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Book Review 224: The Bible in Translation

December 13, 2011 - Harry Eagar

THE BIBLE IN TRANSLATION: Ancient and English Versions, by Bruce M. Metzger. 200 pages. Baker paperback.

It is a fact, though an odd one, that every religion that claims to have received a scripture from its deity has lost or mislaid the original. It puts one in mind of Oscar Wilde's joke about orphans: losing one parent is a tragedy, but losing both begins to look like carelessness.

Anyway Jews, Christians, Mormons, Muslims and some others all have to make do with defective copies. This, of course, makes the translator's job, already difficult, even harder.

In “The Bible in Translation,” Bruce Metzger presents an admirably concise and clear account of who translated what and when, without worrying about whether, in fact, the sources were what they purport to be. As a believer and a Bible translator of note, he would not be expected to bring this up, but the disinterested reader should keep in mind that if the distance from origin to earliest copy of the New Testament were applied to, say, the Declaration of Independence, we would not yet have a written copy of that document.

For the Jewish Bible, the situation is even worse. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls copy of Isaiah, which created great excitement because it was so much earlier than previously known copies, was many centuries later than the events it described. For Christians, the situation was even worse than that, since the Patristic Fathers developed their theories of messianic prophecy not even from a Hebrew copy but from a very late Greek translation, the Septuagint.

Pressing forward, after explaining what Bibles were available when English Christians began wanting to read Scripture in their own language, Metzger recounts briefly the few translations made before the 19th century. Tyndale comes in for praise, and even though he was regarded as a dangerous enemy of religion during his lifetime, it is his approach that shapes the Bibles we read in English today.

In the 19th century, Metzger recounts how translators began going back to the original “witnesses,” which were, as noted above, not really original but were at least in the language supposed to have been used originally. This is more an issue with the OT, since the NT had been available in Greek all along, more or less; although Jesus and his disciples did not teach in Greek. However, Roman Catholics were rather late in using the Greek NT, working for centuries off the Latin Vulgate.

By the late 20th century, there were dozens of English testaments, in whole or just the NT, with forgettable names – it is rather difficult to keep track of versions when all seem to be entitled something like “new and improved, revised, second corrected” edition. Metzger titles his Chapter 10 “Revision after Revision.”

Some of the stories, though, are amusing, in a grim sort of way.

I had not been aware that it was an American (the book has an American tilt) spinster, Julia Smith, who was the first woman to translate the entire Bible into English. No bluestocking, she had a formidable intellect but a very constricted view of the world.

Self-taught in Hebrew, she was so isolated that she believed the OT was the only extant book in that language. She wrote: “I do not see how anybody can know more about it than I do.”

Her word-for-word translation is almost gibberish, but she was not just a silly old woman. Her battle with the tax authorities was an important episode in the development of legal rights for American women. Metzger's account of the parade of cows to the tax impound is worth the price of admission.

Also of interest for other than religious reasons was Joe McCarthy's war on the Revised Standard Version. This book, probably read by as many American Christians as any other now, was alleged to be – as Joe said in his menacing monotone – commonist, and the translators had to defend themselves from deranged rightwingers.

In a reversion to practices of 16th century England, the Bible was publicly burned. A box of ashes is preserved till today in the archives of the Standard Bible Committee, “a reminder that, though in previous centuries Bible translators were sometimes burned, today it is happily only a copy of the translation that meets such a fate.”

I would not have said happily.


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