The Word in Words

I was somewhat startled not too long ago (29 December, to be exact) to read Richard John Neuhaus' comments in the First Things blog On the Square regarding the remarks made at Hirhurim Musings about reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, rather than some English translation, however literary. The poster there had written:
Thankfully, not being personally burdened by a long (in Neuhaus’ case, very long) ritual and scholarly bond with an English translation, I’m not invested in any particular English translation. I actually rarely use one. To me, the original Hebrew text is for the sophisticated reader and any English translation is directed to the unlearned and, therefore, should use the ‘vulgar,’ common language. Those who want poetry should go to the original.
This seemed all very well and good to me, not having yet read Neuhaus' essay in the print version of First Things on English versions of the Bible. So I was taken aback to read Neuhaus' comment:
A word to the unlearned: We’re Scripture scholars and you’re not. Get used to it.
Ouch! That's going to leave a mark! Maybe they should change the name of the blog from On the Square to No Squares Allowed.

Looking back over the original post at Hirhurim, however, I came to agree (as I usually do) with Fr. Neuhaus--there did seem to be something, well, rather pompous, at least in the tone, floating around in there, and I got to thinking about this problem a little more carefully.

I can't read Hebrew very well--I'm working on it but I'm certainly not at the point yet where I can pick up the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and just start breezing through it, the way I can with the Greek New Testament or the Septuagint or the Vulgate. So I have absolutely no grounds for disputing the claim that Hebrew poetry is better read in Hebrew than in translation. But after years and years of reading things like the New Testament, ancient Greek philosophy, medieval Latin philosophy and theology, and other similar texts in the original languages, I can honestly say that, whether anything gets lost in the translation depends almost entirely on what you hope to get out of your reading experience.

Clearly, if what you want to engage in is a scholarly exegesis of the meaning of the text, you absolutely must read it in its original form--that's a principle that I subscribe to not only with Biblical exegesis but with the exegesis of any text, whether Plato or Aristotle or Virgil or Dante or Beowulf or Shakespeare. But not everyone--indeed, arguably only a very few--read either the Old Testament or the New for that purpose. There are, I think, a lot of folks who believe that is what they are doing on certain occasions but I don't think it actually happens as often as some people think. It is really the domain of the specialist, the scholar, and few folks who think they are engaging in Biblical exegesis are really "Scripture scholars" of the sort that Neuhaus mentions.

Most of us, I think, read the Scriptures primarily as a means of encountering God as he has manifested himself to his Church, and for that purpose I don't really see why reading the Scriptures in translation has any necessarily deleterious effect on our experience. The main reason for seeing it this way is my belief that the interpretation of God's revelation of himself to us is always properly the domain of the Church rather than the individual, hence if the translation is recognized by the Church as accurate in a doctrinal sense then there is usually no grave harm involved in relying on it.

If you have doubts about this, you might ask yourself how feel, then, about the restrictions that were imposed, in certain places at certain times, on reading the Bible in the vernacular. The thinking of some was that precisely because the interpretation of these texts was extremely difficult, and something easily manipulated by the educated for the purpose of swaying the uneducated, such texts should be carefully regulated. In particular, the thinking went, translations of the texts--which are always, by their very nature, acts of interpretation--ought to be very closely monitored by the Church. Since the people were supposedly being instructed on the genuine meaning of the texts at the liturgies, it was thought, what need for uneducated folks to read the things themselves?

Then there were the restrictions imposed during the 16th century on reading the New Testament in Greek. Now that was a bizarre move, but not one that I find to be per se wrong, since what the New Testament teaches was still being made available by the Church in her ministry. It was certainly wrong from a utilitarian point of view, since it had rather unfortunate consequences, but there is nothing wrong, in principle, with the Church reserving the right to explain Christ's teaching to His people in Her own way. This is, after all, the way things were perforce during the first century, when the New Testament did not even exist but there was Good News to be preached nevertheless. That News was preached by the Church through the efforts of her ministers, and there was no question of letting folks sit around and examine the sayings of the Apostles, who were summarizing the teachings of Our Lord, with a view towards finding out what those sayings really meant. If there had been any question, they could ask the ministers themselves, who could then explain the meaning more fully, after which it would have been absurd to say "Oh no, that's not what you meant at all--I heard you say XYZ and XYZ doesn't mean what you just told me you meant by it." Things were no different, really, under the restrictions of the 16th century.

