“And That’s What Happened”

Tony SigI remember sitting in my Textual Criticism class where we were studying the art and method of TC – and also the history of textual reception and of families of New Testament manuscripts – and getting a rush blasting the Textus Receptus, and so also the Authorized or King James Version. ‘What a horrible text,’ we thought. And indeed the TR is a terrible text if for no other reason its incredibly limited number of base manuscripts – leaving aside entirely the issue of ‘Alexandrian’ vs ‘Byzantine’ text types. Nevertheless, the AV stood the test of time and was without rival the primary English version of Holy Scripture for centuries.

Strangely, I am beginning to long for such a dominance. Not only does the AV give us a resoundingly lovely English syntax, this translation makes for easy memorization and was one of the primary things uniting the many Christian factions; it gave us a common devotional and doxological connection. It didn’t matter if you were a liberal Lutheran or a fundamentalist Baptist, you both read and could quote the ‘same’ Bible.  I still only know Psalm 23 in the old King James.

Unfortunately for us the RSV came too late. It seems that no sooner had it been created, along with the Roman Catholic imprimitur, than factional division completely took over English scripture. I know that there were always different translations out there, but again, none had the universal dominance of the AV. The RSV retained all that is best about the AV, including its beautiful syntax. We know the story though, the controversy over Isaiah and the translation of gunaikon (I think that’s right, I’m too lazy to look it up.) and the question of ‘liberalism’ etc…  The RSV gave way to the NRSV gave way to the NIV gave way to the blah blah blah.  I use the NRSV generally and it is, among contemporary translations, far and away my favorite, though I’m contemplating switching to the RSV for both reading and memorization.  Mostly I read it because its attached to my BCP and because, most significantly, it is the version most widely used by The Episcopal Church for devotional use.  It just gets a bit clunky now and again and doesn’t have the majestic beauty of the RSV and AV.

I recall just a few years back the furious competition that came of the development of the ESV and the TNIV at the same time.  Obviously the ESV won and the NIV is tanking under weird pressure.  (The TNIV was actually a pretty good translation.)  Looking at the wonderful scholars that have been working on the new Common English Bible, I thought that it had potential…but it is from it that I took the title for my post.  Any translation that would replace “and it was so” in the opening epic poetry of Genesis with “and that’s what happened” deserves to be burned.  Don’t even get me started on its use of contractions and the way it approaches the Gospels, even if it gets the objective genitive correct in Romans!

But this post isn’t really to inform you of my favorite translations.  In a years time I will be nearly shifted mostly to reading it in Greek.  This is simply a lament.  A lament that we now use translations as idealogical fodder.  We can instantly size someone’s theological positions up by which translation they use (I’ve definitely done it for ESV users).  What has been lost is not merely an innocence that we once had as a larger Church, simply trusting our English King James Version, but we’ve lost a unified way of relating to the Word of God.  Multiple studies demonstrate that we don’t even bother to memorize Scripture any more, but “so long as you are a ‘formal equivalence’ person rather than a careless ‘dynamic equivalence’ person, you’re alright in my boat.”  Along with this has been a loss (though it goes back further than modern translation wars) of a devotional approach to Scripture.  Instead we incise perichopi, we expect translations to give us the ‘true meaning’ of Scripture just as we approach Scripture to give us a ‘true meaning’ of itself.  This breeds the wrong opinion that Scripture is some sort of historic deposit of true facts about God, complete with ‘plain meanings.’  If we can just get that meaning, we can get that translation.  But we’re all taught hermeneutics now, we all know that such a ‘meaning’ will never be forthcoming, and we also know that any translation will have its weaknesses.

But neither is unity forthcoming.  I imagine that there will never again be a universal dominance by one translation.  Already where once there was unity between Roman Catholics and the Mainline, now the Catholics have stuck with the RSV and we’ve ‘moved on’ to the NRSV.  It’s all just so very unfortunate.



  1. I was just speaking with someone today who was asking me about Bible translations. I guess Holman came out with a new one a few years ago. The whole thing is starting to piss me off because it is not longer motivated at all by the effective communication of the Biblical text. It is about publishers just wanting their own version to get a piece of the action ($$$). So now clergy constantly have to answer that annoying question, “which translation should I use” because there are more choices than the local Chinese buffet. Of course, if like you, it drives more clergy to the original texts (ad fontes) that would not be a bad thing at all. Good post, nice artwork.



  2. Todd’s right about the profits, etc.

    The Catholics haven’t stuck with the RSV, at least not that I know of. The officially sanctioned translation is the New English Bible, which is basically a crappier version of the NRSV but with randomly inserted male pronouns just for the sake of principle. (Or so is my cursory judgment. It is about as unsuitable for devotional reading as the back of a cereal box.)

    I’m an RSV man myself. And I’d rather do Latin than Greek and Hebrew, but that’s because I’m lazy and don’t like the funky letters. (Aside from the fact that I have all manner of Bible translations sitting around, including a few in Chinese.)


  3. The Catholics in the USA actually use the “New American Bible,” which is very different than the NEB, but – as Sam noted – “as unsuitable for devotional reading as the back of a cereal box.” 🙂


  4. Thanks for filling me in on the cereal box translation(s) the Catholics now use. I think Todd makes a great point on the $$$ invested in new editions. As the Marxian critique goes, novelty and innovation are at the heart of displacing tradition. Who can be bothered to memorize when they are reading 8 different translations all the time?

    Time is what is needed for the language of our Scriptures (and prayer books) to soak into the minds and hearts of us as readers.


  5. While I read from the RSV primarily, i enjoy the Douay-Reims version because i have always had a preference for the Septuagint over and against the Masoretic. I think in the long run it will be demonstrated that the former is the older not younger version.


  6. Plus, historically the LXX has simply been our Bible. Realistically I’ll never learn Hebrew the way I ought to in order to read the OT in it, so I’m going to stick to the LXX for my primary reading and only use Hebrew for very careful studies.


  7. We can instantly size someone’s theological positions up by which translation they use (I’ve definitely done it for ESV users).

    As you know,I did a diagram that captures some of what you have said here for those for whom pics help their memories. I agree that it is not only fundamentalists who cluster around the KJV (“AV”). But as your post illustrates, those non-fundies who do appear to have certain shared traits nonetheless. As your quote above attests.


  8. If I read you correctly, some of the qualities you seemed to have mentioned were:
    — love of the familiar (tradition)
    — majesty of language

    Those two traits came to mind.


  9. Hi Tony, I use the RSV in class and KJV, RSV and Holman versions for devotions. For many passages, KJV has no rival. Thanks for this enlightening write-up.


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