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The whole history of the English Bible from Tyndale's days is a history of growth and improvement by means of repeated revisions. Tyndale's first New Testament (1525) was revised by himself in 1534, and again in 1535. In Matthews' Bible it appeared still more improved in 1537. The Great Bible (1539) was the result of a further revision, which was repeated again in the Genevan (1560), the Bishops' (1568), and still more thoroughly in our splendid Authorized Version (1611), which latter is itself one of the best proofs of the value of Bible revision.
One will have seen also (to recapitulate here for greater clearness)—(1.) that in the present day we have access to a treasury of ancient manuscripts, versions, and quotations such as the scholars of King James's day had never dreamed of; (2.) that the science of textual criticism, which teaches the value and the best methods of dealing with these documents, has entirely sprung up since; (3.) that our scholars are better acquainted with the Sacred Languages, and able to distinguish delicate shades of meaning which were quite lost on their predecessors; and (4.) lastly, that owing to the natural growth of the English language itself many words in the Authorized Version have become obsolete, and several have completely changed their meaning during the past 300 years.
And thus the duty is laid upon our Biblical scholars which Tyndale in his first preface imposed on those of his own day, "that if they perceive in any place that the version has not attained unto the very sense of the tongue or the very meaning of Scripture, or have not given the right English word, that they should put to their hands and amend it, remembering that so is their duty to do."
About the beginning of the present century the appearance of several partial revisions by private individuals indicated the feeling in the minds of scholars that the time for a new Bible Revision was at hand. As years went on the feeling grew stronger, and leading men in the Church were pleading that the work should not be long delayed. During the past 250 years, they urged, great stores of Biblical information have been accumulating; our ability to use such information has been greatly increased; and it is of importance to the interests of religion that that information should be fully disseminated by a careful correction of our received Scriptures.
[Fully 200 years ago the way began to be prepared for our present revision by several criticisms and attempts at correction of the Authorized Version. It soon became clear, however, that such attempts were premature in the then state of information as to the Original Scriptures, and scholars began to direct their attention rather to the laying of the foundation for a revision in the future by collecting and examining Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, together with the various early versions and quotations from the Fathers. Toward the close of the eighteenth century Kennicott and De Rossi had published the results of their examination of several hundred Hebrew manuscripts; and in more recent times the same service was rendered to the Greek by Drs. Tischendorf, Tregelles, Scrivener, and others, whose way had been prepared by many distinguished predecessors. Besides, there was the work of a long series of commentators in investigating the meaning of the Sacred Writers, so that, on the whole, a very valuable foundation for revision existed by the middle of the present century.]
Dr. Tischendorf's discovery at Mount Sinai still further intensified this feeling; and so it created little surprise when, on the 10th February, 1870, Bishop Wilberforce rose in the Upper House of the Southern Convocation to propose, "That a committee of both Houses be appointed, with power to confer with any committee that may be appointed by the Convocation of the Northern Province, to report on the desirableness of a revision of the Authorized Version of the New Testament, whether by marginal notes or otherwise, in all those passages where plain and clear errors, whether in the Greek text adopted by the translators, or in the translation made from the same, shall on due investigation be found to exist." After the enlarging of this resolution so as to include the Old Testament also, it was adopted by both Houses.
§ 2. Four months later, on a bright summer day toward the close of June, 1870, a distinguished company was assembled in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey.
In that room in days long gone by the first of the Lancastrian kings breathed out his weary life. Beneath those windows sat the "Assembly of Divines" when the ill-fated Charles ruled in England; here the Westminster Confession was drawn up; and here too, under the auspices of William of Orange, was discussed the great Prayer-Book Revision of 1689, intended to join together Churchmen and Dissenters.
But no memory of that ancient chamber will eclipse in the future that of the work for which these men were assembled on that summer afternoon, for the Bible Revision had at length been begun, and this was the appointed New Testament Company.
At the centre of the long table sat the chairman, Bishop Ellicott, and around him the flower of our English scholarship. There were Alford and Stanley and Lightfoot, intently studying the sheets before them on the table. Westcott was there, and Hort and Scrivener—names long famous in the history of textual criticism—Dr. Eadie of Scotland, and the Master of the Temple, and the venerable Archbishop Trench of Dublin, with many other scholars no less distinguished than they. Different religious communities were represented—different schools of thought—different opinions on matters closely connected with the work in hand. This is one of the great securities for the fairness of the New Revision. Whatever other charges may be brought against it, that of bias, even unconscious bias, toward any set of theological views is quite out of the question where Baptist and Methodist and Presbyterian and Churchman sat side by side in the selected company of Revisers. And, as if to make this assurance doubly sure, across the Atlantic a similarly constituted company was preparing to cooperate with these to criticize the work and suggest emendations, so that on the whole nearly a hundred of the ripest scholars of England and America were connected with the New Revision.
