I once read a satirical attack on American Protestant Biblical literalists that said they believed in “the Whole Bible, as dictated personally by the Holy Spirit to King James.” Â The point of the satire was that most American literalists don’t read Hebrew or Greek and therefore have to take what they claim to be a verbally inspired text in translation. Â Unless you think the translators were themselves inspired, you’re stuck with a translation that might not reflect the text.
Folly, as it always does, runs ahead of satire. Â The pastor of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina (near Cold Mountain) decided to make a Hallowe’en bonfire of what he considered “heretical” translations, including NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT. His church uses only the King James Version (KJV) aka the Authorized Version, which as James Wimberley pointed out is about 75% Tyndale’s work. Â His God, he says, is soooooo powerful that He was able to make sure that the true text of the Bible was preserved by King James’s interlocking committees of scholars, thus sparing His worshippers, such as the good pastor, the effort of learning Hebrew or Greek.
Actually, the pastor’s commitment isn’t to the scholars who prepared the Authorized Version at King James’s command, but rather to the Hebrew and Greek texts as the Seventeenth Century understood them, without any meddling by modern critics. Â On this point, among others, the pastor is a trifle confused: Â he refers to “the TR-Textus Receptus (Masoretic Test) that underlays the King James Version.” Â The Masoretic text is the canonical Hebrew Bible as read in the synagogue; it reached its current form toward the end of the first millennium. Â The Textus Receptus is Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, based almost entirely on Byzantine sources.
Those were indeed the texts used by Tyndale in preparing his translation, and by King James’s scholars in revising it. Â But Erasmus wsan’t a Masorete.
But perhaps the good pastor himself was divinely inspired; if so, the divinity must have been Euterpe, the Muse of lyric poetry. Â Whatever their theological merits or demerits, the Bibles that fed that bonfire are uniformly hateful to Euterpe and all who revere her.
Let’s take the first three verses of the 23rd Psalm:
King James version:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
The New King James Version sticks more closely to the original, but as far as I can tell every change it makes is a for the worse in literary terms. Take David’s great lament for Saul and Jonathan from 2 Sam. 1:
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places:
how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
publish it not in the streets of Askelon;
lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
Ye mountains of Gilbo’a,
let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you,
nor fields of offerings:
for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away,
the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.
From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan turned not back,
and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives,
and in their death they were not divided:
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
Ye daughters of Israel,
weep over Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights;
who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan:
very pleasant hast thou been unto me:
thy love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!
The NKJV starts:
The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
Small enough changes: Â “How the mighty have fallen!” for “How are the mighty fallen!” and “Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon” for “Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.” Â Just enough to destroy the music. Â The gorgeous
HOW have-the-migh-ty FALL-en
becomes the pedstrian
HOW the mighty have FALL-en.
And the majestic
becomes the tuneless
Pro-CLAIM it NOT/ in the STREETS of ASH-ke-lon.
As to the New Revised Standard Version, the KJV translation of John 11:35 has been described as the only sentence in English that couldn’t be improved by compression. Â It reads, “Jesus wept.” Â The NRSV reads, “Jesus began to weep.” Â (I believe that the New English Bible has “Jesus shed tears,” but perhaps that was only a bad dream.)
“Heretical” or not, the later translations are acts of literary vandalism, defacing perhaps the most beautiful set of texts ever written in English. Â To the fire with them!
Alas, I wasn’t invited to the bonfire; otherwise no doubt Terpsichore, the muse of dance, would have inspired me to caper around the flames in honor of the vengeance taken for the sin against her sister Muse.