Since most folks are not Scripture scholars, then, most folks will read the Scriptures in translation. In fact, even pedantic weirdoes like me read them in translation from time to time. My own tastes in translation have varied over the years. When I first became a Christian in the spring of 1979 I was still living an aesthetic principle that had its origins in the 1970s, and so I found the New International Version somewhat appealing in its folksy, cozy way. But that appeal was quickly lost when I discovered the anal-retentive accuracy of the New American Standard Bible. Remember, I was a young grad student in classics at the time, and the NASB is a godsend to anyone trying to work through the original texts because the translation is so literal as to be almost unreadable. But that was precisely what I liked about it--I guess I thought it was the next best thing to being able to read Hebrew. Even if you know Greek, it's kind of nice to have a trot sitting nearby to give you a sense of security in case things go badly wrong ("Gee, I've never seen that form before! Does Koine have some kind of hemidemisemiquavery apodictic aorist optative?") Remember, too, that I was a young Episcopalian. So of course the pedestrian prose of the NASB quickly wore thin with me and I needed to move on. My friend in the Episcopal church (about whom I have blogged before and who, if you will believe it, has entered the Roman Catholic Church, Deo maximas gratias) introduced me to the Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, which quickly became my favorite.

It is the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition that Fr. Richard Neuhaus favors, and that edition is not all that different from the RSV with Apocrypha, though the differences that do exist are not to be ignored. But clearly I was on the right track by this time. Where Fr. Neuhaus and I have begun to diverge, though, is in this very strange phenomenon: I have begun to favor--the Authorized Version!!! Yes, that's right folks, the very version that was "authorized" for use in the liturgies of the Church of England by King James I and, hence, also known as the "King James Version". Editions with the Apocrypha do exist, so it is just possible to use this version without losing too much in the way of Inspired Scriptures. But the Inquiring Mind wants to know: what is the appeal in this version? The English is antiquated, the texts have been superseded, and gee whiz it was subsidized by schismatics!

I suppose that, in the end, what has drawn me to it after all this time is a combination of (a) coming to peace within myself about my own Episcopalian past (=I don't care any more that they were schismatic), (b) an appreciation for the prose style employed, and (c) a desire to stay as far away as possible from the contemporary political considerations that seem to me to be driving most of the revisions upon revisions that come out, sometimes yearly, of already overly-revised translations whose initial value as "keepers" was already somewhat suspect. Let me address the three points from the last paragraph in order.

It is true that the language of the AV is somewhat antiquated, but certainly no more so than Shakespeare and surely no one would argue that it's not worth taking a little trouble to read Shakespeare, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that you should only read Shakespeare in some contemporary "translation", though such things do exist. For texts produced just a century earlier than Shakespeare (the letters of Saint Thomas More, for example) a translation is sometimes necessary, but there's no reason why an educated person these days ought to have trouble with the English being written at the start of the 17th century. Moreover, as I read more and more about Shakespeare and his times, the period comes to be ever more alive for me, and if only on a personal level I find it something of a satisfaction to read this version as an artifact from a time and a place with which I feel a humanistic connection. It is remarkably beautiful prose even in its directness and simplicity, and it was clearly produced by people who were both scholars and artists--a rare combination these days.

More worrisome is the fact that in the New Testament the AV is a translation of the so-called textus receptus, the Greek text as established by Humanists such as Elzevir, Beza, Erasmus, and Stephanus and deriving ultimately from Byzantine manuscripts. This was the scholarly text up until the end of the 19th century but it has long since been superseded by very much improved editions. (The very best edition of the Greek New Testament in an affordable format, for those who are interested, is the 27th edition of Nestle and Aland, available from the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, ISBN 3-438-05101-7; there is an editio maior but it consists of multiple very-expensive volumes.) Those who would refuse to read the AV for this reason are, I suppose, the same folks who see themselves as engaging in textual exegesis when they read the Scriptures. These are the folks who should be learning Koine, not going around comparing translations to each other without having any independent grounds for distinguishing among them. Church doctrine managed to survive for 19 centuries under the texts that comprise the TR, and I very much doubt that any radical changes are about to be introduced on the basis of new papyrus findings. Some folks try to make too much of what is possible with textual criticism anyway. In 1945, when the Nag Hamadi findings were in the news, folks were all a-twitter with talk of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, etc. etc., and we find similar controversies today, from the totally silly kind (The Da Vinci Code) to the (slightly) more serious (Elaine Pagels, Elizabeth Clark). For a thorough debunking of these controversies and others, check out Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. The long and the short of it, as far as I'm concerned, is that few textual shortcomings in the AV are going to lead me into heresy--it's substantially the text used by the church for the vast majority of its history, and I don't rely on the authority of texts anyway for my doctrine, I rely on the teaching authority of the Church, which produces the very texts themselves and gives them their authority.

