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F E B R U A R Y   1 9 8 5

Translating the Bible
Scholars are still laboring to produce a contemporary English version of God's Holy Word

by Barry Hoberman

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews alike affirm that the Bible is Holy Scripture, the inspired Word of God. Yet go to the bookstore in your local shopping mall and you will find the Word of God in half a dozen to a dozen different English translations, and in two or three, or more, editions of each translation. The translations may vary drastically in the style of their English, and some Bibles will contain more biblical books than others. For the uninformed consumer, shopping for the right Bible is a bit like buying a stereo system: the multiplicity of choices is bewildering and ultimately frustrating. And, like the manufacture of stereo components, Bible publishing is big -- surprisingly big -- business. According to the Christian Booksellers Association, Bible sales in this country total some $197 million annually.

Translations of the Bible do more than fortify the faithful and make money. The various translations reflect differing views of the Bible, and invariably a new translation produces controversy within denominational ranks. For example, in the past year and a half the National Council of Churches has issued two volumes of biblical passages in which the "male bias" of the Scriptures is ostensibly reduced to a minimum. In practically every major Christian denomination in North America vehement, often rancorous debate has ensued over whether to use these volumes in public worship services. While many congregations are unaware of the hubbub over masculine-dominated language in the Bible, others find it a sensitive issue and have split down the middle over it. The discussion, however, has underscored some perennial and fundamental questions: How do religious authorities decide which Bible translation should be used in church or synagogue? What is the role of tradition in informing such a decision? Are some Bible translations suitable for private reading or academic study but inappropriate for use in church or synagogue? And, finally, what distinguishes a good translation of the Bible from a bad or inadequate one?

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The first English translation of the entire Bible was made in the late fourteenth century, by followers of the religious reformer John Wyclif. They did not work from the original languages -- the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New. Instead, they used as their source the Latin Vulgate, the standard Bible of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Not until the sixteenth century were English translations made directly from the Hebrew and Greek. The earliest was William Tyndale's rendering of the New Testament, which was printed in Germany in 1525 and available in England, most scholars believe, early in 1526. Tyndale later issued translations of the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) and the book of Jonah; he also produced, but did not publish in his lifetime, English versions of several other Old Testament books.

Tyndale was a superior scholar of Greek and a fine Hebraist for his time, but he fairly brimmed with controversial theological opinions. Specifically, he shared many of the anti-ecclesiastical sentiments held by his fiery contemporary Martin Luther, who was in the process of turning the Christian world upside down. Tyndale publicized his views in polemical tracts and also through tendentious and even intentionally misleading glosses, or marginal notes, in his translation of the New Testament. These glosses, along with "prologues and prefaces which sounded to heresie, and rayled against the bishopes uncharitably," were among the reasons that Henry VIII, in 1530, condemned Tyndale's New Testament and banned it in England. The pioneer translator, now a marked man, stayed on the Continent and continued working on the Old Testament. But a few years later Henry succeeded in having him arrested, and in 1536 Tyndale was publicly strangled as a heretic and his body burned at the stake near Brussels.

Practically every English translation of the Bible made in the past 450 years owes something to William Tyndale's work. His surviving translations formed the core of Miles Coverdale's Bible (1535), which was the first printed English Bible, and of a series of revisions of Coverdale: Matthew's Bible (1537; "Thomas Matthew" was the pseudonym of John Rogers, Tyndale's associate and literary executor); the Great Bible (1539); the Bishops' Bible (1568); and, in 1611, the King James Version.

The King James Bible, often called the Authorized Version, had its origins in 1604, when James I appointed "certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty," to revise the Bishops' Bible. After seven years they produced a work that was to have an incalculable influence on the development of the English language and that remained for three and a half centuries the Bible of English- speaking Protestants.

The King James Version borrowed more from its sixteenth-century precursors than is sometimes acknowledged. Studies reveal that some 60 percent of the wording of its New Testament is identical to that in earlier English Bibles; the most frequenely tapped source is Tyndale. This is not to detract from the accomplishment of the King James translators. Again, their commission was to revise the Bishops' Bible, itself a fourth-generation revision of Tyndale. Yet they did much more than sift through the work of their predecessors. The contributions of the committee, in terms of scholarship and literary style, were outstanding, earning for the King James Bible copious praise down the centuries. It is unquestionably a masterpiece.

