The Bible in English (1)

Over the past couple of years I have been dipping in and out of a marvellous book by Shakespeare Scholar and Professor Emeritus at University College, London David Daniell, called The Bible in English published by Yale University Press.

He sounds like my sort of chap… Loves John Buchan (so do I!), used to sing second tenor (same as me!) with the London Symphony Chorus. And he loves the Bible, not just as literature, but, as far as I can ascertain from reading the book, because he loves the Gospel. I am sure it is a very scholarly work, but it’s not a hard read and is full of great stories and anecdotes, as well as some pithy and amusing commentary.

It’s fascinating to see how the Bible in English has evolved. Daniell leads us through the early years from the 8th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, through Wyclif and the Lollards. We linger over the story of Daniell’s beloved Tyndale and then pick up the pace through the 16th century with Coverdale, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops Bible and finally the King James Bible of 1611, whose 400th anniversary of course we celebrate this year. He talks extensively about the Bible in America, there is a detour into the world of Handel’s Messiah, and then through to the Revised Version, and the present day.

There are gems throughout the book, but what tempted me to post on this was a fascinating curiosity of a Bible-translation from the 18th Century by a certain Edward Harwood DD, who I later discovered was educated at the same Grammar School in Blackburn I attended 250 years later.

Harwood decided to produce a translation of the New Testament following in the literary footsteps of his contemporaries, Samuel Richardson (Clarissa), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), Tobias Smollet and Lawrence Sterne. Not perhaps the best models for the Word of God.

His title page explains:

As Daniell says:

When it came out James Boswell called it a ‘ridiculous work’ and C. S. Lewis remarked in 1950 that Harwood was ‘no doubt…by our standards, an ass.’

There are some amusing examples. This for example is the start of the parable of the Prodigal Son, followed by the much more direct prose of the Authorised/King James Version

A Gentleman of a splendid family and opulent fortune had two sons. One day the younger approached his father, and begged him in the most importunate and soothing terms to make a partition of his effects betwixt himself and his elder brother — The indulgent father, overcome by his blandishments, immediately divided all his fortunes betwixt them. (Harwood)

A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. (KJV)

Amusing…appalling even, but it gets worse. Try this from the Sermon on the Mount

Do not think that the design of my coming into the world is to abrogate the law of Moses, and the prophets – I am only come to supply their deficiencies, and to give mankind a more complete and perfect system of morals. (Harwood)

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (AV)

If Jesus came into the world to give mankind a more complete and perfect system of morals, I’ve been reading a different Bible.

One last example from 1 Cor 13

Benevolence is unruffled; is benign: Benevolence cherishes no ambitious desires: Benevolence is not ostentatious; is not inflated with insolence.

It preserves a consistent decorum; is not enslaved to sordid interest; is not transported with furious passion; indulges no malevolent design.

It conceives no delight from the perpetration of wickedness; but is first to applaud truth and virtue.

It throws a vail of candour over all things: is disposed to believe all things: views all things in the most favourable light: supports all things with serene composure.

Benevolence shall continue to shine with undiminished lustre when all prophetic powers shall be no more, when the ability of speaking various languages shall be withdrawn, and when all supernatural endowments shall be annihilated.

Oh dear! If you want to see what Edwards has done to your favourite passage then you can find the whole work on Google Books.

Worth consigning to the dustbin of history, then.

However, Daniell reminds us that we cannot be too smug. How about this from another translation of 1 Cor 13

[1] If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate…. [11] When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good…[12] We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! (1 Cor 13:1, 11-12)

Is this really any better?  Daniell comments on each verse:

[1] Ecstasy? Nowhere in the passage does the Greek refer to that… Paul’s ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbal’ have vanished, their place taken by a banal commonplace from a B-movie soundtrack…

[11] Barely recognisable as Paul’s ‘I spake as a child’ passage, this, for the sake of appeal to an immediate visual image, again with sound added, totally abandons the Greek. Worse, it corrupts the sense. Paul is not describing infantile gratification. He is illustrating spiritual growth by a parallel with human mental maturation…

[12] …This is the world of feel-good fiction. Instead of the wonder of Paul’s ‘being known’ by God, ‘face to face’, is the singalong triteness of the sunshine…

And in case you are still wondering, this is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

Perhaps an unfair comparison? Possibly… You decide!


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