Thinking Anglicans

An Issue of Biblical Proportions

I recently attended a discussion on biblical inerrancy. More precisely, the gathering in question consisted of a number of people who hold firm to the view that every part of the Bible is a literal and accurate historical document, containing teaching that cannot be questioned, and some other people whose views varied from those who valued the Bible as a holy scripture without buying into the idea of the book as a literal record of all it contained, to those who didn’t think much of it at all.

But actually no, this is not going to be a post about inerrancy or the little battles between the fundamentalists and the rest. My point here is a different one. During the conversations (or maybe I should say declarations, there wasn’t much give and take) every so often someone would quote from the Bible. And what struck me was that people were quoting from different versions and translations, some of which were familiar to me and some of which definitely were not. One person used the following quote: ‘Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want’. I guessed that this must be from Matthew 16, but the particular form of words was entirely new to me. By googling it later I discovered that it was from a version called ‘God’s Word’, which I suspect is a paraphrase rather than a translation.

Whatever views we may have on the relative merits of this or that version of the Bible, what strikes me is that we no longer have a common language for scripture. It is not just that we have our own preferences in terms of the style and language of different translations, we also have versions that base themselves on a particular theological outlook that has helped to fashion the text (such as the New International Version).

When I was growing up there was only one Bible I would come across — the Authorised Version. At that time the New English Bible had made an appearance, but (at least in the circles I moved in) it was not normal to see it used in worship; it was more a study aid. And so my generation of young people had a significant fund of biblical passages which we could quote easily from memory.

Nowadays that is not so. Clearly part of the reason is that our society has a much more tenuous relationship with organised religion than it did back then. But I suspect that scripture is something less direct for us because, when we hear it, it can take any number of quite different forms. For a while I had begun to think that, perhaps, the New Revised Standard Version might become the dominant Bible, but I suspect this is not happening, and if I am honest, I have to admit that I am going off it somewhat; it, too, has too much of an agenda.

Maybe I am being nostalgic about something that had to come to an end anyway and that cannot be restored. But at least part of me regrets that we have lost the idea of scripture as a common property that is not just somewhere in the background but that is part of us and is, in large passages, remembered by us. I think we have lost something.

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Orfanum
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Orfanum

This has been the direction of texts (‘The [Western] Canon’) for some years, there are no authoritative screeds, and the centre holds not at all, regardless of subject matter. It’s a bit of a chestnut but after all it’s only the letter that’s dying, not the spirit!

Ferdinand von Prondzynski
Guest

‘after all it’s only the letter that’s dying, not the spirit!’ – I wonder whether you can separate them quite as easily as that. The letter – in the case of the Bible – is the ultimate source of the spirit. If we no longer share that, what are we sharing other than some general and vague sense of goodwill? Apart from those with a more fundamentalist disposition, the general body of churchpeople are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with the basis of their supposed faith. Is that really sustainable?

Pluralist
Guest

Bible passages are like gun shots, fired by evangelicals (especially) who want to make a kill. Being a peaceful sort of person, I don’t do it. It’s the same as saying God is on my side, and I’ve never done that either. But then few are chosen, as they say, to handle the guns.

Tim
Guest

After reading several books on the origins of Scripture (apparently it didn’t fall out the clouds with a halo around the still-smoking quill after all), it occurs to me to point out that actually since before the Common Era, Jews have been actively experimenting with *varying the interpretation* in order to make the most charitable reading out of a passage, in their studies of the Torah etc. The variety and diversity of modern translations[0] hints at the degree of attention one should not pay to detail. Even more optimistically, maybe it even hints at the ongoing evolution of Biblical ideology… Read more »

badman
Guest
badman

Your observation is well made and I sympathise with your regret. I have similar feelings about liturgy which varies, disconcertingly, not only from parish to parish but from week to week in the same parish, so that my children don’t pick up any fixed point of reference – not the creed, not the Lord’s prayer, even; there is a bewildering lack of stability which massively reduces the cumulative impact of churchgoing on those who are not yet really paying attention. One good thing, however, is that the lack of consensus on translation does perhaps reflect a lack of certainty about… Read more »

Prior Aelred
Guest

Bart T. Ehrman points out that, of the surviving NT texts, the number of variants exceeds the number of words — a commonly agreed translation might be a great consolation, but it is a tremendous lie (as great consolations all too frequently are)

