Monday, August 29, 2005

the scholarship of the AV translators

Prof. Kenneth Grayston, one of the translators of the New English Bible once remarked that “the Authorised Version was a translation made by men who knew far less than we know”. Quantity of knowledge undoubtedly does not equal quality or depth of knowledge and the ability to use it. Grayston’s prejudice is highly questionable in fact, as Theodore Letis indicates: “ the seventeenth century, scholarship had reached no mean attainment. Lancelot Andrews, one of the translators (at home in fifteen modern languages, not to mention his command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic), spent the greater part of five hours a day in prayer. John Bois, another on the translating committee, spent sixteen hours a day studying Greek...All spare time for these men was consumed with learning”.

Miles Smith, one of the translators and the probable author of the preface “the Translators to the Reader”, was especially expert in Hebrew. One day he was requested in promptu to read the Scriptures as part of evening prayer at Hereford Cathedral, “and having with him a little Hebrew Bible...of Plantin’s impression, sine punctis; [without vowel points] he delivered the chapter thence in the English tongue plainly, and fully”. This would certainly be one way of testing the “superiority” of modern scholars. We need to be a lot better informed before we begin to declaim confidently against the alleged inaccuracies and inconsistencies of the AV.
Theodore Letis relates an account from the life of one of the AV translators Dr Kilbye, that shows that the criticisms directed against the AV are nothing new. 'One Lord’s Day Dr Kilbye heard a young preacher spend most of his sermon criticising several words as they were translated in the then recent translation. The preacher painstakingly gave three reasons why the Greek word should not be translated as found in the AV. Later that evening both the preacher and Dr Kilbye were invited to a meal. Dr Kilbye began to explain that the translators were very much aware of the preacher’s three reasons and had given them careful consideration, but they had thirteen other reasons that were far more compelling for making the translation that they did.' While many assume that the AV translators were limited in their knowledge they should at least acquaint themselves with the reasons for the word choices of the AV before thinking that they can improve.

The translators of the Authorised Version were certainly the most learned of their age (perhaps of any age) in the Biblical languages . This was according to King James' desire: 'I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities'. Others equally learned elsewhere were also to be brought into the group so that the 'intended translation may have the help and furtherance of all our principal learned men within this our kingdom'. The result was to be 'as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek'.

In their Preface to the translation, the translators themselves were modest about their abilities, considering themselves 'poor instruments to make God s holy truth to be yet more and more known unto the people' and felt that 'there were many chosen, that were greater in other men's eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise.'
They spoke of the Scriptures as 'that inestimable treasure which excelleth all the riches of the earth', 'a fountain of most pure water, springing up into everlasting life.' They believed that 'the original (Scriptures were) from heaven, not earth; the author being God, not men; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb and endued with a principal portion of God's Spirit.' They referred to the Bible as 'God's Word,' 'Gods Truth,' 'God's testimony,' 'the Word of salvation', 'so full and so perfect'.

How did they esteem the Scriptures? To study the Scriptures brought 'light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, fellowship with the saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that shall never fade away.' 'Among all our joys, there was not one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of Gods sacred Word among us.'

In their address to the reader the translators conclude: 'We commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of His grace. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand His Word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end. Ye are brought unto fountains of living water which ye digged not. Others have labored, and you may enter into their labors; O receive not so great things in vain, O despise not so great salvation! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when He setteth His Word before us, to read it; when He stretcheth out His hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I, here we are to do thy will O God.'

One of the frequent charges against the AV is that is supposedly inconsistent in its choice of words, not translating the same Greek or Hebrew term always by the same word in English. It was in fact clear to the translators that this would be thrown back at them, that they might “be charged (by scoffers) with some unequal dealing towards a great number of good English words”. The translators freely admitted that “we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way”. They were not cavalier in their choice of words, however, but “especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty” to compare the ways that they rendered the terms in respective passages. Their varying choice of words was not carelessness or mistake, in fact they justified it by appeal to the way in which Scripture was written. They concluded that “we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself; therefore He using divers words in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature, we, if we will not be superstitious, may use that same liberty in our English versions out of Hebrew and Greek, for that copy or store that he hath given us”.

By virtue of their fluency in Hebrew, Greek and the other languages and close acquaintance with them almost as spoken languages, the translators were intimate with them as living and flexible. In spoken English for instance, we use many words without being in any sense aware of their etymology. Calvin insisted that “usage rather than etymology or intrinsic meaning” “distinguishes one word from another”. Modern translators with their “scientific” assumptions are tied pedantically to their lexicons. As Martin Buber comments it is “almost as if [the translator] had learned the supposed meanings of the word from a dictionary”. Gerald Hammond speaks of the “creative inferiority of the modern translators” in comparison with the old divines, they “do not see that the life of anything written lies in its words and syntax”.
We know that the translators of the AV were so aware of the concrete vitality of the original that instead of transferring their choices from dictionaries they preserved ambiguities where they discerned them in the text. John Bois, a translator of the AV recorded in his notes that he and his committee had been careful to preserve ambiguities in the original text. For modern translators ambiguity is unconscionable, it must be replaced even if it is in the Hebrew or Greek.
The translators in 1611 used the margin to include “diversity of signification and sense”. This provided possible alternatives or more woodenly literal phrasing in order to assist the reader, and of course all words that the translators added in order to enhance the meaning were italicised. It was assumed that part of the responsibility of exposition was to expand upon the meaning of the text, so that there was no need for the absurdity of an “Amplified Version”. The assumption also obtained that interpretation by the individual Christian would be in connection and harmony with preaching and other helps to understanding, this was what the Westminster divines later called “the ordinary means”. The translators of the AV put their scholarship into producing a translation which was as accurate as possible rather than interpreting the text for the reader. The “Authorised Version has the kind of transparency which makes it possible for the reader to see the original more clearly. It lacks the narrow interpretative bias of modern versions, and is the stronger for it”. The latter versions decide for the reader what a verse means and inscribe their own interpretation in the biblical text during the process of “translation” to the exclusion of all other available possibilities. In the modern versions the translator stands between the reader and the original, but “through its transparency the reader of the Authorised Version not only sees the original but learns how to read it” (Gerald Hammond).