The Pretty Good Book

In previous posts here I’ve discussed issues regarding the Bible.  Here I return to a theme hinted at in the first installment and then dropped for a philosophical excursus.  In short, I’m going to talk a little bit about my personal response at different times in my life to the Good Book.

So I read the Bible twice, first the KJV and then the (at the time) relatively recent translation The  New English Bible between the ages of about 18 and 20.  I remember being amazed, but not scandalized by, the extreme amounts of violence and sex I encountered in the Old Testament.  Certainly, not stuff I’d ever heard about in Sunday School!  As I later on realized that very few others, even avid churchgoers (which I was not then, and did not become for a long, long time), knew little about the content of the Bible while still feeling free to loftily proclaim on it, I became quite appalled at the ignorance and presumption of so many purported Christians.   Hopefully I’ve managed to become a bit less judgmental since then; but I’m still appalled.

The one strong impression that I’ve never forgotten when I first read the Bible–and I think this occurred when I was reading it for the very first time, King James Bible–was reading the 22nd Psalm.  As I read the clear description of the Crucifixion–which of course happened over half a millennium (maybe a full millennium) after the writing of the Psalm in question–I felt the chill of something I can only describe as fear going up my back.  My God–this is an accurate and precise prediction of something the author couldn’t have known!  This stuff is for real!  That’s the tenor of what I thought.

Of course in the decades since, I’ve learned of alternate translations, arguments as to double meanings of prophetic writings, arguments that the New Testament authors touched up their accounts to make them accord with the OT, and that later scribes did the reverse, touching up the OT itself, and so on.  I’m a little less naive, but I’m not totally cynical, either.  I don’t believe as simplistically, but I still do believe, in fact, that the 22nd Psalm is a prophecy.  There’s much less prophecy of that sort in the Bible than I used to think, but that’s OK, and probably all the better.

As I’ve said before, for a long time after that–a period of about thirty-five years, in fact–I did not re-read the Bible.  I read bits and pieces again here and there, studied all major religions in college, flirted with Islam, Hinduism, and longest, Buddhism, then finally converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-six.  A couple of years ago, in the process of teaching CCD Confirmation classes, and encouraging my students to read the Bible, I decided that the physician should heal himself–the last dose of medicine being three decades old and more–and plunged into reading the Bible again, choosing this time the first edition of the Ignatius Bible, a re-issue of the Catholic version of the Revised Standard Version published by Ignatius Press.

I’ve progressed slowly, partly because of other claims on my time, partly becaue of the cares and vicissitudes of life–which have seemed more vicissitudinous of late–and such; but after about two years I am at least nearly through Judges.  That has been sufficient to give me two impressions, so far.

One is that I’m glad I have a copy of the New Revised Standard Version as well as some other translations.  The RSV is venerable and is probably the most scholarly and carefully researched translation ever done in the English language.  However, the original RSV is certainly not that readable, in my opinion.  Part of its mandate was to remain as close to the KJV as possible, and indeed whole passages differ by hardly a word, in places.  Even the forms of “thou” are retained for addressing God.   This despite the fact that such usage actually goes beyond the text–the original languages did not distinguish levels of formality, using atah, sy, or tu equally to address a slave or the Deity.

In any case, my feeling was that it was too archaic and close to the syntax of the original to make reading it that much easier to read for something purportedly a “modern” version–just try to read passages in Leviticus or the letters of Paul for an example of convoluted prose.  On the other hand, close as it was to the KJV it was different enough to have lost much of the majesty and poetry.  I confirmed this when I read the KJV version of a couple of Gospels for Lent a couple years ago and was surprised at how smoothly and easily they flowed, despite the 17th Century language.  The RSV, in terms of readability (not scholarship, in which it’s superb), is in a sense the worst of both worlds–not quite clear and readable enough prose for a modern, but lacking the majesty and beauty of the King James.

Happily, the NRSV–the 1989 revision of the RSV–has largely remedied this fault.  The New Revised Standard Version is still the closest of any major modern translation to the KJV and is still more in the direction of formal equivalence than any of the rest; on the other hand, it has modernized the syntax enough to be much more readable than its predecessor.  I still have a soft spot in my heart for the New English Bible and its successor, the Revised English Bible (which came out at about the same time as the NRSV), but I’d say the NRSV is probably the best overall translation in terms of readability, faithfulness to the original as far as readability isn’t compromised, and overall quality of scholarship involved in producing it.  Later on, I may write a post comparing different translations.

The second impression was of how appalling the extreme amount of violence–and even worse, ostensibly Divinely-ordained violence–seemed to me reading it in my late forties as opposed to my late teens.  This reaction, in fact, was the original focus intended for this post, but I’ve rambled a bit more on it than I’d expected–the Spirit blew where it would, I guess.  I’ll discuss this second aspect of my reaction on re-reading the Bible in my next post on Scripture.

