The Revised New Testament: Pros and Cons

by AMOS NIVEN WILDER

1

THE publication of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament means more than just the addition of another translation to those from which the modern reader can choose. In view of the auspices and circumstances of the undertaking, and the authority of the scholars who have carried it out, the new version inevitably constitutes a challenge to the position that the King James Version has held for more than three hundred years. Thus the issue raised by its publication is in one respect a tragic issue, since two supreme but incompatible values are here at odds: on the one hand, accuracy and faithfulness of rendering — the cause of truth, as it were; and on the other hand, the compounded spiritual and aesthetic treasures of a priceless heritage.

Evidently these opposed values are not totally exclusive of each other. Much of the older version survives in the new. Nevertheless, the reader of the new translation will soon be aware that in many respects this is not the Bible of his forefathers, and that the familiar cadences have suffered an alien intrusion.

Mhen we recall that the King James Version, published in 1611, rested in great part upon earlier translations, we realize that its English is that of almost four hundred years ago. Evidently the time cannot now be far removed when t his version will be so dated that we cannot wisely continue to give it the central place in the life of the church and of Christian civilization that it has so long enjoyed. The question is: Has that time already come?

The full difficulty of the matter appears when we remember that we must think in terms of all sorts and conditions of men. Whether our classic version can be called “living literature” today cannot be decided with reference only to the saints who were suckled upon it, and who know that “let” means “hinder” and that “prevent” means “anticipate.” There is ample evidence today that many of those strata that have in the past cherished this “noblest monument in English prose” have in the special conditions of our times become strangers to it.

Now, as in the time of Tvndale, the church must take the Scripture in the common tongue and idiom to the plowboy and the cobbler, the husbandman and the weaver. The King James Version arose out of the impulse to give the Bible to all classes. If today this purpose is frustrated by that very version, it may well be time for a new one.

To reinforce this reflection there comes now the new realization by our scholars of how popular in character the New Testament writings were in their origin. These, whether gospel or epistle, were not formal writings patterned upon the models of the schools, but were in every sense folk literature. They were writings, as has been well said, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Their vocabulary, diction, and syntax were largely those of the unsophisticated masses of the Roman Empire. The papyri discoveries in Egypt have demonstrated this. Is there not then an anomaly in the transmission of such informal letters and memoranda as make up the New Testament in what at least now is the highly stylized and rhetorical vehicle of the King James Version? That New Testament which was given to the world first in colloquial and simple terms, and translated for the English people similarly in the popular diction of the age — are its character and import not belied by our traditional version today?

These considerations, however, are not conclusive. For one thing, we must be sure that we have a really superlative new version before we relinquish the old. Better the old with whatever limitations than a new one that fails to lay hold upon the deeper powers of the English tongue today. Just as it took the best part of a century of continuous retouching and revision to produce the Authorized Version, so it may be that the Revised Versions of 1881 and 1901 and the present revision, along with the many private translations of our time, are only the first phases in the production of a modern authorized version that will impose its excellence for centuries to come.

It should also be said that the colloquial and informal character of the New Testament writings can be overstated. After all, these crystallizations of the faith of the earliest church have many formal and liturgical elements resting back on the heightened tone of the Old Testament and other sources. The vocabulary may be in large part that of the business accounts, receipts, wills, and private letters of the Greek papyri, but the movement and mood are quite other.

More important, however, is the question of the degree to which the Elizabethan language of our Bible is actually dated today. Opinions will differ widely on this point. It can be argued that the man in the street is not so modern as he appears or pretends; that, furthermore, he prefers an elevated diction and an unwonted or even esoteric vocabulary for many areas of his experience; and that the resort to a utilitarian common speech is not appropriate to the Greek New Testament. We may well watch the response to Olivier’s Shakespeare as it goes forth on the screen. Yet it is worth noting that Olivier has fell it necessary to prune his Shakespeare extensively of its archaisms and ambiguities.

