Lynne Long, Translating the Bible: From the seventh to the seventeenth century. Ashgate December 2001 (ISBN 0-7546-1411-5) £40
Richard Griffiths (editor) The Bible in the Renaissance: Essays on biblical commentary and translation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ashgate October 2001 (ISBN 0-7546-0394-6) £47.50
The 16th century saw an unprecedented explosion in the translation of the scriptures into the main languages of Europe. Most notably in English and German, version after version appeared, making use of each other in convoluted controversy and imitation.
Though, of course, the work came to be bound up with the gradual hardening of division between Catholic and Protestant, it antedated that conflict, going back to the previous century under the twin influences of the invention of printing and of the new scholarship that brought alive the study of Greek and Hebrew. The long monopoly of the Latin Vulgate version in Western Europe was at last broken down, despite the kind of last ditch defence that the English Authorised Version has received in recent times, though now more often for literary than for theological reasons.
The two books under review are concerned with this fascinating and thought-provoking process. The second of them is more closely devoted to the history, including some of its more unexpected byways, while the first attends to some of the issues relating to the business of translation which it exemplifies.
Lynne Long's survey goes back to the early Anglo-Saxon forays into the translation of the Latin text, but attends chiefly to the process in the Reformation period, in both Germany and, more, in England, which culminated in the Authorised or King James Version of 1611. Her key sentence is: 'This period of English history highlights just how politically sensitive the act of translating could be, and underlines the idea that every translation is at the least a rewriting of the source material, and can amount to a complete reorganization of it. Changing an ideology is as easy as inserting a single word'.
It is a lesson often far from the minds of those who select a version largely on the basis of its modern and traditional feel. Not many now attend to the detail, or allow their beliefs to be affected by the minutiae of verbal usage in particular passages of scripture. In the 16th century, for Luther as for many others, it was a revelation to discover that the Greek text simply did not support the Vulgate, and that the theological construction placed upon it must fall. 'Do penance and believe in the gospel' was simply not the same as 'Repent and believe in the Gospel' (Mark 1.15). But who would have known, until Erasmus (and the printers) made a decent Greek text accessible in 1516?
It was, of course, some time before the process went further and there was a wider development of the sense that there was more to it than wording - perhaps, when the various parts of the Old Testament, for example, were written, times were different, and one had better take account of date and context.
The work edited by Richard Griffiths is a collection of ten essays that began as conference papers, and some illustrate how slowly the new learning affected biblical interpretation. The old ways of reading, of drawing moral lessons and illuminated doctrinal and edificatory points from the Old Testament, were alive and well in Savonarola at the end of the 15th century and in Erasmus in the early decades of the 16th.
These essays bring out well how the later hardening of the Catholic-Protestant frontier in these matters (only recently transcended) was simply not apparent in the earlier period. Though there could indeed be dispute about the sensitive words (could you really translate the Greek word presbuteros as 'priest', as it has been traditionally understood in Latin Christendom, or did it simply mean 'elder', with entirely different connotations?), the discussion was generally in a single world of learned discourse, whether you were Cardinal Cajetan or William Tyndale.
Luther was, perhaps, the greatest innovator as a translator, making a definite policy of putting the text of scripture into everyday German and not a stilted Latinate German that nobody actually spoke: a good news Bible, one might say.
The contributors to the book of essays are experts who fascinate and write with authority. Lynne Long is more of a 'translation theorist' than either a theologian or, strictly, a historian, and her touch is sometimes rather less secure.
This review by the Revd Professor Houlden, Emeritus Professor of Theology at King's College, London, was first published in the Church Times in 2002.
Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. Simon & Schuster, 2001 ISBN: 0-684-84747-7
Returning to Washington DC from a congress in Los Angeles, I found myself sitting next to an eminent political columnist. Our conversation turned to books - I felt ashamed for buying so many at the conference - and my seatmate asked me how big my home library was. "Personally I own 15,000 books!" he said. "Then I shouldn't feel bad - I have a long way to go!" I replied. "Don't emulate my example, don't try to get to 15,000" he begged, "for that way lies madness!"
