The New Testament: A New Translation

by W. RUSSELL BOWIE

IN influence upon the mind and heart of our Western world one book has been supreme. That book is the Bible; and this year there appears the first part of a new translation of it, which will be known as the Revised Standard Version.

As everyone knows, the Bible was written originally in Hebrew and in Greek. The most famous of the early translations was the so-called Latin Vulgate, made by Jerome at the end of the fourth century. For an appreciation of the extent and variety of existing translations one has only to look at such a catalogue as that of the American Bible Society, which is circulating the Bible or portions of it in 1064 tongues, to the number of more than 12,000,000 copies a year.

The translations in English began with the work of John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century; they came to their great flowering in the sixteenthcentury England of Henry VIII and Elizabeth. Then William Tyndale, who was afterward put to death as a martyr for his evangelistic courage, brought out his version, which was inspired, as he said once to an ignorant cleric, by the desire to bring it to pass “that the very peasant who drives the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”Matthew Coverdale shortly followed Tyndale and based much of his own work on what Tyndale had already done.

Following in the footsteps of these two men and repeating often their phraseology, there appeared soon afterward the so-called Great Bible of 1539 and the Bishop’s Bible of 1568. Then in the early part of the seventeenth century a company of scholars brought together by King James I produced their translation, which they thus described: “The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments translated out of the original tongues; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty’s special command.”As the title suggests, they referred to and often incorporated much of the wording of their predecessors, which had now stood the test of more than two generations’ use. But they brought to their task also great abilities of their own, and they were writing in a period when English prose reflected the richness and beauty which had become instinctive to the speech of men who were the contemporaries of William Shakespeare. This translation of 1611 is familiarly known as the King James Version or the Authorized Version.

Over the years the King James Version has come to suggest a kind of sovereign aut hority, as though this version were the only fully accepted one for Protestant churches everywhere. Officially, of course, that is not true, but it assuredly has won a place in the use and affection of the English-speaking world which no other Biblical translation and, indeed, no other book has equaled. Its language has colored all subsequent English literature, its phrases have echoed in all our popular speech, and the whole message of the Old and New Testaments as therein expressed has been made into a leaven that has permeated the culture, the personal and social convictions, and the religious consciousness of all the English-speaking world.

Why , then, has there been and why is there now any need for a new translation of the Bible when the King James Version, with its many superlative excellences, is as available as it ever was?

I

THE answer is a twofold one. In the first place, there are important manuscripts and fragments now available to scholars which were not known in 1611, and some of great importance which were not known when the American Standard Version of 1901 was published. Among these are an old Syriac version of the Gospels found in a monastery on Mount Sinai and dating probably from the second century. Another is a fragment of Tatian’s Harmony of the Four Gospels which was found at Dura on the Euphrates in 1933. Most important of all are fragments of twelve manuscripts, three of them from the New Testament, now known as the Chester Beatty manuscripts, which may be as old as the first half of the third century.

A comparison of these has led to more exact conclusions as to what the original form of many passages in the Bible must have been — passages in which there are variations among the manuscripts and as to which it is important to know which form has the strongest attestation. This fact had become so evident in the latter part of the nineteenth century that many Biblical scholars in England felt that a new translation should be undertaken. Consequently, a group of scholars in that country, associating with themselves also an Advisory Committee in America, brought out the English Revised Version. Some years later the American Committee, whose opinions had differed in many details from those of their English colleagues, produced their own translation, which was called the American Standard Version of the Bible. High hopes were entertained for what these new translations, both in England and America, might represent.

Both of these versions, however, were marred, especially in the New Testament, by a too pedantic literalism in exactly following the order of the Greek words instead of putting whole sentences in their natural English idiom, so that the result fell liable to the acid indictment that it was “strong in Greek, weak in English” and to the more specific criticism that the revisers had distorted the meaning of many passages “by translating in accordance with Attic idiom phrases that convey in later Greek a wholly different sense, the sense which the earlier translators in happy ignorance had recognized that the context demanded.”

