Posted: January 24, 2005
n Saint John's account of the trial before Pontius Pilate, Christ asserts that he has come into the world that he "should bear witness unto the truth," and Pilate's reply is "Quid est veritas?" "What is truth?" This well-known retort (John 18:38) supplies a good starting point for a review of David Daniell's 900-page study of English versions of the Christian Bible. Pilate's question, after all, is one of the few examples of a complete New Testament sentence that is translated identically in the King James Version (1611); J. B. Phillips, The Gospels in Modern English (1952); the Revised Standard Version (1952); The Living Bible (1962-82); The New English Bible (1970); Today's English Version (alsoGood News Bible, 1976); and the New International Version (1978). Daniell's fascinating and well-researched study shows that identical translations of original texts constitute a rare occurrence in the history of the English Bible.
The present study also reveals that there are more English translations of the Bible than most church-going Christians may have imagined. In fact, the author's nine-page "Chronological List of Bibles in English to Which Reference is Made" comprises only a small fraction of the 3,000 or so English versions and fresh editions that find their way into the specialized catalogues. How does one choose a reliable translation?
The author, professor emeritus of English at University College, London, dedicates his study "To the memory of William Tyndale, ?1494-1536, translator of genius, martyred for giving English readers the Bible from the original languages." David Daniell has already published modern editions of Tyndale's Old Testament and New Testament, and he is not only one of Tyndale's biographers but also one of his deep admirers. The book's dedication in fact expresses the author's a prioricriterion for evaluating English editions of the Christian Bible: translations from the original languages that respect the native purity of the English language. Whatever is seen to promote translations from the original languages merits praise, while anything that represents heteronomous control over the sacred texts raises suspicions, at least. This book exhibits little sympathy for anything that smacks of the Latinate or Romance languages. Instead, Tyndale's "vivid prose" and preference for "monosyllables" supply the measure against which evaluations of English style are made.
Tyndale, his "genius," remains the hero of Daniell's book. It is difficult, however, to separate views about Tyndale, who died a Protestant martyr near Brussels in the fall of 1536, from the religious persuasions of those who hold these views. Readers of The Bible in English find themselves inescapably surrounded by the confessional differences that emerged, during the early 16th century, as a result of the various efforts at reform that occurred both in England and on the Continent.
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During the 1530s, it was not always apparent how to distinguish Protestant from Roman Catholic. Nor was it easy to sort out allegiances. For instance, Tyndale was executed two years after the 1534 Supremacy of the Crown Act that confirmed to Henry VIII and his successors the title of "the only supreme head in earth of the church of England, calledAnglicana Ecclesia." Daniell reports that the English court made efforts to secure Tyndale's release from the Imperial jail, but these failed for reasons that remain unclear. In any case, Tyndale's last words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." English Chancellor Thomas More was executed in London a year before Tyndale, on July 6, 1535. He was convicted of having denied the Royal Supremacy, and died professing himself "the King's good servant, but God's first." While still in the service of King Henry and thus, presumably, with the monarch's approval, Sir Thomas More had been Tyndale's most forceful and voluminous critic. One understands why contemporary historians of 16th-century religious movements warn against facile readings of the word "reform."
Daniell's own account of More's critique shows how confessional differences continue to govern the way good-willed persons evaluate Tyndale's contributions to the 16th-century reform of Latin Christianity. "At bottom," writes Daniell, "More asserts that Tyndale's offence has been to give the people Paul in English, and to translate key words in their Greek meanings as 'senior', 'congregation', 'love' and 'repent', instead of the Church's 'priest', 'church', 'charity' and 'do penance.'" Students of theology and even devout Christians will recognize the controversies suggested by this brief lexicon of New Testament words. The doctrinal issues at stake include the reality of a sacramental priesthood, a specific ecclesial structure, the personal practice of the theological life, and the enactment of sacramentalized atonement in union with that of Christ Himself. Catholic doctrine and practice in these areas still form the basis for ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and those Christians who descend from 16th-century reform movements. In one place, the author acknowledges that there exists among translators of the Bible a "Catholic/Protestant divide."
There are scattered references in The Bible in English to the Council of Trent, but it is clear that the author finds little to commend in the second decree of the fourth session, which declares "that the ancient Vulgate edition, which has been approved by the Church herself through long usage for so many centuries, should be considered the authentic edition for public reading, disputations, sermons, and explanations." On the contrary, Daniell opines that the "Vulgate was incomprehensible to the ploughboy and most of his familiars throughout the land." He further asserts, "What the priests let the people know was a fraction of the whole Bible." To what extent these assertions correspond to the reality of English Catholic life before the 1530s remains open to debate. What, however, strikes this reviewer is that the author demonstrates little inclination to try to understand why the Church (and her "authorities") would have wanted to protect the Bible from possible abuse at the hands of perhaps well-intentioned but sometimes erring scholars, such as John Wyclif, who eventually renounced the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Daniell includes reports on English Bibles before the advent of the printing press. His critical focus, however, centers on the "terrifying restrictions" that he believes were imposed in England after 1409, the date when Archbishop Arundel sought to address the inconveniences of Lollardism, which taught an early form of predestination while denying the authority of the Church and its teachings on the Eucharist. Disciplinary actions in the form of "Constitutions" did result from a provincial or regional council that was held at Oxford. Arundel's council had to address the de facto connection between the circulation of vernacular Bibles and the spread of heresy, which always constitutes a departure from biblical truth. What Daniell fails to emphasize, however, is that this same council made it clear that translations into the vernacular could receive Church approval.
Most of the book, however, treats the developments in "englishing the Bible"—to borrow a phrase from the Catholic convert Ronald Knox—that occur after the 16th century. Tyndale's shadow extends even into the 1980s. The author notes that an English translator of the Jerusalem Bible, Dom Henry Wansbrough, admired the 16th-century Bible translator. One can at least appreciate Wansbrough's literary taste. In fact, it remains characteristic of modern Catholic biblical scholarship—for example, the 1968 Jerome Biblical Commentary—to acknowledge that "Tyndale's vigorous English left a permanent mark on the history of the English Bible."
Catholic printed bibles include two types of translations, those made from the Vulgate and those from the original languages. The Douay-Rheims translation (1582-1609) is the earliest and the Knox translations (1944-50) are the latest of the first type; while the New Confraternity Bible (1952-68) marks the beginning of the latter type, issued after Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. The allusion to the "breathing forth of the divine Spirit" points to Catholic teaching on the divine inspiration of the biblical authors.
To the best of my knowledge, a complete analysis of the evolution of Catholic practice with respect to vernacular translations of the Bible from the original languages has still to be written, at least from a Catholic standpoint. Such an effort would have to take account of what Catholics believe about the relationship of the biblical texts to the deposit of faith. In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission expressed itself on this point: "What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible" [emphasis added]. Others must judge whether this principle can be reconciled with the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura. I do think, however, that such a Catholic interpretation of the Bible informed those Church authorities of yesteryear who sought to modify even the most stylistically perfect of English translations.