Since much of the phraseology of the King James Version was taken directly from sixteenth- century Bibles, certain of the usages were already slightly archaic in 1611. By the nineteenth century the problem was acute. Many passages were understandable only because of their familiarity. In other cases readers relied on stock interpretations that had become part of the traditional currency of sermons and Sunday-school instruction. This was hardly what the King James translators had intended; one of the reasons for translating the Bible into the vernacular had been the democratic notion that the Word of God ought to be easily accessible to all.

In 1870 the Church of England authorized a revision of the King James Bible. Separate committees were appointed for the Old and New Testaments. Shortly after work on the project began, the collaboration of a group of American scholars was solicited. The product of this consolidated effort is known as the Revised Version; the New Testament was published in 1881, the Old in 1885. While the work was in progress, some sharp differences of opinion emerged between the British and American committees (which consulted with each other by mail only). One disagreement was over the translation of the Hebrew divine name, the Tetragrammaton. Whereas the Brirish panel wanted to retain the traditional rendering, "the LORD," the Americans wanted to use the name Jehovah instead. To satisfy both parties, the American committee was given permission to put out an edition of the Revised Version that would incorporate its preferred renderings of the disputed words and verses. This edition, the American Standard Version, appeared in 1901.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century scholars continued to make excellent progress toward establishing correct texts of each of the biblical books. The study of ancient cuneiform languages -- Sumerian, Atkkadian, Hittite, and others -- helped to advance the interpretation of the Old Testament, occasionally providing philologists with the keys to rare words or odd grammatical constructions. The most important development, however, was the publication of several modern and idiomatic English translations of the Bible. A few were very good (notably the translation of the entire Bible made by James Moffatt, of Union Theological Seminary, in New York, and the New Testament of Edgar J. Goodspeed, of the University of Chicago), though each was idiosyncratic, in that it embodied one person's view of the Bible.

A new era in the history of the English Bible was launched in 1928, when the International Council of Religious Education acquired the copyright to the American Standard Version. The council appointed a committee of fifteen American biblical scholars to determine whether a revision of the 1901 Bible was needed and, if so, to assume the task. Over the objections of Harvard's James Hardy Ropes, who wanted to scrap the whole idea and revert to the King James text, and Goodspeed, who argued for a completely new translation in contemporary idiom, the committee voted in favor of a thoroughgoing revision. ln 1936, when a long-term contract was negotiated with the publishing company of Thomas Nelson & Sons, work actually began. Advance royalties from Nelson would be used to cover the costs incurred by committee members in attending meetings; since membership was -- and still is (a standing committee is responsible for preparing new editions of the Bible) -- on a volunteer basis, no salaries, fees, or stipends were provided for in the agreement.

In formally authorizing the revision -- which was to be called the Revised Standard Version (RSV) -- the council directed the committee to produce a Bible that would "embody the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures, and express this meaning in English diction which is designed for use in public and private worship and preserves those qualities which have given to the King James Version a supreme place in English literature." The committee hammered out a procedure that it has followed, with only minor changes, to the present day. The members were divided into an Old Testament section and a New Testament section. Each person on the committee was assigned one or more biblical books, for which he was to put together an agenda, or list of proposed changes. Copies of these agendas were then circulated among the other people in the appropriate section. When that section met (on a few weekends during the school year and for ten-day or two-week stretches every summer and sometimes over Christmas break), its members would discuss all suggestions presented in a given agenda -- extending to such matters as the spelling of proper names, capitalization, paragraphing, the use of footnotes, and the placement of punctuation marks (every jot, every tittle!).

After debating a proposed change, the section members would vote on whether to recommend it to the total membership of the RSV committee. A simple majority of those in attendance was required for passage; if a proposal was defeated, or if the vote came out tied, the "basic text," the American Standard Version, was left unaltered. All changes endorsed in this manner were incorporated into a clean draft of the biblical book under consideration. Copies were once again distributed to section members and this time to the members of an outside advisory board as well. Suggestions made at this stage, too, were reviewed, debated, and voted upon. Finally, all alterations of the American Standard Version text still had to be approved by the full RSV committee. Here a two-thirds vote was needed for adoption, although in practice the committee was not given to overriding the recommendations of its subgroups.