In addition to the two versions just referred to, there have been other widely circulated translations, perhaps the best known in America being those by Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed and Dr. James Moffatt. Both of these have set out to put the Bible into modern speech. Often they are brilliantly suggestive of homely meanings which had been hidden in the more elaborate and dignified language of the earlier translations. But they have never supplanted the King James Version, because that great product of Elizabethan England possesses such dignity and beauty and has gathered to itself such immemorial associations that no work of any single man, no matter how able, can supplant it.

2

As said above, the first reason which led to new translations was the discovery of Biblical manuscripts better than those which had been used before. The second reason has been the discovery in very recent years of a great wealth of Greek writings contemporary with the New Testament. These have nothing directly to do with the New Testament so far as their material is concerned, but they have a great deal to do with New Testament translations because of the evidence they have furnished as to the meaning which Greek words and phrases actually had in those years when the New Testament was written and when it was first read.

Some of these discoveries are in the field of inscriptions, but mostly they are made up of a vast number of Greek papyri or papyrus fragments unearthed in Egypt. Some of them are official reports, business accounts, wills, petitions, and other recordings of the commonplace activities and interests of everyday life, and many of them are private letters which show us with intimate and unpremeditated simplicity just how people of that first century thought and spoke. Because of these, the text of our New Testament has been set in a wholly new perspective. It is possible to see much more clearly than before just what many of its phrases and references meant to the men and women who were contemporaries of Jesus Himself and to those who listened to the preaching and read the letters of the Apostle Paul.

So the matter sums up that there are available today new sources of knowledge concerning the Bible not possessed in 1611, some of which were not possessed even a generation ago; that the King James Version, noble as it is, is yet not always accurate in its reflection of the original, and that its Elizabethan prose, although classic in its beauty, nevertheless seems sometimes archaic and therefore a little unreal to twentieth-century men; that no existing modern versions have wholly satisfied the continuing desire for a translation that will be as nearly as possible exact and authoritative and yet will attain, if that be possible, a literary distinction which may reflect for our own age its truest and most noble speech, to some such degree as that to which the King James translators reflected theirs. Consequently, the time seemed ripe for a new translation of the Bible, to be produced under the aegis of some agency that should command the loyalty and respect of all Protestant churches, and to enlist in its production representative Hebrew and Greek scholars of the United States.

Consequently, in 1928 the International Council of Religious Education, with which the educational boards of forty-four of the major Protestant denominations of the United States and Canada are associated and to which the copyright of the American Standard Version had been transferred, appointed a committee of fifteen scholars to have charge of the text, and authorized them to make further revision if it should be deemed necessary. The process of study and revision was begun, but was suspended in 1932 for lack of funds. Through the next five years the project was at a standstill. Then in 1937 sufficient money was advanced to cover the travel expenses of members of the committee and for living expenses during the days when they should be together in their work. (Other than this, the members of the committee served through the years following without compensation, except for the happy satisfaction of companionship in the work itself.)

The committee, with its original personnel somewhat enlarged and, in a few instances, changed, was divided into two sections, one for the Old Testament and one for the New. It is the work on the New Testament only that has now been finished. Since the books in the Old Testament are more numerous than those of the New Testament and, on the average, are longer also, the amount of material with which the Old Testament revisers have had to deal was far greater than that of their colleagues. Consequently, their work must go on for probably three or four years more. The whole committee considered the advisability of withholding all publication until the entire Bible should be complete; but it was decided that when the New Testament was finished it should be brought out separately-to be combined, of course, later with the Old Testament when that, too, shall have reached its conclusion.

Ihe chairman of the whole committee and of both of its sections has been Dean Luther A. Weigle of the Yale Divinity School, and the secretary until his death in 1944 was the beloved James Moffatt.1

Here, then, was a task, and here was a group of men assigned to try to do it. How was the work organized and pursued?

3

EACH book of the New Testament was assigned originally to one or two members of the committee for a preliminary translation. This draft was then typewritten and a copy sent to all the other members of the New Testament group to be read and studied before the meeting in which it would be reviewed. At that meeting, with all the men sitting around a table, it would be discussed word by word, verse by verse. A new draft prepared by Dr. Moffatt and embodying whatever changes the whole group had agreed upon was then mimeographed and distributed for further study. This revision was again studied and amended at a subsequent meeting.

