One summer years ago, I attended a conference that met at Princeton Theological Seminary; we participants stayed in the seminary dormitory. We soon discovered that the lounge on the first floor of the dorm had been converted into a kind of outsized study. A large table dominated the room; scattered across its surface were dozens of hefty books, many of them held open by other books. A group of men sat around the table from morning to evening, sometimes rising to consult one of the piled tomes. Whenever we walked past we could see them framed in a large picture window like figures in a painting. I half-expected to find a neat brass plaque screwed to the windowsill and bearing a single word: Scholarship.
One evening I returned to the dorm to find a colleague pressed against the hallway wall, inches from the open door to the converted lounge. He looked like a TV cop, ready at any moment to spin and fire bullets into the room; but he was just listening to the murmured debates of the scholars within. Later that evening I asked him what had captured his interest. He responded, “Didn’t you know? They’re working on the new RSV”—that is, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The chair of the committee, Bruce Metzger, taught at Princeton Seminary and had convened his fellow translators there.
I suppose one could characterize the scene as just another committee meeting, but it carries a certain romance for me. After all, it was a similar group that, four hundred years ago, met to hammer out what would become the King James Bible. One of the six “Companies” of James’ Translators—the one led by the great preacher and churchman Lancelot Andrewes—gathered in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, and in 1947 the scholars at work on the New English Bible (NEB) met in the same room, presumably in hopes that inspiration lingered there. (T. S. Eliot doubted that their hopes had been realized, affirming that the NEB’s New Testament “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic.”)
The scholars’ choice of workplace was a statement of purpose: C. H. Dodd, their effective leader, wrote that “we should like to produce a translation which may receive general recognition as an authoritative second version” alongside the King James Version (KJV). He wisely did not claim to be seeking to replace the KJV, but it was clear that he hoped for their work to eclipse the other alternatives. Amid the current proliferation of translations, that hope is hard to sustain; but, I would argue, it is worth sustaining. And, for the first time in my lifetime, a translation has appeared that could potentially fill the bill: it’s called the English Standard Version (ESV), and it’s the best thing to come out of a committee meeting in quite a while.
Before considering the excellence of the ESV, we must take some time to understand a little more about the range of translations that enrich, or afflict, our world today. Let’s begin with the Living Bible. The Living Bible—a paraphrase, not a translation—was produced by a single man, Kenneth N. Taylor, and was published by Tyndale House in 1971; it sought to provide access to Scripture for those who found all translations too formidable. Its enormous success led the people at Tyndale to suspect that a genuine translation based on similar principles might also be successful, and in 1996 the New Living Translation (NLT) appeared. We may begin to approach the problems facing a translation that would seek to be universal, or something close to it, by looking at the very first page of the introduction to the NLT. The translators, as one might expect, attempt to distinguish their work from the other available versions, and they do so by claiming that they have produced a “thought-for-thought” (or what is usually called a “dynamic equivalence”) translation and then explaining what this means:
The value of a thought-for-thought translation can be illustrated by comparing 1 Kings 2:10 in the King James Version, the New International Version, and the New Living Translation. “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David” (KJV). “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David” (NIV). “Then David died and was buried in the City of David” (NLT). Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom “slept with his fathers” into contemporary English.
I remember clearly the first time I read these words; I smiled sadly and put the book away, knowing that I would not use it.
My complaint can be easily stated: the author of this introduction does not know the difference between an idiom and a metaphor. It is a distinction both simple and vital. It is highly unlikely that a Jew of David’s time, or at any time in Israel’s history, would have found a family member’s dead body and run to tell everyone that grandpa was now sleeping with his fathers. Hebrew has words to express quite directly that someone has died; the chronicler of Kings chooses here to eschew them in favor of a particularly hieratic and formal way of describing the death of David. When (in 2 Samuel 1) a man comes from the camp of Israel’s army to report to David, he says simply that Saul (along with his son Jonathan) has died. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan are given no cultural or political meaning, because by the time this history was written the people of Israel no longer identified Saul as having special importance for their national identity. David, by contrast, is for the Israelites their first true King, the head of a proper dynastic line; therefore he does not merely die, he “sleeps with his fathers” in Jerusalem, the “city of David.” The phrase is not an idiom—a common phrase lacking an evident literal meaning; instead, it is a carefully chosen image of David’s place in the culture of Israel. The meaning of the phrase may not be immediately evident to the average reader; but the scholar who on those grounds removes it does not translate but interprets. (It is true, of course, that every translation is in some sense an interpretation; but translators are not thereby liberated from the need to strive for fidelity; and only a strange sense of fidelity would lead a translation committee to erase distinctions the original text strove to preserve.)
What is really being revealed here is not clarity or forcefulness of translation, but the modern biblical scholar’s mistrust of figurative language. Some years ago Gerald Hammond noted that many recent translations of the Bible “eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor—based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.” One could find no better illustration of Hammond’s point than the sentence “Then David died and was buried in the City of David.”
Some portions of the NLT are quite useful. The translators do an especially good job of disentangling Paul’s syntax and making his message comprehensible and even compelling. But the translators’ failure to discriminate among some of the basic kinds of figurative language is disturbing. How did this lamentable situation come to pass?
The answer—as I have noted in these pages in another context (“Preachers without Poetry,” August/September 1999)—lies in the great divorce between literary people and biblical scholars. When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared—not altogether but to some degree—by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.