It's true that the AV was produced by some folks who had it in for the Papists, and that is probably more troubling to some than to others. The online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia (produced in the early years of the 20th century) articulated only one explicit complaint about partisanship in the AV:
Nevertheless, there remained in the Authorized Version here and there traces of controversial prejudice, as for example, in the angel's salutation to the Blessed Vergin mary, the words "highly favoured" being a very imperfect rendering of the original.
That doesn't strike me as a particularly volatile issue, but I suppose at the back of it is a whole shipload of Marian baggage that pushed a lot of buttons back in the day. The Greek text in question, from Luke 1.28, reads
khaire, kekharitômenê, ho kurios meta sou.
Probably the best translation of this is something along the lines of "Greetings, highly favored one, the lord is with you." The verb kharitoô, as it is used in the NT, refers to the great favor God bestows by his divine grace, and the form we find in our passage is the perfect passive participle, so it's hard to see why "highly favoured" is "a very imperfect rendering of the original." The Douay-Rheims Bible renders the passage as "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." Is there a huge difference between "highly favoured" and "full of grace"? Not if you know what "highly favoured" means in this context--it means "favored by the bestowal of God's grace". If this is the best that the First Edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia can come up with I'm not going to worry too much--I'm certainly not going to be too concerned about passages that may try to persuade me to be a Royalist, if there really are any, as has sometimes been alleged.

Given the great beauty, ancestry, and overall maiestas of the AV I am happy with my current preference. I can't pretend to be a real "Scripture scholar" in Neuhaus' sense, but when I want to be I'll read the Greek anyway, and try to figure out the Hebrew. Failing that, I'll rejoice in a text that has delighted generation upon generation of English speaking Christians, and I'll give thanks that I find myself a part of that great Company that still gives praise to God after a fashion that is worthy of Him.


Gil Student said…
I appreciate your thoughtful comments but I just cannot relate. In my (Orthodox Jewish) community, learning to read the Bible in its original is number one priority. In fact, it is the first things children are taught to do, even before learning to read English. When young, children are taught to study the most authoritative Jewish commentary as well (Rashi) and when they get older they are introduced to other commentaries (which they are able to master in varying degrees, based on the individual).

I guess this is just a cultural difference, which explains our differing views on this matter.
Scott Carson said…

Thanks for your comment--don't get me wrong, I think it's absolutely great that there are communities that think that learning to read the Scriptures in their original languages is the number one priority. I wish that the same priority were shared by my culture.

Sadly, it is not the number one priority. And if you look at the history of your own community, you will find that it has not always been number one priority there, either. The reason why the Septuagint exists is because there was a time when most Jews found Aramaic different enough from classical Hebrew that they could not understand their own scriptures all that well and so read them in translation.

Also, I think there is another factor that actually puts us closer than you might suspect. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scriptures (as I'm sure you are already aware) is somewhat similar to the Greek text of the New Testament in the sense that it represents a reworking of original materials that are long since lost to us. We both rely on a tradition to preserve God's word for us. And in the Rashi you have, perhaps, an analogue of the Magisterium.

Having said that, I should emphasize my respect for the Orthodox Jewish tradition and the care it has taken to preserve, and live out by its example, God's Covenant with his chosen people. If every Christian took as much care to study our own Tradition, not only the Greek New Testament but the documents of the Magisterium (and, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures), I would be thrilled. Failing that, I am happy to find literate and intelligent translations that can serve at the very least to tempt folks to look into learning some Greek and Hebrew.
Steven Avery said…
Good comments, Scott. And a pleasure to see Gil Student posting here as well.

On the New Testament Received Text, I believe if you really look at the modern scholarship from the roots you will see that the theories that were used in modern scholarship to attempt to supplant the historic text are themselves ultra-dubious, unbelieving theories that are based on false paradigms of corruption, that even attempt to endue the text with errancy.

The alternate view (which generally supports the texts behind the historic Bible, Tyndale, Geneva, KJB) would come from a study of a number of excellent authors from Professor Maurice Robinson to Thomas Holland and others, comparing their views of the text with the current modern scholarship semi-consensus of the alexandrian-based text (largely two clearly corrupt manuscripts).

Steven Avery

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