Marshall Scott
Guest

Well, any group of scholars will have some bias; for objectivity is a myth. That said, there is something important to be said about translations based on good scholarship. That won’t lead us to one recognized translation, but it will narrow down the field. The Authorized King James, the RSV, NEB, Jerusalem, NIV, and NRSV translations have some bias; but at least they were done by scholars qualified to argue their positions. Looking at them together can give some guidance. The same cannot be said for the plethora of editions intended to make Scripture more “accessible” – at least when… Read more »

orfanum
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orfanum

I can see that this may turn into a bit of a ding-dong again, Ferdinand but that does not mean I should not reply: “The letter – in the case of the Bible – is the ultimate source of the spirit.” Isn’t God though supposed to be the ultimate source of the spirit? I am not being facile here – hopefully perhaps others who are theologically better trained can comment. Isn’t what we share a faith, rather than a creed or a particular instance, edition, translation or interpretation of the Bible? I am not left feeling just ‘some general and… Read more »

jnwall
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jnwall

As someone is reported to have said to the rector when modern English translations were first being used in worship, “If King James English was good enough for Jesus, its good enough for me.” We are here at a fracture point in Christian tradition over the matter of authority, between those who believe the Church created the Bible and those who believe the Bible created the Church. In the former perspective, the Bible is one vehicle through which God speaks, but not the only one. There is, for example, tradition, or reason reflecting on experience. In the latter perspective, the… Read more »

ruidh
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ruidh

I don’t think the NRSV has an “agenda”. They had a translation philosophy which is set out in their foreword which explains why they made some of the choices they made. English has changed and it makes sense to translate in a way that people can understand. The RSV’s position on archaic language is completely nonsensical.

Personally, I think a literal interpretation of the Bible is self-contradictory. The Bible literally says the second coming should have happened in the 1st Century. I don’t know how you uphold the literal truth of the entire Bible and that uncomfortable fact.

peterpi
Guest
peterpi

Tim @ 12:59, I swear I’ve met good-hearted Christians who think God handed the complete King James Version to Moses on Mt. Sinai. I’m a lector at the TEC church I attend. Not knowing much about TEC canons, I one time asked the priest who was to be celebrant at the Eucharist I would be reading at whether I could change “kings” in the text to “rulers”. By doing so, it made the entire text inclusive, and did not go against any formal Christian teaching. He looked at me, in total astonishment, and asked if I felt I had been… Read more »

BobinSWPA
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BobinSWPA

I think Prior has hit the nail on the head (so to speak). We’re never going to know what originally was written> There are so many variants, as Ehrman points out in “Misquoting Jesus,” that coming up with a true text to translate is impossible.
What I find even more interesting is the fact that the Roman Catholics have books included in their Bible that some Protestants took out and the same with the Eastern Orthodox churches (Check out the canon used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).

Ferdinand von Prondzynski
Guest

Ruidh said: ‘I don’t think the NRSV has an “agenda”. They had a translation philosophy which is set out in their foreword which explains why they made some of the choices they made’ OK, but that’s exactly what an agenda is. I didn’t say it was necessarily a bad one. But once you have one, you are likely to be driven into putting the accuracy of translation into second place, against the delivery of your agenda. But that’s not really my main point of concern. If we want to maintain a sustainable Christian community, scripture (whatever ultimate significance any of… Read more »

JCF
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JCF

I want to thank you, Ferdinand, for bringing up this important subject.

So often, in discussing “The Unpleasantness”, I find that my opponents aren’t even willing to listen to me. For them, “homosexuality is condemned in the Bible”, and that’s that.

What’s incomprehensible to me, is that these same persons can’t seem to grasp the ANACHRONISM, of their Bible translation, wherein believers of the 1st century CE (and earlier) explicitly condemn a concept not ***invented*** until the 19th century!

And round and round and round we go… Lord have mercy!

rick allen
Guest

“Bart T. Ehrman points out that, of the surviving NT texts, the number of variants exceeds the number of words — a commonly agreed translation might be a great consolation, but it is a tremendous lie (as great consolations all too frequently are)” Problems with translation and with establishing the underlying text are of course two different things. I never read Professor Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus,” but, from a quick perusal, it doesn’t appear that he ever actually identified any “Jesus-misquotes.” The issues raised in establishing a text are of course quite interesting, but most decent bible translations are footnoted with… Read more »

drdanfee
Guest
drdanfee

As a progressive believer, I must agree with three points. The variants of even the most ancient extant scriptural texts – along with those reasonably inferred as further existing, according to contemporary cites of those eras – suggests that: the whole world could not contain the books that have already been written about Jesus of Nazareth as the Anointed One of God. (Touch of awed hyperbole, there, methinks. Oh, for the Great Library at Alexandria, and all the variant gospels.) Crossing language domains adds further variety. Rare indeed is the simple, literal, facile translation of one clear thing in language… Read more »

Rev L Roberts
Guest
Rev L Roberts

..the New Revised Standard Version might become the dominant Bible, but I suspect this is not happening, and if I am honest, I have to admit that I am going off it somewhat; it, too, has too much of an agenda.’ I should be very interested and grateful to hear what its agenda is. Forgive my ignorance in this regard. I was brought up on the AV too, and feel that the like of a shared text, to which you refer,is a terrible loss. The para-phrase of Matthew or whatever, was totally unrecognisable to me, and seems barely to be… Read more »

Richard Ashby
Guest
Richard Ashby

I remember seeing a pamphlet a few years ago about the inerrancy of the Authorised Version, published by an Amercan evangelical body which stated that because a known lesbian had been on the translation committee of a particular version that version could not be a reliable translation of God’s word.

