Whereas Islam insists that the Qu'ran must be read in its original Arabic, there is no requirement in the Bible that it be read, other than for reasons of scholarly accuracy, in its original languages. During the Middle Ages, the laity was largely disconnected from the Bible. Many monastic orders—such as the Benedictines—placed a high value on detailed, extensive study of the Bible. Yet such a knowledge of the text was simply impossible for most ordinary Christians, most of whom could neither read nor afford to buy a manuscript of the Bible. The advent of printing would alleviate the latter problem, although Johann Gutenberg's first printed Bibles cost far more than large houses of his day.
Things began to change in England in the late Middle Ages, even though the translation of the Bible into English was illegal at this time. John Wycliffe, the English religious reformer of the fourteenth century, is often referred to as the "morning star of the Reformation." It is an appropriate, if not totally accurate, designation. One of Wycliffe's best-known slogans, shamelessly plagiarized by Abraham Lincoln, affirms the fundamentally democratizing consequences of giving people access to the Bible: this book would give rise to "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Wycliffe himself made no small contribution to this development, although he appears to have inspired others to translate the Bible into English rather than to have done so himself.27 The fourteenth-century Wycliffite translations into English were based on the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible rather than the original Hebrew and Greek texts. It was not until the year 1516 that new possibilities opened up, when Erasmus of Rotterdam published the Greek text of the New Testament. It is no accident that this landmark event took place so close to the dawn of the reforming challenges to the established social, religious, and intellectual orders of the day.
Luther demanded that all Christians should be able to read the Bible for themselves. Lay access to the Bible was about power as much as it was about encouraging personal spirituality. The pressure to place the Bible in the hands of the ordinary person was an implicit demand for the emancipation of the laity from clerical domination. Always a realist in matters of human nature, Luther knew that it was a waste of time demanding that everyone learn the original biblical languages. The needs of the situation demanded action on his part. The Bible had to be translated into ordinary German! But that would take time—something that Luther simply did not have in 1520.
Then events took an unexpected turn, and Luther suddenly found himself with an abundance of time on his hands. Following his condemnation at Worms, Luther was "kidnapped" in May 1521 by his friends and placed in safe custody in Wartburg Castle. "Junker Jorg" (Sir George)—as Luther was known during this period of enforced isolation—spent his first eleven weeks translating the New Testament into German. The "September Testament" was edited by Melanchthon and others and published in 1522. It created a sensation and had a permanent effect on the shaping of the modern German language.28
Others were inspired by this effort and longed to do the same. William Tyndale even traveled to Wittenberg in order to benefit from both Luther's personal example and his translation of the New Testament.29 Perhaps as many as three thousand copies of Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament were printed in great secrecy in the German city of Worms and imported shortly afterward into England, where they caused a sensation. The bishop of London ordered that every available copy be seized and burned.
Why was the translation regarded as so dangerous? Two reasons stand out. First, any English translation was dangerous because it enabled ordinary Christians to carry out a reality check on the teaching and morality of the church. It was a disconcerting, even threatening, development. Second, Tyndale's translation used vocabulary that threatened to undermine traditional authority structures within the church. An example will make this point clear.
The English church had had priests since anyone could remember. Yet Tyndale's New Testament rendered the Greek word presbyteros, traditionally translated as "priest," as "senior." The English word "priest" should, he argued, be reserved solely for translating the Greek term hiereus, used in the New Testament exclusively to refer to Jewish or pagan priests or to Christ himself. The Greek term ekklesia, traditionally translated as "church," was now translated as "congregation." Sections of the New Testament that could have been taken as endorsing the institution of the church were now to be understood as referring to local congregations of believers. In both cases, the new translation threatened to subvert the existing structures of the church by implying that they were not found in the New Testament itself.
Realizing that they could not prevent such translations from getting through to England, where they would secure a ready and enthusiastic readership, the authorities reluctantly decided they would have to authorize and produce their own English translations of the Bible. Far better, they reasoned, to have a translation they could control than to try to fight off subversive translations. A series of English Bibles thus appeared over the next eighty years, battling it out for the loyalty of the English public.30 We have already noted the importance of the unauthorized Geneva Bible (1560), produced by Protestants in Geneva. Yet perhaps the greatest English translation of the Bible was the King James Bible of 1611, also known as the "Authorized Version."
The origins of this version can be traced back to the first year of the reign of James I. Anxious to secure religious peace in England, James authorized the production of a new English translation of the Bible early in his reign. The fifty translators were divided into six "companies," two based at Westminster, two at Oxford, and two at Cambridge. Each was allocated a section of the Bible, including the Apocrypha. They were given strict instructions about how they were to proceed with the translation. They would make no marginal notes; they would use traditional English ecclesiastical language (for example, "church," not "congregation"); and they would draw upon earlier English translations as appropriate. The new translation would be conservative theologically while maintaining complete accuracy by the standards of its day.
The resulting translation, published in 1611, eventually became a religious classic—even if it did take about eighty years for it to be fully accepted as such. The impact of the King James Bible on the English language was decisive. Countless phrases originally deriving from Hebrew—such as "to fall flat on one's face," "the skin of one's teeth," "to stand in awe," and "to lick the dust"—now found their way into everyday English. The impact of such translations on the shaping of national languages and cultures has been immense. The English Bible, above all the King James Bible, has shaped "the common code of the English-speaking world," almost as if it were some kind of linguistic DNA.31
Yet the most interesting section of the King James Bible is now generally omitted, owing to lack of space. Miles Smith, writing on behalf of the translators, provided a preface that offered an account of the benefits of biblical translation to the people of God. It allowed them to gain access to the spiritual nourishment found in the Bible. Translation opened a window and let in the light; broke the shell that we might eat the kernel; drew aside the curtain that we might look into the most holy place; removed the cover of the well that we might drink of its water, "even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered [Genesis 29:10]." To translate the Bible was an act of service to the people of God.
By 1900 the King James Bible was firmly established as a religious classic. Several North American religious groups have regarded it as the definitive translation of the Bible and refused to countenance others.32 Many have felt that this text, like Shakespeare's works, is vested with the dignity and sanctity of a classic and therefore cannot be revised.
It is beyond doubt that the King James Version of the Bible was an outstanding translation by the standards of 1611 and beyond. Yet translations eventually require revision, not necessarily because they are defective, but because the language into which they were translated changes over time. Translation involves aiming at a moving target that has accelerated over the centuries. Living languages are developing more quickly today than at any time in their previous history. Some words have ceased to be used, while others have changed their meanings. For example, consider this sentence from the King James translation:
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
A modern reader would find this puzzling, in that the 1611 meaning of "prevent"—"to go before" or "to precede"—is different from its modern sense of "to hinder." Linguistic change makes classic translations—such as the King James Bible—capable of misleading and confusing readers. When a translation itself requires explanation, it has ceased to function as a working translation.
This point has considerable relevance to late twentieth-century American debates over the place of the King James translation. Those who insist on retaining the King James Bible as the only acceptable English translation of the Bible actually betray the intentions and goals of those who conceived and translated it—namely, to translate the Bible into living English.33
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