2

THE new translation claims superiority in two important respects: accuracy of rendering and intelligibility. Of these, the former is the more urgent claim and is, indeed, unanswerable. Defenders of the King James Version are put in a very difficult position here. If they continue its use as the canonical form of the church’s Scripture, they inevitably appear to be indifferent, to truth and to be less than scrupulous with the Word of God. Indeed, it might be claimed that they come under the malediction, at least negatively, of the closing verses of the A pocalypse.

Disregard of and indifference to scholarship were rebuked by Erasmus in Ids day: —

Why are we so precise as to our food, our clothes, our money-matters, and why does this accuracy displease us in divine literature alone? He crawls along the ground, they say, he wearies himself out with words and syllables! Why do we slight any word of Him whom we venerate and worship under the name of the Word?

The greater accuracy of the Revised Standard Version is manifest under numerous heads. This is not a matter of only an occasional correction. The true text or sense of the original Greek imposes change after change—many of them, it is true, of only slight consequence — upon the Authorized Version. These corrections arise chiefly out of our better knowledge today, first of the manuscripts and then of Hellenistic Greek language and grammar. If the great translations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rested not only upon the zeal of the Reformation but also upon the fertile humanism and scholarship of northern Europe, so this new version is the beneficiary of a great movement of the modern spirit in scientific and historical studies.

In the first place we know better now what the original text of the writings was. The great bulk of our oldest copies of the New Testament, whether in Greek or in the early versions, are comparatively recent finds. The King James Version was based on very meager textual resources whose corruptions the scholars of that day were not in a position to recognize. If we cannot any longer read the words of the angels’ song in the familiar form, “good will to men,” or include in the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is ihe Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen,” it is because we have decisive evidence. Major omissions dictated by our fuller manuscript evidence — already, indeed, suggested in the Revised Versions are the last twelve verses of Mark and the incident of tTie woman taken in adultery which appears as John 8:1—11 in the Authorized Version. The new version assigns these to footnotes, since it. is clear that they were not originally a part of these Gospels or of any of the four.

Most significant of all are the emendations called for by our better knowledge of ihe Greek language of the time. Here it is that the discoveries of papyrus documents have played so large a part. Thanks to these aids and to other gains from modern study, many improvements can be made today in translation. For example, interpreters have always been puzzled by Matthew 28: 1, “In the end of the sabbath as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week.” “In the end of the sabbath” would mean at sunset on Saturday. We know now on various grounds that the Greek underlying the first phrase should be translated “after the sabbath.” A telling revision occurs in connection with the exclamation of the centurion at the foot of the cross, Luke 23:47, “Certainly this was a righteous man.” This becomes “Certainly this man was innocent.” Instead of “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not,” we gain the illuminating reading, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” Again, “the foolishness of preaching” becomes “the folly of what we preach.” The great oath of the angel at one of the climaxes of the Book of Revelation (10: 6), “that there should be time no longer,” becomes “that, there should be no more delay” — that is, before the Judgment. Such corrections are numerous.

The greater accuracy of the new version appears also in the correction of other types of errors or ambiguities in the older one. The Greek word for “slave” is regularly translated “servant” in the Authorized Version and, indeed, in the Revised Versions. This has had unfortunate results. Dr. Edgar J. Good speed has pointed out that even sophisticated writers like H. W. Van Loon “have totally misconceived Paul’s attitude to slavery, the most important social problem of New Testament times.” Van Loon in his contribution to WhitherMankind, edited by Charles A. Beard, remarks (p. 55) that “to this very hour not a single theologian has been able to prove that Paul and his followers regarded the serf as anything but a twofooted piece of cattle.” Goodspeed in a recent volume, commenting on this, calls attention to Paul’s numerous references to slaves, his instructions to Christian slaves and masters and his intercession for a runaway slave. The new translation, by its correct rendering of the Greek word doulos as “slave” at various points, removes much of the ground for this kind of understanding.