The RSV committee worked on through the war years, and in February of 1946 the Revised Standard Version New Testament was published. On the whole it was received warmly, above all in mainstream-to-liberal Protestant churches and seminaries. Yet, in spite of wide agreement that the RSV was destined to replace the James, it did not cause a very great stir in 1946. Six years later the Old Testament was finished, and in September of 1952 the complete Bible appeared, accompanied by a smartly orchestrated publicity campaign.

The 1952 edition of the RSV, appearing as it did during the heresy-minded McCarthy era, was attacked by some religious fundamentalists for allegedly compromising, among other things, the divinity of Jesus, the integrity of the Trinity, and the historical reality of the Virgin Birth. Later criticisms were largely the measured observations of scholars, members of the clergy, and educated lay people who had spent time with the translation. Many suggestions that appeared in review articles and published notes, as well as some that were submitted directly, found favor with the committee and eventually led to changes in the RSV text. (A slightly revised edition was issued in 1962 and the second edition of the RSV New Testament -- also a light revision -- was published in 1971.)

In the thirty-two years since the complete RSV Bible appeared, it has become the most popular Bible translation in the United States, and probably in the English-speaking world. Moreover, as the first widely accepted alternative to the King James Version (excepting the Douay Bible, the Bible of English-speaking Roman Catholics for three and a half centuries, a translation not of the original Hebrew and Greek but of the Latin Vulgate), the RSV prepared the way for a succession of excellent English Bibles that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the New English Bible (the work of British Protestant scholars), the Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic effort heavily dependent on La Bible de Jerusalem, a version produced by and for French Catholics), the New American Bible (sponsored by American Catholic authorities but done with the help of Protestant scholars), Today's English Version, popularly known as the Good News Bible (produced by Protestant scholars working under the auspices of the American Biole Society), and the New Jewish Version (done by a committee that included Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish scholars, as well as the novelist Chaim Potok). Each is a fresh translation from the original languages; each has considerable scholarly and stylistic merit and makes a distinctive contribution to the heritage of the English Bible.

None of these versions, however, is used as extensively today as the RSV, chiefly because of the RSV's success in updating the King James tradition. The revisers produced a Bible that is far more accurate than the King James Version, and much easier to understand. Yet to a remarkable degree the RSV preserves the feel of the King James -- itS dignified cadences, itS euphony, itS undeniable grandeur and power. This is an admirable balancing act, but it was not achieved without certain sacrifices. The original RSV committee held that the language of the King James Bible was too beautiful and majestic, too ingrained in the minds of churchgoers, and too freighted with emotional and spiritual associations to be jettisoned entirely. They did their best to retain piquant turns of phrase and to keep the wording of famous passages reasonably intact. However, they also excised obsolete or particularly archaic words and usages. These occasionally clashing impulses -- to keep what was precious but to modernize the text overall -- resulted in an odd linguistic compromise. The language of the RSV is modern enough to be lucid, but, unlike the language of some more recent translations, it is not really contemporary. Often the diction has an agreeable quaintness to it, but at times it is just stiff and stodgy. Yet to native speakers of English, whose whole notion of Scripture has been conditioned by the stately rhythms of the King James Version, the RSV sounds the way the Bible is supposed to sound. Producing a Bible that will sound more authentically contemporary and yet will continue to evoke the King James is one of the RSV committee's fundamental goals as it moves ahead on a comprehensive revision of the RSV text, a project that has been in progress for several years. The committee hopes to publish a new edition of the complete Bible in 1990.

Whereas the 1952 Bible was produced almost exclusively by Protestant males, the new edition is being prepared by a more heterogeneous group. Of the thirty-three people on the present committee, six are Roman Catholic and one is Greek Orthodox; Harry M. Orlinsky, who worked on the 1952 RSV, is still the only Jew. Just four women serve, but given the very low proportion of established biblical scholars who are women, this number is not surprising.

Under its current chairman, the New Testament scholar Bruce M. Metzger (recently retired from teaching after forty-four years on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary), the committee is following virtually the same order of procedure as before. One new twist is that the Old Testament section, in order to speed up its work, has split into three subsections, which meet simultaneously, twice a year. Most of the key translation issues are the same ones that occupied the committee in the thirties, forties, and fifties: what has changed is not so much the questions that need to be asked as the way the committee answers them.

