Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Bible, Authorised Version

I'm looking for a new Bible, and I'm not finding it easy! I've now scoured the second-hand stores, op shops, and antique sellers of two towns looking for exactly the kind I want, with no success. I only want a nice, durable, no-frills Authorised (a.k.a. King James) Version. I've already got a great study Bible--the New King James version Reformation Study Bible, which comes packed with-footnotes, cross-references, doctrinal notes on Baptism and Justification, and so on. It's lovely. But I want something I can scribble on. (My last AV, a scuffed hardback held together with duct tape, was sadly mislaid somewhere in Tennessee!)

The Authorised Version I'm looking for is the great English-language Bible translation, commissioned by James I and completed in 1611. With deep roots in Tyndale's 1525 translation, and still extremely influential today when it comes to new translations, the AV Bible may be one of the most influential books in history.

While I'm looking for another copy, I thought I should say a few words about why, exactly, I use the Authorised Version.

Textual Reasons

One of the biggest questions about choice of Bible translations has to do with which manuscript tradition is used. Currently there are two major manuscript types used in the translation of Scripture. The Textus Receptus of the New Testament, proponents claim, is the one which the church used until quite recently, being based upon a collection of ancient Byzantine manuscripts. On the other hand, the Modern Critical Text has been formulated with the help of a collection of Alexandrian manuscripts, more recently discovered, which contain a number of variations from the Byzantine manuscripts.

I won't get into all the ins and outs of the Textus Receptus versus Modern Critical Text debate--to begin with, I know so little. The salient facts are that the Receptus is what the Authorised Version is based upon, while the MCT has been used in more recent translations such as the English Standard Version and the New International Version. There is much debate over which text is preferable, and what use if any should be made of the more recently discovered manuscript families.

The position I'm most sympathetic towards prefers the Textus Receptus. This view takes the doctrine of the providential preservation of Scripture--that the Lord will preserve His word through all ages of the world, guarding it and making it available to his Church--to rule out the use of manuscript traditions that have not been widely available to the Church throughout her history. For two arguments in favour of this position, take a look at William Einwechter's English Bible Translations, downloadable as a .pdf, or Douglas Wilson's short discussion on CanonWired.

Another reason for the AV is that that I prefer the Authorised Verson's translation philosophy, "formal equivalence", which aims at a more equivalent word-for-word translation than the translation philosophy of the NIV, the Message, and others, known as "dynamic equivalence". The easy way to explain the differences between these two different philosophies is that formal equivalence will seek words in English that directly translate the original Greek or Hebrew words, while the dynamic equivalence approach will prefer to translate the overall sense behind the text. Of course, if you have studied languages, you'll know that in practice, the exercise of translation usually falls somewhere on a sliding scale between formal-equivalence word-for-word translation and dynamic equivalence sense-for-sense translation. However, there remains a difference in translation philosophy between the "formal equivalence" Authorised Version, English Standard Version, and so on as opposed to the "dynamic equivalence" New International Version, Living Bible, etc. Given the difference, I prefer a translation which takes the formal equivalence approach.

The Authorised Version, therefore, is one of the few available translations that uses both the Textus Receptus and a formal equivalence translation approach. That's one of the reasons I tend to prefer it, though as I've mentioned above, I know very little about the subject.

Cultural Reasons

For me, the clincher is that no matter what your opinions are on textual criticism and translation philosophy, the Authorised Version, first, is the richest and most aesthetically beautiful translation available in English, and second, has had an immense impact on our culture and literature.

This is important to me as a writer. To write well, I need to read good writing. Translated at the high-water-mark of English literature, in the age of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, the AV sings like no other translation. It is, in itself, a work of art.

This is important to me theologically, as well. Beauty is an aspect of God's character. No translation that clunks and groans is going to properly communicate the Lord's truth.

Culturally, the AV is the Bible of English literature. Like Shakespeare, it coined words and expressions that have found their way into everyday speech. We owe words like "peacemaker" and "long-suffering" to the AV, as well as phrases like "salt of the earth", "feet of clay" and "apple of his eye", and proverbs like "Physician, heal thyself". It's been said of the AV, as of Shakespeare, that no English-speaker can call himself educated until he has read and become familiar with it.

A few years ago, I realised that having grown up on the New King James Version and attended many churches that used the New International Version, I was nowhere near as familiar with the AV as I should be. That's why I've used up one Authorised Version already and am looking for another.

Wouldn't trust him as far as I can kick him.
AV Only?

I do think the AV is preferable given the competition, but I don't think it's the only possible choice. Besides its unsavoury connections to James I, the AV has one significant drawback: its English is no longer up to date.

This is partly a good thing. Since the AV, we've lost many useful words and concepts. The AV can help us recover an understanding of these, if we're willing to learn. However, languages develop over time and it may not be much longer before our language has morphed to the next stage, and the AV becomes largely unintelligible to the common man. This has already happened once before: St Jerome's Vulgate, once written in the common language of Western Europe, was enforced as the only acceptable translation long after Latin had transformed into local languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish.

In conclusion

I enjoy reading the AV--who doesn't love phrases like "superfluity of naughtiness" (James 1:21) or the casual references to men, for example in 2 Kings 9:8, as "him that pisseth against the wall"--which the NIV so coyly renders as "every last male"? Or, from the ridiculous to the sublime--and no one could flit between the two as quickly as the Elizabethans and Jacobeans--the glorious lyricism of the prophets. "Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh." "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."

Naturally, if you haven't read the Bible, you should read it--in any competent translation. But do spare a thought for the AV--both the Word of God and a stunning human artistic achievement.

5 comments:

Unknown said...

Have you considered the ESV? It's currently the translation that I read the most (it is also what our church uses for the readings). I like it because it focuses on accuracy (much like the NASB or one like that) but not at the expense of readability. It is a more beautiful and elegant yet accurate translation. Also, I happen to think that the notes in the commentary version are pretty good.

Unknown said...

(This is Kate / bonny_kathryn; blogger doesn't like me.)

Suzannah said...

Hi Kate! Yes, the ESV is pretty widely used among my friends and acquaintances, and I've often considered getting one just to have around--it has some excellent credentials, and seems to be far superior to the NIV.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

I agree with your idea of regaining lost word meanings. One often finds, (particularly in the King James) that the language of the Holy Writ seems a bit archaic to our modern ears. On the upside, the Bible does give us a wonderful starting point to try and regain the beauty of our lost English tongue. I have heard that the Shakespearean era was probably the height of the English language. I suppose that the best plan would be to learn Hebrew and Greek to understand the fullness of the text. I have done rudiments on Hebrew and it is fascinating to see how diverse different languages can be!

(You really don't trust K. James? Can't say I blame you, but I think that you could probably say the same for all the rest of the good old English monarchs too!)

Suzannah said...

In fact, Andrew, I think James was probably the very last English monarch who should have gone near a Bible translation--if you believe Otto Scott's portrait of him in The Fool As King--to say nothing of the fact that he intentionally required the translation of certain key passages to reflect his own beliefs on the divine right of kings, which were very far from being Scriptural. It's absolutely amazing that the AV turned out as well as it did considering everything it had against it!

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