This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium—that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge. Thus C. S. Lewis’ complaint that a scholar whose “literary experiences of [the biblical] texts lack any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” is not wholly reliable as a guide. “If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor.”
Lewis’ gustatory metaphor is apt here, because he is describing interpretive skills that are really skills (they can be acquired, practiced, and transmitted) but cannot be articulated in methodological terms. Good reading—and therefore good translating—requires discerning judgment, and method can’t produce that. Many biblical scholars, of course, are quite skilled in literary analysis—more than I am; but such skills are not expected of many exegetes-in-training as part of their education.
It is not clear to me how this state of affairs can be remedied. I could lament the “increasing specialization of knowledge,” as many do, but this would be disingenuous, because the specialization of knowledge is a function of the increase of knowledge. We simply know far more today about the Hebrew language and ancient Near Eastern cultures (including their family structures, clothing, diet, agricultural practices, and economic systems) than James’ Companies of Translators could have dreamed of.
I do not suggest, then, that biblical scholars today should skimp such erudition and focus attention instead on memorizing dictionaries of literary and rhetorical terms. What I do want to suggest is that the translators of the ESV have handled this problem about as well as it can be handled, and that their judgment in this regard goes a long way towards making their translation the best now available in English.
The key principle that the ESV’s translation team employed is simple yet profound: deference to existing excellence. It is a principle that was employed by James’ Translators themselves, who graciously acknowledged their enormous debt to their predecessors: “Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.” The same rule of deference to wise elders guided the late-nineteenth-century scholars who produced the American Standard Version and (English) Revised Version (RV); indeed, the instructions given to the latter group began with this directive: “To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistent with faithfulness.” And similar commitments governed the RSV, whose preface cites the very passage from King James’ Translators I just quoted.
But with more recent translations things have changed, for two reasons. First, it is generally agreed that “King James language” (“thees and thous”) is unsustainable because alien to current usage. But the second, and more important, reason for the abandonment of strongly conservative principles of revision is the rise of a new theory of translation—the aforementioned “dynamic equivalence” or “thought-for-thought” approach, as pioneered by Eugene Nida. My colleague Leland Ryken, who was on the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV, has provided a fine account of the consequences—largely unpleasant—of the widespread acceptance of dynamic equivalence models of translation: see his recent The Word of God in English (Crossway, 2003). So I will not pursue that matter further here except to note that if you believe that the KJV, RV, RSV, and other older versions were produced by people laboring under a faulty “word-for-word” translation theory, you will see little reason for retaining their work—just as you will see little reason for retaining the metaphors of the original writing, since those metaphors are, in the dynamic-equivalence view, themselves merely vehicles for some unvarnished and unfigurative “thought.”
You will therefore have David die, rather than sleep with his fathers; and if the Lord is your shepherd, rather than say “I shall not want,” you’ll say, “I have everything I need.” And when Jesus addresses those of “little faith”? James’ Translators have him ask, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you?” But you will suspect the metaphor of clothing and therefore translate it away, in the process eliminating the oven also and replacing it with a stone-dead cliché: “And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he more surely care for you?”
By contrast, the ESV, recognizing the elegant force with which James’ scholars rendered these passages, leaves them virtually unchanged. What is at work here is the humble recognition that our ancestors in the faith may have had certain skills now neglected or forgotten—may have had their palates trained to detect certain flavors that we today cannot distinguish.
Now, from what I have written so far one might conclude that a “revision” of the KJV that left the text unaltered would be ideal. That is sometimes my feeling, but not my considered judgment. Robert Alter has written that the problem with the KJV is its shaky sense of Hebrew, while the problem with more recent versions is their shaky sense of English; but we do not gain by exchanging the latter for the former. (And even the beauty of the KJV is bought at the price of stylistic uniformity.) No, the KJV had to be revised, sometimes drastically; but that is no reason to cast aside what James’ Translators did superlatively well.
It is the ESV’s balance of thorough, up-to-date scholarship and deference to the elders’ wisdom that makes it the best available English Bible. What this means, further, is that the ESV is the best candidate yet for the long-hoped-for “replacement” of the KJV, the translation that bridges denominational gaps and strikes the right balance among the virtues of clarity, correctness, and grace.
Is this a pipe dream? Certainly, impediments are many. Publishers will continue to commission new translations and promote existing ones—there’s gold in them thar hills—but churches need not be governed by those imperatives. The divisions of Christendom are more intractable: that the ESV was produced largely by evangelicals would be a red flag for many even if the translation included the Apocrypha, which at the moment it does not. The ESV’s website says that HarperCollins UK “may” produce such a version; but even if it does it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church endorsing a translation produced by non-Catholics.
Still, if official agreement on a truly “standard” English Bible remains unlikely, I believe that readers and lovers of the Bible would do well to seek considerably more agreement than we now have about the Bible that we read. Everyone who grew up with the KJV feels the loss of a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear—words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts. I think now of all those generations of the English-speaking peoples separating the wheat from the chaff, lying down in green pastures, sometimes being weighed in the balance and found wanting but at other times fighting the good fight—the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly metaphorical) tells us that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share language. And since Christians are counseled to be of one mind, they should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible—“one principal good one”—would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.