When all the books of the New Testament had thus been translated into preliminary form, then twice reviewed by the entire membership of the session, copies were sent to the committee’s colleagues of the Old Testament section and their opinions were invited. Other scholars not on the Committee, widely representative of different churches, were also invited to read the manuscript and submit their criticisms and suggestions. With these in hand the entire work was reviewed for the third time at a two weeks’ session in Northfield, Massachusetts, in August, 1943; and after that, still further editorial examination and correction was carried out by individual members and subcommittees of the New Testament group.

These are the bare facts. The recollection of those who were privileged to have part in the translation is more pleasant and more picturesque. The meetings were in various places at different times of the year. They amounted to thirty-one separate sessions, ranging from three days to more than two weeks and covering 145 days. Some of the meetings were at Union Theological Seminary in New York, among the crowded bookshelves of Frederick Grranl s study. Many of them were in New Haven in the delightful buildings of the Yale Divinity School. In two successive summers the committee met as guests of Dr. and Mrs. Edgar J. Goodspeed on Paradise Island, Plum Lake, Wisconsin. And the final meeting of the whole group was held in the ample spaces of that extraordinary structure known as the Chateau, which is part of the Inn at East Northfield, Massachusetts.

In these meetings of the committee, for most of the time, there was just plain hard labor. Ordinarily, the first session began at nine o’clock in the morning and lasted until lunch. Then came an afternoon session which continued until about an hour before dinnertime, and after dinner there was a third session until it was time to go to bed. For a total of about nine hours every day the men sat about the long table, in front of them the typewritten manuscript of the particular New Testament book which was being studied. In the middle of the table or somewhere else near at hand were the lexicons, reference books, and other translations, old and new, which from time to time someone would pick up to consult.

At the head of the table, presiding, was Luther Weigle, round-faced, hearty, and genial, endowed with what seemed to bo an inexhaustible and unflagging energy, holding the committee to its work. Dead in earnest, he transmitted his sense of compelling responsibility to all the others. Along with that, he had a quick sense of the ridiculous that would break out every little while in a delighted laugh. The only times that he grew vexed were when the proceedings seemed to him to drag unreasonably. Then the harvest moon of his usual countenance would cloud and he would explode, “Come on, fellows, can’t we quit this discussion and begin to get ahead?”

At his side would be James Moffatt, sucking his pipe with a serene obliviousness to the rank smoke which puffed from its ancient bowl, or else, if his pipe were laid aside, rolling a pencil abstractedly between his palms. All his life he had been a person of prodigious industry. He knew everything there was to be known about the Bible, and his mind had ranged over wide areas of history and general literature. In spite of a critical heart ailment, which he inflexibly ignored, he took more than one man’s share in the labor of every meeting of the committee; and in addition to that, he would carry an armful of books, including detective stories, to his room every evening and read late into the night. Tall and frail and soft-spoken, he embodied always an Old World courtesy. Sometimes in the discussion of a suggested translation he would urge his own long-considered judgment with animation and force, but at other times he would fall completely silent, and no urging from the chairman could get a word of opinion from his lips. Then somebody would reach for a familiar book on the table, open it, and say, “I observe that a certain unnamed reviser has translated it as follows,” thus disclosing that Moffatt himself in his own New Testament version had anticipated the choice of a word at which our committee had now arrived. There he would sit, however, like a gentle sphinx, refusing to throw his weight toward a particular decision lest it might seem that he was trying to introduce his own personal rendering too much into the verdict of us all.

At the table would be Henry Cadbury, a scholar of the most implacable patience, never content to let any decision be reached until every imaginable point of doubt as to the exact text to be preferred among variant manuscripts and the exact shade of meaning to be attributed to each Greek word or phrase had been pursued to the ultimate. Frequently a point would seem to have been settled, when Cadbury, getting up from the table and searching in some book, would find a new query which would stop the whole proceeding and turn the discussion back to its starting point. “Where is Cadbury?” somebody asked one day when he had gone for a moment out of the room. “Oh,” came the answer, “he is out relining his brakes.”