§ 3. And now let us watch the Revisers at their work. Before each man lies a sheet with a column of the Authorized Version printed in the middle, leaving a wide margin on either side for suggested alterations, the left hand for changes in the Greek text, and the right for those referring to the English rendering. These sheets are already covered with notes, the result of each Reviser's private study of the passage beforehand. After prayers and reading of the minutes, the chairman reads over for the company part of the passage on the printed sheet (Matt. i. 18-25), and asks for any suggested emendations.
At the first verse a member, referring to the notes on his sheet, remarks that certain old manuscripts read "the birth of the Christ" instead of "the birth of Jesus Christ." Dr. Scrivener and Dr. Hort state the evidence on the subject, and after a full discussion it is decided by the votes of the meeting that the received reading has most authority in its favor; but, in order to represent fairly the state of the case, it is allowed that the margin should contain the words, "Some ancient authorities read 'of the Christ.'" Some of the members are of opinion that the name "Holy Ghost" in same verse would be better if modernized into "Holy Spirit," but as this is a mere question of rendering, it is laid aside until the textual corrections have been discussed. The next of importance is the word "firstborn" in ver. 25, which is omitted in many old authorities. Again the evidence on both sides is fully stated, and the members present, each of whom has already privately studied it before, vote on the question, the result being that the words "her firstborn" are omitted.
And now, the textual question being settled, the chairman asks for suggestions as to the rendering, and it is proposed that in the first verse the word "betrothed" should be substituted for "espoused," the latter being rather an antiquated form. This also is decided by vote in the affirmative, and thus they proceed verse by verse till the close of the meeting, when the whole passage, as amended, is read over by the chairman.
Four years afterward we glance at their work again. They have reached now the First Epistle General of St. John, and the sheets lying before them contain part of the 5th chapter. No question of importance arises till the 7th verse is reached —
7. "For there are three that bear record [in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one.
8. And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the Water, and the Blood, and these three agree in one"—
when it is proposed that that part of the passage which we have here placed in brackets be omitted as not belonging to the original text.
Time was when such a suggestion would have roused a formidable controversy; but textual criticism has greatly progressed since then, and the question is not considered by the Revisers even to need discussing. [Upwards of fifty books, pamphlets, &c, written on the subject are mentioned in Horne's Introduction.] The evidence is as follows:—The passage occurs in two modern Greek manuscripts—one of them in the library of Trinity College, Dublin—in one or two Ancient Versions of comparatively little value, and many modern copies of the Vulgate; besides which it is quoted by a few African Fathers, whose testimony, on the whole, is not of much weight in its favor.
Against this are to be set the following facts:— (1.) Not a single Greek manuscript or church lesson-book before the fifteenth century has any trace of the passage. This in itself would be sufficient evidence against it. (2.) It is omitted in almost every Ancient Version of any critical value, including the best copies of the Vulgate (St. Jerome's Revised Bible); and (3.) no Greek Father quotes it even in the arguments about the Trinity, where it would have been of immense importance if it had been in their copies. There is other evidence against it also; but it must be quite clear, even from this, that the passage only lately got interpolated into our Greek Testament, and never had any right to its place in the English Bible.
[Erasmus, not finding the words in any Greek manuscript, omitted them from the first two editions of his Greek Testament, which was chiefly the authority that our translators used. But as they had long stood in the Latin Vulgate, an outcry was at once raised that he was tampering with the Bible. He insisted that no Greek manuscript contained the passage; "and," said he at last, when they pressed him, "if you can show me even a single one in which they occur, I will insert them in the future." Unfortunately they did find one, the manuscript of Montfort, which is now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, but is evidently no older than about the fifteenth century. The words had got into it probably from some corrupt Latin manuscript; and on this slight authority Erasmus admitted them into his text.]
The Revisers therefore omit it from the text.
But the reader must not think that this description represents the amount of care bestowed on the work. After this first revision had been completed, of a certain portion, it was transmitted to America and reviewed by the American committee, and returned again to England. Then it underwent a second revision, taking into account the American suggestions, and was again sent back to America to be reviewed. After these four revisions it underwent a fifth in England, chiefly with a view of removing any roughness of rendering. And there was yet a sixth, and in some cases even a seventh revision, for the settling of points that we need not enter on more fully here. So that we may have every confidence that the changes made, whatever their merits, at least were made only after the most thorough consideration.
And so the work went on, month after month, and more than ten years had passed, and some of the most eminent of those who sat that summer day in the Jerusalem Chamber were numbered among the dead, when, on the evening of November 11, 1880, the New Testament Company assembled in the church of St. Martin-in-Fields for a special service of prayer and thanksgiving—"of thanksgiving for the happy completion of their labors—of prayer that all that had been wrong in their spirit or action might mercifully be forgiven, and that He whose glory they had humbly striven to promote might graciously accept this their service, and use it for the good of man and the honor of His holy Name."
Four years afterward the Old Testament Company finished their work, and on May 5th, 1885, the complete Revised Bible was in the hands of the public.