For that way lies madness. I remembered this dialogue while reviewing Wide as the Waters, one of the latest crop of Bible history texts. My heart was a little heavy, for how many more publications on this subject do we need?
Time was when any new title on Christianity would command a "pre-sold audience," especially in the USA. Many theologians stepped in to meet the public's demand for new reading matter, gaining fame and fortune as a result; consider the example of John Dominic Crossan, whose books on the "Jesus Movement" and the post-Crucifixion period fly off the bookstore shelves. Many fine books have emerged from this publishing bonanza. One recent example is Christopher de Hamel's The Book - A History of the Bible which is not strictly comparable to other publications and thus occupies a niche (TSJ no 21).
At some stage, however, the market must reach saturation point. Readers have expressed anxiety about Wide as the Waters, and the search for historical errors in its text has begun. I will leave that task to others, although I glimpsed one whopper all by myself (was Robert Barnes really martyred under Queen Mary? Well, no.).
Which is not to say that historical accuracy doesn't matter - of course it does. Still, having researched a book slated for publication in late 2002, my sympathies are with the author; gremlins can defy the most rigorous factchecking and sneak into one's manuscript through the back door. Nor are Bibles immune from this - witness the "thou shalt commit adultery" Bible which, according to legend, Bill Clinton studied while at Oxford. Perhaps, when judging the author, we should be on the lookout for a pattern of error and mendacity, or deeply ingrained unprofessionalism.
Neither of which you will find in Bobrick. The verdict is in, and Wide as the Waters is a credible effort, smoothly written, with some surprising touches. Bobrick keeps a steady pace, seldom delving beneath the surface. The world is not a different place since the arrival of Wide as the Waters, as it was after the publication of David Daniell's Tyndale biography, but that is a cruel standard to apply to any book.
There are grace-notes in Bobrick's pages. I enjoyed the tale of the Czech copyist driven to distraction by the demands of John Wycliffe's knotty, abstruse Latin prose. How charming to discover that Protestant-baiter Johann Dobneck loathed his own nickname "Cochlaeus" ("snail") but couldn't shake it off. And I now know more about Tyndale's patron Humphrey Monmouth (we owe him much) than I did before.
Which brings us to Tyndale, whose familiar but imagined likeness graces the dust jacket. Historical scholarship about Tyndale's origins and family background is in flux, and this may affect the validity of Bobrick's and other books in the years ahead. What a relief, though, to have an entire chapter devoted to WT instead of the usual footnote, or polite-but-distant paragraph smothered with Thomas More hagiography. Not that More is omitted; Bobrick cannot fathom (who can?) why the farsighted Humanist scholar, who had the talent to prepare a vernacular Bible translation himself had he been so inclined, turned so vicious at the end.
Sharply divergent personalities figure elsewhere in the book. I was glad for the portrait of James I, whose hands-on management style in organizing the AV contrasted with Henry VIII's coolly ambivalent approach to the Great Bible.
I noticed some odd shifts in readability and register in Wide as the Waters. There are gnomic utterances (Elizabeth I was a popular but autocratic ruler, we are told) along with elegantly turned phrases ("But the king's punitive impulse now assumed a widening arc"). In passages dealing with the late Elizabethan period, I found myself reading the same page twice over, taking in nothing the first time around. The Wycliffe chapter, on the other hand, is vivid and clear, stitching together material on Lollardy and the evolving English language of the 1300s in a style I had not encountered before.
Perhaps the finest section is the rogues' gallery of Authorized Version translators - and here the content may at last be new to Tyndale Society members. As a translator myself, I envied the curriculum vitae of one linguist with a prodigious memory, a kind of "human search engine" who could call to mind any word, in any context, at any time. Bobrick swallows the canard that translators are an intriguingly wacky bunch of eccentrics - I call this "The Great Lie" - and he is ever so slightly at sea with the contemporary language of flattery used to describe the AV team members and other historical figures. "Sycophancy and the Reformation" - there's a PhD dissertation title for our younger members.