More than most members of the committee, he moved in an eternal world of knowledge where time meant nothing, and to him conspicuously and to his placid Quaker resolution may be attributed the fact that nothing the committee ever did was casual or careless or in haste. Nearly always next to him at work, as they were also roommates in some of the places where we met, was Clarence Craig, and the two were well matched in thorough scholarship, in exact knowledge, and in clear expression of what they thought.

Millar Burrows of Yale was taken away from the New Testament committee late in the period of its work and transferred to the Old Testament section, for his knowledge not only of Greek but of Hebrew made him equally valuable in both. Another authoritative Greek scholar in the company was Frederick Grant, ranking with Moffatt and Cadbury and Craig in his mastery not only of the language of the New Testament, but also of its background of Greek and Aramaic influences, a large man, quiet and unruffled, with exact opinions always advanced with considerate courtesy, and with the fine literary sense native to one accustomed to the liturgy of the Anglican Church.

Off a little to one side usually, because the lights directly over the table bothered his eyes, would be Goodspeed, a scholar of wide learning and confident mastery, a ready fighter in linguistic battles, with a razor-like incisiveness of thought and speech, an aroused and formidable protagonist for a particular view, especially when this fell within the area of evidence drawn from the recently discovered papyri, to which he attached immense importance.

When Weigle was not present, his place as presiding officer, by everybody’s consent and choice, came to be taken by Abdel Wentz, the member most recently added to the committee, but one of the most energetic and helpful, who had opinions of his own which lie defended with great tenacity, yet who, as chairman, could be as impartial as he was prompt. As a member of the committee he had one pet aversion. He hated what he called “backing into an idea.” By that phrase he was expressing a general dislike for any kind of sentence that did not follow the most obvious and straightforward order. Any inversion for rhetorical emphasis or for rhythm seemed to him unnatural. In most of his objections he would be outvoted, but he would come up to the next contest fresh and undismayed; and for the terseness and simplicity which may often be found in the new translation, part of the credit is due to him.

Altogether, it was a happy and memorable fellowship. Whatever may be the result of our joint work, the process was its own reward. Long hours around conference tables, with eyes shifting between the typewritten English manuscript and the Greek New Testament, were often physically and mentally exhausting, but they were also immensely stimulating and informing, as the minds of different men played upon the same problems.

When we met at the Yale Divinity School, we generally had our meals at the Faculty Club. The recollection of the talk and banter that went on around the table will linger in our memories as long as the more serious associations. Still more vivid are the recollections of the two summers when we met on Paradise Island, Wisconsin, in the gay and generous hospitality of Professor and Mrs. Goodspeed. There was a temptation always to spend time on the lake or in it, or to lie in the sunlight that filtered through the white birches of the island. But the unsparing routine of the appointed labor went on regardless.

4

WHAT now are the results? What particular qualities and what particular value may the new version of the New Testament represent? To begin with, it represents unflagging effort for accuracy. No source of information or of comparison which was known to members of the committee was left unsearched or unconsidered in the desire to find the most authoritative text and the most certain meaning of the Greek words and phrases to be translated. The work of the committee proved ultimately to be more searching and more significant than was foreseen in the original action of the International Council of Religious Education. What emerged is not merely a revision of a former version but a translation that in its total effect is new.

Perhaps the quality of the new translation can be indicated by a few comparisons between it and the King James Version and the American Standard Version of 1901.

Here, for instance, from the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, is the description, according to the King James Version, of the killing of John the Baptist: —

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus.
And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.
For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife.
For John said unto him. It is not lawful for thee to have her.
And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet, But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.

And here is the same description in the new translation— in which the reader will note the substitution of a contemporary word for charger, which, like a number of other words in the beautiful old translation of 1611, has now grown obsolete; and will note also the shorter expressions in place of more roundabout ones, such as"she, being before instructed of her mother”: —

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.

Or consider the narrative of the Book of Acts, as embodied this time not in the Authorized Version but in the American Standard Version of 1901, and with it compare the effort of the new translation to put this same account into words that are swifter and more direct. The elders in Jerusalem are advising Paul before he goes into the Temple, where he will be watched by some of the Jews who hate him; and the American Standard Version gives the counsel of the elders thus: —

What is it therefore? they will certainly hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men that have a vow on them; these take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges for them, that they may shave their heads: and all shall know that there is no truth in the things whereof they have been informed concerning thee; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, keeping the law. But as touching the Gentiles that have believed, we wrote, giving judgment that they should keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them.

