The Power of Translation

This blog entry is going to raise questions about translating the Bible. ::NOTE I am not a scholar in Biblical Studies and I do not know the biblical languages:: Translating the Bible puts a lot of power in the hands of a translator. First we must consider what merits a successful translation. Is it the one that most accurately represents the authors original intent or the actual words that the author wrote? When there are decisions to be made about the translation of a word or phrase should that decision be based upon scholarship or tradition? When a group or person translates the Bible what is their motive in doing so?

A good place to start is the King Jame Bible that was commissioned by its namesake in 1604 and completed in 1611. It became one of the most influential books ever published in the English language. This was largely planned. King James authorized his Bible and it was to be the Bible of the land. By Divine Right of Kings and as head of the Church of England he had the right to commission such an enterprise. While James’s Bible was a success, it was not the first English Bible produced. The others are part of a messy history of the English translations of the Bible.The first complete and popular Bible appeared in the 14th century called the Wycliffe Bible. This led to a group of Reformers called the Lollards rising up challenging teachings of the Roman Catholic church. It became the law of the land in England that anyone who created an unauthorized version of the Bible was to be executed and that copy burned. (This was not uncommon, for a period of history most early Biblical translations in Europe were followed by some form of civil unrest.)

This discouraged would be English translators for a while; however, a young Oxford scholar William Tyndale (possibly inspired by Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German) decided that he could create readable Bible for the literate English people. Now Tyndale had to flee England for political reasons (don’t question kingly divorce); he published a completed New Testament in 1528 from Worms. He was soon captured and executedin 1535. Several complete Bibles would be published soon after his death.

Now Henry VIII had commissioned the “Great Bible” for the church of England. This Bible ended up being largely based upon Tyndale’s work. (Even Henry appreciated that heretics can sometimes do some good Biblical scholarship). This “Great Bible” would less than 100 years later assist in the creation of the King James Bible.

Now …

What were the aims of these Bible publishers? Tyndale wanted to liberate information for the English people. Henry VIII and James simply wanted to control the message (which they both probably believed to be their duty as kingly leaders). Both had motives of distributing power and influence in creating the ‘right Bible’. Tyndale wanted disperse Biblical power to his literate public while Henry VIII and James wanted to consolidate their power and deliver a consistent Biblical message.

When reading the Bible today does power play any role into it? Is the scholarly Bible the NRSV or the Oxford translation more true? Or is the Gideons translation that saves more souls better? Do we read the King James because it is the TRUE Bible for our church? Do we read the Message Bible because it is easier to read? Or the ESV? Or the New King James? Or the NIV? Or the Holman Christian Standard?

Does your church require a certain Bible? Does that Bible line up with your churches doctrines? How well would your churches doctrines ‘hold up’ if you were to shift from the NRSV to the Message or the King James.

As a Quaker, George Fox (and others) ‘spiritualizing’ of the Bible was another tactic of taking religious power away from the spiritual elites (the scholars, priests, aristocrats and burgesses) and into the hands of the ‘believers’. Many early Quakers new the Bible very well and were often accused of ‘twisting’ the scriptures. In some ways their ‘spiritualizing’ of the scripture was a translation of it into their modern context. I’ll talk about this more in my post containing information about early Quaker women’s interpretations of Scriptures.


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