Are Bibles are best translated by lone rangers (Tyndale), pairs (Tyndale/Coverdale), or committees? Bobrick leaves this question moot. To shed light on this question, we need only consider the much later New Testament edition prepared by the 20-century Jesus Seminar - a bureaucratic, cloth-eared nightmare. Even with the best talent available, ingenious but controversial ideas get swept aside in committee, while the lame suggestions of chairpersons are foisted on the rest.
James's men avoided this trap; and thanks to recent scholarship, we have a better idea of how they deliberated. They had at their disposal a blossoming English language, and thus a richer range of linguistic choice. In one of the many comparative translations provided in the book, Bobrick shows how an immortal phrase like "swords and plowshares" sprang into being.
Coverdale: "they shall break their swords and spears to make scythes, sickles, and saws thereof. From that time forth shall not one people lift up weapon against another, neither shall they learn to fight from thenceforth."
Geneva: "they shall break their swords also into mattocks, and their spears into scythes; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn to fight any more."
KJV: "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
What of Bobrick's ideological outlook? This rather old-fashioned text contains little to offend anybody; its loyalties are with the Bible rather than Church tradition and superstition. The author seems to view Bible history as a pageant processing (with fits and starts) towards the pinnacle of the Authorized Version; that is anathema to present-day scholars, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Also, we find a certain amount of mythologizing about the youthful Tyndale and Wycliffe trudging through the respective regions of their birth and surveying England's green and pleasant land. This would not have disconcerted readers in an earlier age; and there is no harm in it. In contrast to this pastoral quality, what I took away from Bobrick's book is the sense that no religious reforms take place without the spilling of blood. I knew this already; but it is good to be reminded.
However, if your personal library amounts to 15,000 titles or even a fraction of that amount, and if you're being squeezed out of your own home by mountains of religious books, you may decide that worthwhile reminders simply aren't important enough to merit a slot on your bookshelves. Oh, the dilemmas we Tyndalians face!
Neil Langdon Inglis, Bethesda, Maryland.
Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona: The Quest for the True Cross, Phoenix, 2000 (ISBN 0 75381 082 4) Paperback £7.99
I am neither an archaeologist nor a New Testament scholar but I am a publisher, so when David Daniell suggested that I should review The Quest for the True Cross I imagined that it was as the publisher of Martin Biddle's The Tomb of Christ that he had thought of me. Perhaps subconsciously this influenced my approach. Martin's extraordinary achievement at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - as well as gaining him the respect and confidence of all the major religious parties - resulted in an authoritative work, reconstructing the architectural history of the Tomb of Christ. This work was, from the outset, one of architectural history and archaeology - remarkable, groundbreaking, but objective - it pretended to nothing else.
The opening sentences of Thiede and D'Ancona's book actually set a rather different agenda - the canvas is huge: 'This is a book about a symbol, perhaps the most powerful symbol in the history of the world. It is also a book about the sacred object which that symbol is said to represent and an exploration of the moment in history when one became the other. It is an argument about the threads which link history and belief, and the role of scholarship in making those threads visible and intelligible.'
The authors have impressive and varied qualifications - in New Testament history and mediaeval history, in papyrology and in mainstream journalism - but the task they had undertaken often left me poised uneasily between their search for hard, stark evidence and an intangible consideration of beliefs, purpose and motivation. I found myself asking what was the real driving force for their book? Finally, I concluded that its hallmarks were really those of a carefully choreographed detective story - thorough and well-plotted - but nevertheless constructed with a specific dénouement in mind. The authors certainly seem at their happiest when speculating on the cryptography of the early Christians, deciphering ancient lettering on the priceless Titulus, tracing the dispersal of small fragments of wood, or searching out corroboration in contemporary writings and differing Gospel accounts. This is not a criticism - in fact in the last few pages of the book they set out their purpose quite simply: it is 'to make an historical case'.
In many ways this is the key to the framework for this book - it is almost a courtroom drama. The case has been formulated, the evidence assembled and the jury is now to be convinced. As such it works well - once one accepts the necessary focus and organization of the case. The arguments are certainly substantial and highly detailed - it makes for a good read.
