Proofreading the Bible

A WHILE ago I added to my collection of various versions of the Bible the new translation of the New Testament made by Professor Edgar J. Goodspeed and issued by the University of Chicago. Only recently did I have a conjunction of the three unities — time, place, and circumstance — which enabled me to put my feet up on my desk and settle down to a long-anticipated reading of this interesting work.

I had not read far when I came across a typographical error. And then another. And then a positive crux calculated to entangle the mind of the best Shakespearean guesser. From that moment my intention of enjoying the story went by the board. Instead of a Bible reader I had become a proofreader.

In the hope that the next edition may be a little nearer to perfection, and that the present edition may be called to the attention of collectors who like books because of the flaws in them, let me mention a few errata.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1.7, the word ‘waiting ’ looks strange without an i in it, as follows: ‘and there is no gift that you lack while you are wating for our Lord. . . .’ Again, in the same epistle, in the second verse of the sixth chapter, the word ‘ Christians ’ seems much lacking without a t, to wit: ‘Do you not know that the Chrisians are to be the judges of the world?’ In the Gospel of Luke, VII.25, there is an error which could only be authoritatively corrected by referring to Professor Goodspeed’s manuscript; in which regard it is in the nature of a Shakespearean crux and more than the ordinary typographical error. Having entirely miscarried, it has to take on whatever meaning one’s imagination may be able to invest it with, namely: ‘Men who wear fine clothes and live in luxury you nd in palaces.’

As this is a crux I am going to take the liberty of solving it. I think the line should be ‘Men who wear fine clothes and live in luxury you find in palaces.’ That strikes me as a very good piece of The obaldian divination, a veritable pass of pate, and I am going to let it go at that. Only trusting that when a new edition comes out, corrected according to the original manuscript, I shall find that I am right. I think I have been right in some of my better-known literary emendations; but I must admit that I never expected to see the day when I should be solving cruxes in the Bible.

My valued friend, Professor William Lyon Phelps, stated, all apropos of nothing, in his department in the September Scribner’s, the following bald fact; ‘Nearly all publications have typographical errors except the Authorized Version of the Bible and railway time-tables.’

What prompted him to set down that remark to stand isolated and alone in his department I do not know; but, striking my eye just when I was engaged in making corrections in a newly printed Testament, it seemed to me to be a sort of défi, a challenge from the champion of the Authorized, saying to one and all, ‘ Come on with your corrections.’ I know he is the last person in the world to issue a défi; but I was in the mood to take up the challenge, and in spite of the apparent hopelessness of the thing I believe I almost made out a case.

In Matthew v.14 of the Authorized Version we read: ‘A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.’ Now, as anyone with a proper education knows, the article ‘an’ is wrong in this connection. Before words beginning with a consonant sound the ‘a’ should be used, and before words beginning with a vowel sound ‘an’ is invariably right. Any good university will bear me out in this statement.

I make haste to accede to what the opposition will now bring forward in defense: namely, that as an Englishman drops his h, and ‘hill ’ in this case would begin with a vowel sound, the use of ‘an’ is correct. The Londoner reading the Bible would possibly say ‘an ’ill,’ and this would be phonetically orthodox. This I grant. But in that case I want to know why it is that in Joshua XXIV.33 we read: ‘And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in a hill. . . .’

In Exodus XXVIII. 32 we are told:‘And there shall be an hole in the top of it, in the midst thereof. . . .’ This might be correct upon the theory that the Englishman would speak of it as ‘an ’ole.’ Admitted. But at the same time I must point out that in 2 Kings, XII.9, it says: ‘But Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in the lid of it. . . .’ If the other is correct, this must be wrong; it should be ‘an hole.’ I have a Geneva Bible printed by the deputies of Christopher Barker in London in 1597, an interesting volume containing much handwriting over three hundred years old, and a copy of an old English hymn in the Old Court hand. This Bible tells me that the priest ‘took a chest and bored an hole,’ thus differing with its successor.

Whether an Englishman’s dropping his h constitutes a typographical error might be open to question, I admit. My argument simply is that both these usages cannot be right; one of them must be an error. And if an Englishman is going to drop his h he ought to do it consistently, especially when he is doing it in print and in translating the Bible.