Jim Pratt
Guest
Jim Pratt

I am rector of a 4-point parish. One of my congregations has a NRSV lectern Bible, 2 use the RSV, and one uses the NEB. In addition, some of the lectors prefer to use their own Bible rather than the lectern Bible, and could read from the KJV, Good News or NIV. As a result, my preaching style has evolved to not be dependent on a particular rendering of a text, or if I do focus on specific words, to make note of how different translators have rendered them differently. For the congregations, I think this pushes them to focus… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“One good thing, however, is that the lack of consensus on translation does perhaps reflect a lack of certainty about what exactly is meant; and helps us to reflect on meaning, instead of merely on the words.” – Badman – I couldn’t agree more with badman’s statement here. So-called Biblical Scholars are just as prone to bias as any other sort of proponents of a particular shcool of theology. This is why I welcomed the Jerusalem Bible when it first appeared. Supposedly from a mainly Roman Catholic majority perspective, it also engaged the services of scholars from other traditions, giving… Read more »

Ren Aguila
Guest
Ren Aguila

My concern is that in a country where forms of Christianity are polarized, it is easy to imagine that different bible versions used give away the religious background of the user. The NIV is so closely associated with the Evangelical movement, whose anti-Catholicism ranges from soft and squishy to hard and violent, that using it to quote Scripture is a sign of being “Christian,” which is a polemical term to denote that others not like them aren’t. (Don’t even bring up the new version called the TNIV, because Filipino Evangelicals generally and dutifully follow the Focus on the Family school… Read more »

Nom de Plume
Guest
Nom de Plume

There is an interesting problem with respect to what constitutes an accurate translation. Consider one of my favourite French proverbs: “j’ai des autres chats a fouetter.” Literally, this would be rendered into English as “I have other cats to whip” but the idiomatic translation is “I have other fish to fry.” So, which is “accurate”? The answer is that both are accurate; but which is the more useful? I suggest the latter.

As the Italians would have it: traduttore tradittore (to translate is to commit treason).

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

If the NRSV is becoming the standard, it’s not so in the American heartland, it would seem. Just before Christmas, my wife and I happened to be in a Christian bookstore located in an outlet mall in Lancaster, PA. They had, of course, a large section of Bibles. They must have had some two dozen different editions of the King James, about half that many of the RSV, quite a few of the Jerusalem, not to mention a fair sprinkling of many of the newer “modern” translations and paraphrasings. There was even a shelf of Catholic versions of the RSV.… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

“The RSV’s position on archaic language is completely nonsensical.”

Not at all. Sometimes it’s important to know if one person is being addressed, or several. Standard English has lost this distinction, and until they come up with a Bible translation that uses “y’all” as the second person plural, words like “thou” have their place.

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

Aelred wrote: “Bart T. Ehrman points out that, of the surviving NT texts, the number of variants exceeds the number of words…” But Venerable Prior, in Academia this is a l w a y s negated, dismissed and claimed to be of no importance! For instance, because the number of churchy texts preserved (and thus the number of variants) widely surpasses that of Plato… Moreover, Oral Tradition (un-lettered men have long memories), is – especially at Lund – rightly claimed to be reliable (think the Upanishads. After all, capital punishment for Forgery was only introduced by “the State”, pen in… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

“…until they come up with a Bible translation that uses “y’all” as the second person plural, words like “thou” have their place.”

And, as a former New Yorker, what’s wrong with “youse”?

BillyD
Guest

Wait – I just realized that the RSV doesn’t use “thou” for people. Never mind. Bring back the AV. 🙂

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

Father John Smith wrote: “… the Jerusalem Bible when it first appeared. Supposedly from a mainly Roman Catholic majority perspective, it also engaged the services of scholars from other traditions, giving us an overall, one might say ecumenical, view of the Bible.”

“Ecumenical” only aggregates the Errors!

