Review of The New English Bible: New Testament.

[“The Ever-Living Word.” Review article on The New English Bible: New Testament. Saturday Night (39 April 1961): 25-6.]


A new translation of the New Testament, the first part of the New English Bible, was published less than a month ago and in less time than that has become a best-seller.

The object of the translation is to provide for those who read English, whether they are familiar with the Bible or not, “a faithful rendering of the best available text into the current speech of our own time.”  The whole undertaking, started in 1947 by an impressive group of scholars under comprehensive Protestant auspices in England, will in course of time be completed with a new translation of the Old Testament and Apocrypha.

This New Testament, drawn from a study of all available manuscripts, is – unlike many of its predecessors – not a revision of the King James Bible but “a genuinely new translation, in which an attempt [is] made consistently to use the idiom of contemporary English to convey the meaning of the Greek.”  The result is a triumphant success; but like any achievement that combines artistic excellence with effortless virtuosity, the power and range of the translation may not immediately disclose itself to those who, jealous for the virtues of the King James version, find it difficult to listen attentively to any other.

The King James Bible came at the end of about ninety years of concentrated attention to an English translation.  There had been earlier English versions – some portions as early as the seventh century – and there still exist about 170 copies of the Wycliffite versions of the late fourteenth century.  But the King James Bible was the result of careful thought, intelligent planning, and the devoted work of learned and gifted men in their desire to provide for the Church of England a more worthy vernacular translation than the Great Bible of 1539-41.

If there is one voice above all which resounds through the Authorised Version it is that of William Tyndale who had suffered exile and finally death at the stake for his work.  But the Authorised Version drew intelligently and impartially from many of its predecessors: Coverdale as well as Tyndale, the Matthew Bible (its translator, John Rogers, also died at the stake), the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and in many important respects from the Rheims and Douai version prepared by the Roman Catholic Church.

Most previous translations had incorporated commentaries in varying degrees of interpretative emphasis and color.  But King James’ men rejected all such sectarian matters, as though they knew they were making a translation that would become, not only one of the centres of gravity of the Church of England through the ages, but the authoritative English version for the whole of Protestant Christendom.

With increasing insistence since the middle of the nineteenth century, attempts have been made to offset the archaic character of the King James Bible, and to provide for readers not sympathetic to the older tradition a version at once accurate and “contemporary”.  In recent years the English language has been changing with great rapidity, involving for readers of the old Bible not only obstacles of style but barriers to understanding.

The Revised Version of 1881, though indispensable to those who wished to study and understand the Bible in detail, was too closely allied to the language of the Authorised Version ever to achieve the separate identity that its superior accuracy entitled it to.

Two recent versions by single translators have cleared the way for liberation from the archaic: James Moffatt’s translation from the Greek and Hebrew (NT 1913; OT 1924; revised 1935); and Monsignor Ronald Knox’s translation of the Latin Vulgate (NT 1945; OT 1949).  Moffatt induced readers to bring a fresh eye and ear to familiar but obscure passages, replacing luminous approximation with a blunter accuracy not always felicitous; but some of his typographical innovations, and his resolute modernity in vocabulary and rhythm have had And Monsignor Knox’s translation – a work of genius as well as a work of heroic scope – showed beyond question that accuracy need not destroy liturgical resonance, that warmth and reverent regard could be encompassed in a language very different from that of King James’ men.

There are two great determinants in translation: the purity of the original text, and the style chosen by the translator.  But between these lies a whole philosophy of translation, the view of the relation between the life of the original language and the life of the translator’s own language.  Since the King James Bible, and especially in recent years, many important discoveries have been made about the language of the Greek New Testament.

As long as New Testament Greek was regarded as a decadent form of classical Greek, attempts at “literal” translation tended to become – unlike translations from classical Greek – translations word-for-word, usually preserving the syntactical order and structure of the original.  The study of Greek papyri has now made it possible for scholars to grasp, and so to render, the richness and subtlety of the Greek original; and the translators now feel that it is not impossible for them to understand the original and to say again “in our own native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his.”

There is a temptation to test the quality of a new translation by turning up certain golden passages: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the parable of the Sower or the Prodigal Son, the opening of the fourth Gospel, the section in 1 Corinthians on love, or that on death.

But the true quality of this translation is to be seen on the larger scale of its superlative prose style, a style that becomes an active principle of thought, feeling, and action.  The translation is written in a clear, unmannered, inventive prose, combining force and fluency; the subtle pellucid “other harmony” that Dryden instituted and that Sprat – though no doubt with other purposes and other harmonies in mind – enjoined upon the Royal Society at its foundation.

Yet this is in the strictest sense modern prose, prose of a quality that perhaps has seldom been written before with such sustained skill.  Read continuously, this translation gives an almost shockingly fresh impression of both the spiritual drama and of the historical action.  For each Gospel, each letter, each author, has his own tone and manner.  Mark’s account has still the primitive, vivid brokenness that comes of gathering honestly and uttering without elaboration all the precious fragments of memory, bringing them together thematically until the ineluctable movement towards betrayal, passion, and death commands the narrative.

Matthew, in contrast, is more coherent and fluent, more orderly in handling his materials; assumes longer rhythmic movements, sustains eloquence, shows an interest in the preaching.  Luke is more urbane, setting about almost with leisurely confidence to write down “a connected narrative for you.”  John’s tone is fervent and poetic; Paul, in the epistles, quick, energetic, compelling the listener by force rather than deftness, writing with the straightforward certainty – sometimes impatience – of his confidence and faith.  Yet the Epistle to the Hebrews opens in a voice not Paul’s: deeply resonant, fluent, Socratic almost, evocative rather than admonitory.

Whether such an effect was deliberately intended, certainly it cannot have been contrived; for a dramatic intensity of such subtlety and strength is beyond the range of deliberate achievement.  In detail the translation, never feeling that it must reject every word or phrase of the King James Version, is graceful, eloquent in its clarity, always intelligible, often bringing to light detail and emphasis not before rendered or noticed.

The critical apparatus of chapter and verse has been unobtrusively preserved and the text has been divided boldly into thematic sections, bearing subtitles which clarify the particularity of each book.

Whether or not the New English Bible will gradually supersede the King James version or some variant of the Revised Version is impossible to predict: there are no indications of any such official intention.  But this translation is capable of doing for our secular and fear-ridden days what no ancient translation can any longer do: it will bring the drama, narrative, thought, faith, delight of the great and inexhaustible original into the hands of all who can read and wish to read discerningly.  For those already familiar – too familiar it may be – with older versions, it can provide an experience of incisive depth and impressive force.

I think that if anything survives in our world as long as the 350 years since the King James version was published, this translation will: standing as the great literary monument of the second Elizabeth’s reign, as different from the language and manner of its immortal predecessor as our language, our taste, our desire, and our knowledge are different from the time of King James.

The King James Bible was the great model of poetic prose and this we may now have outgrown.  For this translation shows the perfection of a prose which has come to the classic maturity of its own peculiar genius.