It might be contended that the English language was in a stage of transition, of indetermination between ‘a’ and ‘an’ in the presence of an h. But Shakespeare, who wrote at the same time, always says ‘a hill,’ ‘a hole,’ ‘a holiday,’ ‘a horse,’ and so on, consistently. Imagine his saying: —

Imperious Cæsar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop an hole to keep the wind away.

Or imagine Richard exclaiming: —

An horse! an horse! my kingdom for an horse!

An inexperienced fault-finder, disposed to make light of Professor Goodspeed because of a few typographical errors, would be likely to leap with joy when he found that in the First Epistle General of John a whole verse is missing. It is that familiar seventh verse of the fifth chapter: ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.’ This is simply absent, the translator saying nothing about its absence.

But this is not an error. The verse does not belong in the Bible — at least, not in the opinion of high authorities. It does not appear in any of the ancient manuscripts. It appeared in a Latin manuscript of the ninth century and a Greek manuscript of the fifteenth. Sir Isaac Newton wrote a dissertation upon it; but what he said was not included in his printed works.

Professor Goodspeed has made a new translation from the most approved Greek text; and as this passage is not in the original it naturally does not appear in the present New Testament. All of which would suggest that one needs to go slow in finding fault with the modern Bible editor.

This new translation of the New Testament is very successful in attaining the quality it aims at — readability. It was not prompted by any desire for mere novelty, but has behind it reasons both scholarly and literary. Remarkable discoveries of Greek papyri since 1897 have enlarged the knowledge of the language of the common people — a vernacular quite unknown to earlier translators of the Bible. The New Testament was not written in the classical Greek, nor in the literary Greek of its own day, but in the Greek of the streets and of everyday life; and yet classical and literary Greek were the only references the early translators had in trying to work out meanings. Thus the modern scholar found opportunity for a more correct, rendering; and, as the original was in an informal and familiar vein, it is proper that the translation should now be in a free and up-to-date English. This American translation is for the minds of our own people.

In one point I find fault with Goodspeed, and that is in his frequent use of the word ‘dollar.’ He translates everything from pennyworths to talents into dollars, and sometimes with startling results. For instance, there is the passage in Matthew where Jesus, in order to pay the temple tax, tells Simon, called Peter, how he is to raise the money. The Authorized Version quotes Christ as saying: ‘Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. . . .’

The modern version has it: ‘Take the first fish that comes up, open its mouth and you will find in it a dollar.’

This is simply taking liberties with Uncle Sam. For Christ to have produced a dollar from the mouth of a fish in the Sea of Galilee, even one of the first official Liberty dollars of 1794, would have been a miracle indeed.

In proofreading, the most remarkable feats of conjecture and true insight have been achieved by the editors of Shakespeare. As the first edition of his works was very faulty and his own manuscript had been lost or destroyed, the correction of errors resolved itself into the task of reading proof without the author’s copy to refer to. This state of affairs has been the source of much happy inspiration as well as smallminded ingenuity; and it has often beclouded the text by leading commentators to think that errors existed where there were none. It is easy for a man who cannot understand Shakespeare to think that the fault lies with the typesetters rather than himself. Theobald is generally considered to have made some of the aptest hits in this sort of proofreading, solving some baffling cruxes.

But to my mind one of the most remarkable feats in this line is that of Rendel Harris in discovering and evidently solving a crux in the New Testament. It is worth taking a glance at.

In the First Epistle General of Peter, chapter three, occur these verses: —

18. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19. By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20. Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Here we have Peter seeming to say that Christ, who died for all men, went and preached in prison to certain disobedient ones in the time of Noah and the ark — all of which does not seem to hang together and give the consistent sense that we might expect. In this juncture Rendel Harris had an idea: he conjectured that by an error of the eye the name of Enoch had dropped out of verse 19. Professor Goodspeed has corrected the passage according to Mr. Harris’s suggestion, with the following very lucid results: —

For Christ himself died once for all, for sin, an upright man for unrighteous men, to bring us to God, and was physically put to death, but he was made alive in the Spirit. In it Enoch went and preached even to those spirits that were in prison, who had once been disobedient, when in Noah’s time God in his patience waited for the ark to be made ready, in which a few people, eight in all, were brought safely through the water.

Here we have the salvation of the whole world by Christ contrasted with the saving of only eight people in the time of Noah, when Enoch, in a like ‘spirit’ with Christ, tried to save all by preaching in the prisons.

As a tamer of cruxes I extend to Mr. Harris greetings and salutation.