Cynthia Gilliatt
Guest
Cynthia Gilliatt

“One of my congregations has a NRSV lectern Bible, 2 use the RSV, and one uses the NEB. In addition, some of the lectors prefer to use their own Bible rather than the lectern Bible, and could read from the KJV, Good News or NIV” Why? I hadn’t realized that the C of E had gone congregational! TEC only authorizes a very few translations for public worship. NRSV is one of these. The choice of translation is, I think, the rector’s, by canon. [I could look that up but am lazy]. Why don’t you choose the translation you want and… Read more »

Simon Sarmiento
Guest

The Church of England’s official position on versions to be used for public worship can be found here:
http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/introduction/bible.html

and also here:

http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/texts/lect/scriptver.html

Cynthia Gilliatt
Guest
Cynthia Gilliatt

Thanks for the links. The only title that raises a question for me is the Good News Bible – isn’t that a paraphrase rather than a translation, and isn’t the intended audience for it readers with minimal reading skills? Or am I thinking of another version? A popular printing of the Bible in the US is called the Red Letter edition, in which Jesus’ words are printed in red. A friend who worked in a local book store had a customer ask if they had Bible with “The red words of Jesus.” Yes, they did, she said, and found one… Read more »

jnwall
Guest
jnwall

Now, given all the good points made here about the challenges of translation and the problematic nature of the idea of a definitive version, lets get back to the basic point of the original post. I think this was about the value of stability, of the predictable and familiar, of having expectations and having them fulfilled in religious matters, and especially in worship. I would affirm that. In fact I would say that it is very important in a parish to have a set order of worship that is familiar and predictable, and to change it only when there is… Read more »

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

“The only title that raises a question for me is the Good News Bible – isn’t that a paraphrase rather than a translation, and isn’t the intended audience for it readers with minimal reading skills? Or am I thinking of another version?” It is a paraphrase, intended for the proselytising by “Sectas” of the good Roman people in South America. Hence its name “Good News Bible”… Strangely enough it has influenced the last Swedish State translation 1981 and 2000, to the point that there are passages in 1981 which have been translated l i t e r a l l… Read more »

mynsterpreost (=David Rowett)
Guest

Jim Pratt is on to something. Although I do to some degree lament the loss of a common text, if we can avoid the ghetto (and my lot are used to me having a go at NRSV), we are driven back (a) to decent commentaries and (b) for those who can, the ‘original’ texts. Someone once said there is no such thing as ‘The Bible’ only ‘bibles’, and maybe the loss of a single authoritative translation makes us more aware of that. Mind, the biblical equivalent of monoculture, The Nearly Indispensable Version, is coming threateningly close to becoming the divine… Read more »

Rev L Roberts
Guest
Rev L Roberts

Yes there has never ever been one definitive Bible text in any language. And different denominations have differing Bibles in the sense that, they contain different collections of books. So the RCC has one ‘Bible’, the Orthordox Churches differ among themselves, from country to country in some instances; and then , oh then there are us protstants ! The AV Bible dominated in UK; and the William Morgan Bible (of 15oo and something) was the Bible in Welsh until the Beibl Newydd Cymraeg (New Welsh Bible) came out in late twentieth century. The translation of Bishop William Morgan (Penmachno) was… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“The letter – in the case of the Bible – is the ultimate source of the spirit.” – Ferdinand –

Well, not quite true, Ferdinand, as you well know.
This is stated aqdequately in the ascription after the lesson readings in the modern liturgies: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church” e.g. in the case of the N.T. : first; the Spirit, then the Incarnmate Word, then, finally the written word.

And then, of course, there is the dynamic of the Spirt/Word, still alive, still being interpreted in contemporary Church. The only irreplacable, constant, word, is the Word-made-flesh.

Robert Ian Williams
Guest
Robert Ian Williams

The Biblical aspiring province in North America clains the authority of Scripture..yet they have no fault divorce….and a wide range of contradictory interpretations of the sacraments…..now if that is Biblical fundamentalism..how does it differ from liberalism? Except that it is homophobic.

Göran Koch-Swahne
Guest

Oh…

It’s just sloppy thinking, sloppy theology and sloppy hermeneutics.

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

As a light-hearted note, may I contribute this true story to the proceedings? In my former parish, one of our Bible-study members – formerly a member of the local Baptist Church – tells of how, on one occasion, when challenged about his theological objections to any sort of liturgical practices; took down a large Bible from his study book-shelf, placed it on the floor and set his feet squarely upon it, proclaiming: “This is where I stand”. – I guess he was a literalist!

Robert Ian Williams
Guest
Robert Ian Williams

Its interesting how a lot of those fundamentalists love the King James Version..but few of them read the preface with the strong condemnation of Popish persons and those who beat out their own doctine on their anvils… that is free Churchmen!

Rev L Roberts
Guest
Rev L Roberts

Yes, the Preface is terrific ! Beautiful language too.

I love ‘certain Popish Persons at home and aboad’ and ‘hammered on their own anvil’ ! But then I have been sustained over the years by a great sense of humour.