Back to the Sources
A review by the Revd Daniel Kirk of Gerald Bray's 'Translating the bible'.
I have a confession. I have never completely read the best selling English Bible in history: the King James Version, (although I did once read the NKJV). Recently I picked up a fascinating book by Adam Nicholson: God’s Secretaries: The making of the King James Bible. It was all about those who made up one of the most successful translation committees of all time. Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible followed, showing the colossal of impact of the KJV across the English speaking world.
I then waded into D.A. Carson: The King James Version Debate: A plea for Realism which threw me into the intricacies of how to use the early sources in biblical translation. So it was with real anticipation that I picked up Translating the Bible: from William Tyndale to King James by Gerald Bray. After reading all about bibles, I would be able to read the translator’s notes on why they did the hard, and often dangerous, work of translating the bible.
It is an unusual book in that Bray’s introduction essay on the first post-Reformation English bible translations is only 26 pages long, little more than 10% of the whole book. The rest consists of the prefaces to the different editions of the bibles and Cranmer’s homily in Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture. Bray’s essay is a short masterpiece on the production of these bibles. Some are well known such as Tyndale’s, the Geneva Bible and the KJV, others less so - The Great Bible, The Bishop’s Bible and the Douai-Reims (Roman Catholic Bible). This latter version stands out for the reluctance of the translators to print it. I have never seen an introduction to a book that so discourages its purchasers to read it!
Three reasons for reading (or dipping into) this book:
Firstly, in these days of a great loss in biblical literacy, not just in the general population, but even within evangelical churches, we are reminded of the great joy that bibles in English produced and how some gave their lives so all could read and understand God’s word. In 1407 the Archbishop of Canterbury made bible translation illegal. Tyndale had to go into overseas exile and eventually died because he broke that decree. It can safely be said that that having the bible in the common tongue transformed not only the church but the nation over the next hundred years.
Secondly, these translations not only provided an ecclesiastical reformation but also a spiritual revolution. Time and time again the power of the Word of God to transform lives is demonstrated. ‘To walk in his fear and love... is attained by the knowledge and practising of the Word of God (which is the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the glass wherein we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favour, and the only food and nourishment of our souls)’ (p.109, Geneva Bible). If want communities that transform hearts and even society we can be inspired and encouraged by these prefaces.
Lastly, there is lot’s of practical wisdom on how to approach and interpret the bible that Christians could well heed today. Coverdale (p.71) exhorts his readers ‘if thou find ought therein that thou understandest not, or that appeareth to be repugnant, give no temeritous nor hasty judgment thereof: but ascribe it to thine own ignorance, not to the Scripture...’ Would that many so called Christian scholars and pastors today would do likewise! And very useful for my current students doing a class on hermeneutics: ‘if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after’.
All is illuminated by Bray’s careful, judicial and erudite footnotes. I can’t conceive of anyone who could be a better guide; translating no-longer used words and latin phrases, & explaining references from ancient secular and church writings. This may not be a book to read cover to cover but one that must be on your bookcase if you love and use the bible.
Revd Daniel Kirk is Vicar of St Michaels and all Angels, Gidea Park.