A brief history of the Cross is followed by carefully presented evidence to show that 'the Cross of Christ was honoured, visualized and depicted from the very first moment of the Crucifixion'. Controversially, the authors go on to argue that 'the first Christians did not have to wait for Helena to rediscover the True Cross, or for her son to have his vision' before adopting this powerful symbol. The portrait of the Empress Helena is one of the unexpected bonuses of this book. The authors give us a splendid account of this Constantinian double-act - mother and son. They set out to restore the formidable lady to her rightful place in history, presenting a gripping account of her mission and motivation, her epic journey in search of the True Cross, her foray into archaeology and her political and theological impact on early Christendom. Her stature is in no way reduced by their argument that her discovery of the True Cross was more the culmination of a tradition than the beginning of one. In fact, the authors' powerful case for giving the Cross a continuous position at the centre of the earliest Christian worship only strengthens the platform for the subsequent achievements of Helena and the pivotal position of the Constantinian era in the development of Western civilization.
From here, we leave the Empress to her 'position of near cosmic significance' and turn to a microscopic scrutiny of her trophy, the Titulus, which she reportedly brought back to Rome. The detailed debate which follows in a section aptly titled 'The Case of the Triumphal Superscription' is a breathtaking exercise in the analysis of fragmentary script, the development of letter forms and symbols, and the detection of essential clues and motives from deep within ancient writings. It is another of those fascinating cameos which populate this intriguing book. At times the enthusiasm seems to get the upper hand however. One can almost hear the measured intervention of the judge when the authors actually present us with the intimate thoughts and feelings of the Jewish writer himself as he hurriedly inscribes the words on the Titulus - they hastily add 'This is speculation, of course'. But the rationale is fascinating and the case for the authenticity of this revered relic is clever, well argued and persuasive.
The presentation of all this is dramatic and documentary in style. I was not surprised to learn that the authors worked with television to produce a documentary of their first book, The Jesus Papyrus, and it is interesting that they attribute the idea for The Quest for the True Cross to the period when they were filming this earlier book. In due course The Quest for the True Cross was also made into a television documentary. Inevitably, it distils the plot to fit a standard documentary length and in the process it loses much of the detail of their finer analysis. Not unsurprisingly, it makes 'good television' but the 'factual' format also emphasizes the quandary which I think lies at the heart of Thiede and D'Ancona's quest. I suspect that this arises from the fact that the Cross can only partially be brought into such an arena - subjected to forensics and scrutinized with a magnifying glass. As the authors themselves say at the outset, this is not just a physical sacred object but one of the 'most powerful symbols in the history of the world'.
The real power of the Christian tradition surely lies in faith. The future of the Church which grew from that small band of early disciples depended on those who had the faith to believe without the 'physical proof'. Jesus said to Thomas: 'because thou hast seen me, therefore thou believest: Happy are they that have not seen, and yet believe' and I cannot help feeling that this book makes for a good documentary investigation, an intriguing and fascinating read and an excellent courtroom drama, but in promising an insight into 'the most powerful symbol in the history of the world' it is also somehow rather missing the point.
Peter Clifford, Publishing Director, Sutton Publishing Limited
The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 - an edition in modern spelling, with an introduction, the original prologues and the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Edited by W R Cooper. British Library hardback 544pp July 2002. ISBN 0712347283.
Jim McCue in his column Notebook Bibliomane published in The Times of Monday 1 July 2002 wrote -
"The British Library has just published a new modern-spelling edition of the 14th century New Testament translation by Chaucer's friend John Wycliffe. Because printing had not been invented, it circulated originally in manuscript, and this transcript, by W.R.Cooper, is from one of the 170 or so surviving early copies. The format is larger and handier than the library's edition of the Tyndale translation of 1526, published two years ago, but a fine companion.
Stepping back a century and a half from Tyndale, Jesus no longer says 'Geve not that which is holy to dogges, neither cast ye youre pearles before swyne' he says, 'Nil ye give holy thing to hounds, neither cast ye your margarites before swine'. This margarite of great price is yours for £20".