example, "translates into English every translatable word in the original text". This method is different, but the aim is the same - that "every Bible reader can make life-changing discoveries". But word for word translations have implications for the close scholar of scripture. This version seeks to transmit "the authority of the inspired original text".
'Authority' has always been an issue around the translating of scripture. If the Bible is God's Word with control over people's lives, it has seemed important to those in authority, whether in church or state, to control who should read it, and to control what a version says. Translators need to be independent of this pressure. Tyndale (1526 NT) opposed the ignorant priests of his time and said he would "cause the boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures" than them. Eventually Tyndale was murdered at the stake because of the political effects of his translation work. He prayed that God would 'open the king of England's eyes' so that he would allow English people to have access to the scriptures. Tyndale's prayer was somewhat answered when Coverdale's English version of the complete Bible (1535) was granted official permission - "let it go abroad among my people". Matthew's Bible, 'Thomas Matthew' being a pseudonym for John Rogers in those dangerous times, was dedicated to the king (1537), but a new monarch, Queen Mary, made Rogers the first martyr of her reign. (Murder for religious reasons is not unheard of in our world today.) So Bible translators fled to Geneva, where the Geneva Bible (1560) was produced. This version, which was popular in some quarters in England for a hundred years, had as its frontispiece a picture of the people of Israel being rescued by God's power from the Pharoah (king of Egypt). But the Bishops'Bible (1568), promulgated in the Church of England, featured a picture of crowds shouting 'Long live the King!' Queen Elizabeth must have appreciated this attitude to royalty.
In 1603 King James came to the English throne thinking well of himself - as a theologian, a peacemaker in troubled times, but most of all as a king with a divine right - head of the nation, head of the church. The Hampton Court Conference which he convened he intended to establish his control in matters of religion, and he saw political advantage when it was proposed to prepare a new version of the Bible which he could cause to be read in churches. The proposers may have simply wanted a better, popular translation which all contending parties in the church could agree to use. Whatever the politics of it, the 54 scholars in 6 committees did a splendid job of work, and seven years later the Authorised Version was published. Subsequently, after its use had finally been imposed on the country at the Restoration, no other major version was published for another 200 years.
The second part of the nineteenth century saw the start of an outpouring of new translations. Some were produced by committees… Revised Version 1885… American Standard Bible 1901… Revised Standard Version 1952… Amplified Bible NT 1958… Good News… NIV… NRSV… and more. Others were the work of individuals - Darby, Rotherham, Ferrar Fenton, Weymouth, Moffatt, Phillips, Knox, Barclay, to name but a few. It is difficult today to point to one English version and say that this should be the only proper version of God's Word.
Does it seem that God has let things get out of control? A comment was made a hundred years ago about the AV, that it was 'a miracle of providence and history'. Also, that it was not faultless. Also, that though one should use the various critical helps for serious study; one could 'turn to the AV for communion with God'. Dare we say the same for all the many other Bible versions? They, for all their faults, are a miracle of providence. We can turn to them, in all their variety, as we seek God. He has marvellous and unexpected ways of calling and speaking to His children, whatever kings or scholars may say.
Lord, thy word abideth