Posted on 04/09/2011, in Bible, Christianity, religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hi Turmarion,

    I can certainly identify with your reaction on reading the 22nd Psalm. For me, an even more striking example of such prophecy is the description in Isaiah chapter 53, of the Suffering Servant. If we had lost the Book of Isaiah entirely from the world, and only the text of Chapter 53 had survived, and the date of the text was unclear, hardly anyone would believe that it had been written over 500 years earlier: the critical scholars would uproariously claim that OF COURSE it was a second century forgery. The level of detail in the predictions about the Passion of Christ, a historical event that the writer certainly couldn’t have known, is that striking.

    Personally, my Bibles of choice is the 21st Century King James Version (which is available in an expanded edition with the Deuterocanonica) and the NRSV; I normally cross-reference between these two. My biggest problems with the NRSV (which go pretty much for all ‘modern’ versions, of which I think the NRSV is the best) are twofold.

    First of all, the approach they take to translating the Bible (and to the selection of manuscripts) is, I think, ‘what is most likely that the earliest available text say, and what did the authors likely mean by it’, rather than something like ‘what has the church traditionally taken as the text and the meaning thereof’. Personally, I don’t think you can isolate scripture from tradition, or separate the authority of scripture from tradition in that way. In the last analysis, we have these texts because they grew out of a living tradition, and if a gloss was added here or there, or a particular reading became apparent, or supplementary details were added, or whatever else over the centuries, then that doesn’t bother me. Original intent, while interesting and important, is less important to me than the living tradition which sustains Christianity, and falls into the mistake of excessive ‘biblicism’. I don’t like the fact that the NRSV, and many other modern bibles, do things like leaving out the angel descending into the Pool of Bethesda in John 5:4, Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane in Luke 22:44, dropping the Pericope Adulterae or leaving it in scary brackets, translating ‘almah’ as ‘young woman’ instead of ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14, leaving out the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7), and other things.

    In some cases, deliberately archaic language may actually be informative: the King James version, for example, translates a word in Revelation 22:15 as ‘whoremongers’, where modern translations tend to use ‘fornicators’, ‘the sexually immoral’, or in the interesting phrase of that godawful ‘The Message’ translation, ‘those who use and abuse sex’. The interesting thing about ‘whoremongers’ is that it preserves a connotation present in both the Greek and Latin words, of prostitution and acts similar to it. (The Latin comes from ‘fornix’, ‘arch’, and is a figure of speech alluding to the fact that Roman brothels had prominent archways.)

    Second of all, of course, I believe that the language used to approach the sacred out to be elevated, poetic, and beautiful, not workaday and prosaic. If that causes difficulty in understanding, I don’t see the problem with that….who says that sacred texts OUGHT to be easily grasped?

    • Thanks for dropping by, Hector! The prescience of the Isaiah quotes is amazing, too, but for some reason it was Psalm 22 that really punched me in the gut. Maybe it’s because it’s the one that Christ actually quoted, but I don’t know why it affected me so much.

      I don’t have a problem with elevated language–I’d tend to look at it the same way you do. My problem is with convoluted or obscure language. I’m aware that the KJV and the RSV both try to retain as much of the syntax as possible, for example, with Paul’s letters; but the Greek structure is daunting enough, added to the fact that Koine is a little looser in structure, topped off Paul’s often maze-like trains of thought. In places like these, I think a modern translation needs to untangle the knots to the extent that sound scholarship can do so and to the extent that there’s no violence done to the original.

      I’m not completely happy with any modern translation, so I keep several. Oddly, given that I’m Catholic, I think Protestant-directed translations are really much better. The official Catholic Bible of the USA, the New American Bible, while it’s been improved a bit, is still abysmal, and the use of “Yahweh” for the Divine Name in the various versions of the Jerusalem Bible gets distracting after awhile. My gut level feeling (and maybe it’s just personal taste) is that the Brits do a better job of it than Americans. The New English Bible, for all that it’s a very free translation, reads very smoothly; and its more literal successor, the Revised English Bible is also very good in terms of just sitting down and reading it. The aforementioned Jerusalem Bible, for all its faults, was done in England and is head and shoulders above the old Confraternity Bible and its successor, the aforementioned New American Bible.

      I think I’ll do a post in the near future about pros and cons of various translations into English. It might be interesting.

  2. ….the 21st King James Version, to clarify, is an ‘updating’ of the KJV which changes a few words which no longer mean what they used to, or where meaning is unclear, but which makes a strong point of leaving archaic pronouns and verb endings, 17th century syntax and grammar, the Textus Receptus manuscript basis, and other key features of the KJV absolutely intact. It’s the most beautiful and, I think, overall most reliable Bible translation I’ve seen (at least as far as the New Testament goes).

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