Here is the new translation: —

“What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you.

We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them.

Or turn to the comparative translations of a quite different kind of New Testament writing. Here is the American Standard Version of part of the 11th chapter of 11 Corinthians, in which the Apostle Paul is expressing the spirit of his ministry to the Corinthian church: —

Or did I commit a sin in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I preached to you the gospel of God for nought? I robbed other churches, taking wages of them that I might minister unto you; and when I was present with you and was in want, I was not a burden on any man; for the brethren, when they came from Macedonia, supplied the measure of my want; and in everything I kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself. As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this glorying in the regions of Achaia. Wherefore? because I love you not? God knoweth. But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them that desire an occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for even Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light.

It is no great thing therefore if his ministers also fashion themselves as ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.

Here is the new translation:-

Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel without cost to you? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in want, I did not burden any one, for my needs were supplied by the brethren who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine shall not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

Through either translation the great spirit of Paul will speak; but perhaps there will seem reason to trust that for the man who hears the Scripture lesson read aloud in church the new translation may make the meaning easier to understand.

One possible challenge to the new version, however, remains. In the original charge of the International Council of Religious Education it was enjoined that the new revision should “be designed for use in public and private worship and be in the direction of the simple classic English style of the King James Version.” That was a difficult assignment. On the one hand, the committee abundantly recognized the extraordinary beauty of the King James translation. Again and again in its pages there sounds the melodiousness, and in the greater passages, the majestic diapason, of the English of Shakespeare’s time. For three hundred years English literature and instinctive English speech have been deeply influenced by the sound, as by the sense, of that great work. Any present-day committee endeavoring to produce a translation that might satisfy religious folk who have been accustomed to the King James Version could not do otherwise than feel themselves accountable to its great example.

But, on the other hand, it is unmistakably true that we no longer live in Elizabethan or Jacobean times. Our English speech has changed since then, and a translation which simply repeated the forms and phrases of three hundred years ago would be archaic. The task of present-day translators cannot be merely to echo what was supremely expressed in the idiom of another day, but to try with earnestness and devotion to use the language of the twentieth century as richly and as worthily as the King James translators used the language which belonged instinctively to them.

Our vocabulary and our grammatical forms have tended to become more clipped and more nervous. For graphic narration this is an advantage, but it is not an advantage when what we want is to feel that the “numinous” is drawing near. We have lost something of beauty when we left behind us some of the more intimate personal pronouns and the weak endings of our verbs. “ What are you doing?" lacks the gentleness of “ What doest thou? ” “ Where did you come from?” sounds harsh beside “Whence camest thou?” Reluctant recognition that a lovely word once instinctively used is no longer part of current speech, changes “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field" to “In that region there were shepherds out in the field"; but, so saving, it is as though for a moment a glory seems to fade.

Nevertheless, it is true that there are different kinds of beauty. A translation which is native to the forms of speech of our present world cannot have the same qualities as a translation that came at the climax of the Elizabethan age. But there can be a new kind of beauty, as the creators of the best of modern music and of the sheer upsoaring and triumphant lines of modern architecture have made evident. Let it be said for the makers of this translation that they have tried to make it a sensitive transmission of the immortal themes of the New Testament to this generation’s mind and heart and ear. It is to be hoped that Christian folk in whose recollection the tones of an older version always instinctively echo will be patient to test the somewhat different accent of the present one. Indeed, the translators will dare to trust that, in the words of the preface to the first American Book of Common Prayer, the work may be received, as it has been fashioned, “with a meek, candid and charitable mind.”

  1. The other seven members of the New Testament Committee were as follows: —
  2. Millar Burrows of Yale Divinity School
  3. Henry J. Cadbury of Harvard Divinity School
  4. Clarence T. Craig of Oberlin Divinity School
  5. Edgar J. Goodspeed of the University of Chicago
  6. Frederick C. Grant, formerly President of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and now of Union Theological Seminary in New York
  7. Abdel R. Wentz, President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
  8. W. Russell Bowie, formerly Rector of Grace Church and now of Union Theological Seminary in New York