The questions that today's Bible translator deals with tend to fall into four categories: canon, textual basis, interpretation, and English style.

The question of canon amounts to this: Whose Bible is being translated? The answer is usually predetermined by the denomination or organization sponsoring the translation. Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews differ on the number of books that constitute Scripture. In a few cases they disagree on the composition of particular books.

The Jewish canon consists of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. It is represented in English translation by the Jewish Publication Society's New Jewish Version, whose editor- in- chief was Harry M. Orlinsky.

The Protestant canon -- represented by the vast majority of English Bibles available today -- comprises the Old Testament and the twenty- seven books of the New Testament. However, many Protestant Bibles have in them an additional fifteen works. Known collectively as the Apocrypha, these are usually placed between the Testaments. Though they are of ancient Jewish origin, the Apocrypha never appear in manuscripts or printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, and we have no firm evidence that ancient Jewish communities ever regarded them as "inspired" -- that is, as Scripture. They are found in manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, and, with one exception (the book known as 2 Esdras), in copies of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Protestant churches today, and especially among Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, the books of the Apocrypha are accorded a kind of "recommended reading" status.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, includes twelve of these documents -- all but 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh -- in the canon of Scripture. Yet not until 1546, after centuries of debate and a considerable amount of confusion, were they officially declared to be sacred and canonical. Catholics refer to these twelve books as deuterocanonical ("second-listed"), to indicate that their status was formally determined later than that of the other sixty-six books of the Bible. Catholic Bibles often have the deuterocanonicals interspersed throughout the Old Testament, following the usual arrangement found in medieval manuscripts of the Vulgate.

Eastern Orthodox churches, in general, accept as canonical all the books included in the Roman Catholic canon, together with 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, the third and fourth books of Maccabees, and Psalm 151 (the Hebrew psalter consists of 150 psalms; an extra psalm occurs in some manuscripts of the Septuagint). Finally, a few of the so- called Oriental Christian churches -- the Ethiopian, for example -- have incorporated still other ancient Jewish works into their canons.

The 1952 edition of the RSV consisted of the Old and New Testaments only. In the month following its publication the Episcopal Church asked the National Council of Churches, the holder of the RSV copyright, to authorize an RSV edition of the Apocryphal. The Council did so, a panel of revisers was appointed, and in 1957 the RSV Apocrypha appeared under separate cover. Some subsequent editions of the RSV contained the books of the Apocrypha, in a section at the end of the New Testament. (The vast majority of RSV Bibles printed since 1957, however, lack the additional books.)

A Catholic edition of the RSV, issued in 1966, contained the deuterocanonicals situated among the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with traditional Catholic practice. After the second edition of the New Testament was published, in 1971, the RSV committee resolved.to make available an edition that would be acceptable (as far as the question of canon was concerned) to Protestants and Catholics alike. A compromise was worked out, providing for the publication of a Bible that would contain four sections, in this order: the Old Testament, the deuterocanonical books of the Catholic Church, the three books of the Apocrypha that do not figure among the deuterocanonicals, and the New Testament. This edition, which appeared in 1973 as the RSV Common Bible, won the approval of Pope Paul VI. Still, it did not meet the needs of English-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the RSV committee realized this. Even as the Common Bible was being shipped to bookstores, five committee members were busy translating 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151. In 1977 Oxford University Press published the New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition, Revised Standard Version, which includes these works. This edition is the closest thing to an ecumenical Bible that we have in the English language, although the presence of the New Testament naturally makes it unacceptable to Jewish authorities and inappropriate for use in synagogues. Nonetheless, while many Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of reading from a Bible that has the New Testament in it, nothing in the RSV Old Testament ought to prevent a Jew from using it for private study. (The same cannot be said of certain other English versions of the Old Testament, most notably that found in the commercially successful Living Bible -- an inaccurate and tendentious paraphrase of the Bible that is popular wich evangelicals but that has been repudiated by virtually all responsible biblical scholars.)

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

Copyright © 1985 by Barry Hoberman. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1985; Translating the Bible; Volume 255, No. 2; pages 43-58.

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