The Revised Standard Version claims superiority not only in accuracy of rendering but also in intelligibility. By freeing themselves of the archaisms of the Authorized Version and the stiffness of the Revised Versions, the revisers have aimed at a diction and style divested of all unreality and awkwardness. At. the same time they have preserved a great deal of the language, cadence, and overtones of the Authorized Version. This is by no means a “modern speech ” translation. Thus they have sought to carry out the mandate of the sponsoring body, which ruled that this revision should be “in the direction of the simple, classic English style of the King James Version.”

To detail some of the more obvious stylistic changes: the antique personal pronouns, “thee,” “thou,” “ye,” have been abandoned, except in prayers, together with the corresponding archaic verb endings in -est, -eth, and the like. The omnipresent Semitic “and , . . and” is avoided, as well as the idioms uncongenial to English, “and it came to pass” and “he answered and said.” Further examples of usages now unreal and here dispensed with are “behooved,” “haply,” “holden,” “I go a fishing.” “Posterity” is substituted for “seed,” “near” for “nigh,” “waist” for “loins,” “grain” for “corn,” “neighborhood” for “coasts,”“tax” for “custom,” “well” for “whole,” “slapped” for “buffeted,”“penny” for “farthing.” The effect of these changes is to modify unmistakably the style of the New Testament, although the spirit of many extended sections remains the same.

Thus it is claimed that the new version has greater reality for the modern reader. Intelligibility in a more precise sense is attained by discarding numerous Elizabethan terms which have lost or changed their original meaning or are in any case ambiguous. The Fourth Gospel’s “Comforter.” an inadequate and negative term today, becomes “Counselor.” “Prevent” becomes “precede,” “let” becomes “restrain,” “lively” becomes “living.” A recent writer has remarked upon the fact that the word “security” as used by Shakespeare has been “a total traitor to itself.” This is suggestive of the degree of change of English speech.

Defenders of the Authorized Version will grant the greater accuracy of the new translation and will admit that it has advantages in point of intelligibility. They will argue, however, that if what is sought is a powerful conveying of the substance and import of the New Testament, then it is a gross error in strategy to forgo the rhetoric and associations of the King James Version. The hearl and imagination of men are dull enough without forgoing our best resources for stirring them.

The Authorized Version, thanks to the circumstances of its origin and the accumulated overtones of its long use and the degree to which it is interwoven into the fabric of our language and literature, constitutes a unique vehicle for that moving of the emotions find sensibililies without which the conceptions of the Bible cannot properly register themselves. To abandon it is to uproot a growth that binds together and guarantees the best culture find spiritual life of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. If reality is what is wanted in a translation of the Bible, surely, it will be said, the kind of reality mediated here is a more significant one than the restricted reality conferred by a mistaken contemporaneity of diction. The King James Version admits us to the reality of a timeless culture and a historic church.

Moreover, specific shortcomings and infelicities in the new version will be pointed out. One could make a list of terms used which strike the reader as colorless and flat, such as: “very expensive ointment,” “that I might not he pained,” “God has so adjusted the body,” “your faith is futile,” “what is sown is perishable.” This reader is not happy with the locutions, to “tell” a parable, or “pray ... to send,” or “put out into the deep.” There appear, indeed, to be real solecisms — for example, “from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well”: or “the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect”; or “We stone you for no good work.”

The new version, on the other hand, frequently delights us by the felicity of its renderings. The revisers have been successful in finding a middle ground between the familiar and the novel. The diction has vigor, simplicity, and sobriety. The gain in clarity appears particularly in certain parts of Paul’s letters.

Because of its excellence this translation corifronis us with a painful dilemma; the kind of dilemma, however, that life constantly imposes between old and new, between heart and mind, between value and value. Church bodies, pastors, and educators will have difficult decisions to make. They will be well advised for the time being to use both this version and the King James Version, taking careful account of the occasion and the purpose in view. But they may well be warned by the great principle of Tertullian, “Christ our Master called himself truth not. custom.”