§ 4. And now a few words about this Revised Bible. It is quite outside the plan of this little book to offer any criticisms on its merits or demerits, or any judgment as to its ultimate reception. Indeed, it is rather soon yet to pronounce very confidently on either question. For many years after its first appearance our present grand Old Version had to encounter fierce opposition and severe criticism—Broughton, the greatest Hebrew scholar of the day, wrote to King James that he "would rather be torn asunder by wild horses than allow such a version to be imposed on the Church,"*—and yet in the end it won its way and attained a position that no version before or since in any country has attained. [*In fifteen verses of Luke iii., he says, the translators have fifteen score of idle words to account for in the Day of Judgment. With Archbishop Bancroft, who took the lead in the work, he is especially indignant. He believes that by and by King James, looking down from Abraham's bosom, shall behold Bancroft in the place of torment.]
Whether the New Version will equally succeed, or whether, as is the general opinion, it will need a revision before being fully received, remains yet to be seen. But in any case let us give it a fair unprejudiced reception. Dr. Bickersteth tells of a smart young American deacon who thought to crush it on its first appearance by informing his people that "if the Authorized Version was good enough for St. Paul it was good enough for him," and it is to be feared that with many people who are less ignorant there is sometimes a similar spirit exhibited.
Now let us remember that, whatever the merits or demerits of the book, it is at least entitled to respect as an earnest attempt to get nearer to the truth, and to present to English-speaking people the results of two centuries of study by the most eminent Biblical scholars.
And remember, too, that no previous revision has ever had such advantages as this. Not to speak of the valuable manuscripts available, "upon no previous revision have so many scholars been engaged. In no previous revision has the cooperation of those engaged on it been so equally diffused over all parts of the work. In no previous revision have those who took the lead in it shown so large a measure of Christian confidence in those who were outside their own communion. In no previous revision have such effective precautions been created by the very composition of the body of Revisers against accidental oversight or against any lurking bias that might arise from natural tendencies or ecclesiastical prepossessions. On these accounts alone, if on no other, this Revision may be fairly said to possess peculiar claims upon the confidence of all thoughtful and devout readers of the Bible."
§ 5. It was objected by some, when this Revision was first proposed, that it would be dangerous to unsettle men's faith by showing them that the old Bible they so reverenced contained many passages wrongly translated, and some even which had no right to a place in it at all. It is pleasant to see that such unworthy sentiments are rapidly disappearing. It would be a sad case indeed if men's faith were to depend on their teachers keeping from them facts which they themselves have long since known—-acting, to use Dean Stanley's scathing comparison, like the Greek bishops at Jerusalem, who pretend at Easter to receive the sacred fire from heaven, and though they do not profess to believe personally in the supposed miracle, yet retain the ceremonial, lest the ignorant multitudes who believe in it should have their minds disquieted.
Far better to do what has been done-—fearlessly make any changes that were necessary to remove the few superficial flaws in our Bible, and try to teach men the grounds on which such changes were made. Our faith is given to the words of the inspired writers. It is no disparagement to them if we discover that fallible men in collecting and translating these words have sometimes made mistakes, and it is certainly no honor to the words which we profess to reverence if we knowingly allow these mistakes to remain uncorrected.
When King James's translation was offered there was no such fear of unsettling men's faith, for the men of that day had already four or five different Bibles competing for their favor, and so they easily distinguished between an Inspired Original and the English versions of that original, one of which might easily be better than another.
Rightly understood, this Revision should be rather a ground for increased confidence, showing us how nearly perfect we may consider our English Bible already, when we find that this thorough criticism and the investigation of material collecting for the past two hundred years has left unchanged every doctrine which we found in our Old Version, while it certainly is helping us to understand some of them more clearly than we ever did before.
§. 6. A few remarks on the New Revision itself will close this chapter. The Revisers refer to their work under the heads of Text, Translation, Language, and Marginal Notes.
Whatever may be thought of their corrections of the Text (i.e., the original Hebrew and Greek), the reader is already in a position in some measure to judge of the sources of information accessible to them and of their fitness to make such corrections.
As to Translation and Language, perhaps there is foundation for the charge against the New Testament Company at least, of having disregarded the first rule laid down for them by Convocation, "to introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version." But before condemning them it is only fair to read their explanations in the Preface. It is also charged against them that their English is not as smooth and graceful as that of the Old Version to which we were accustomed. Perhaps not. But this at least will be universally allowed, that if we have lost in smoothness and beauty of diction, we have greatly gained in point of accuracy. A scrupulous attention to the force of the Greek article, the different tenses of verbs, and the delicate shades of meaning in particles and prepositions, will account for many of the minor changes, which, though they may seem at first sight trifling and unnecessary, will often be found to affect seriously the meaning of a passage. The Revisers also claim to have avoided the practice, adopted in the Authorized Version, of translating for the sake of euphony the same Greek word by different English words. For example, we have comforter and advocate—eternal and everlasting—count, and impute, and reckon*—as respectively renderings of the same Greek word, while, on the other hand, to take only one example, the word "ordain" represents ten different words in the original Greek.
[*In Rom. iv., Authorized Version, these three verbs are used to represent one Greek verb. Let the reader turn to the Revised Version, where the word "reckon" is used throughout the chapter, and he will see how much St. Paul's argument has gained in clearness though perhaps the passage in reading does not sound quite as well as before.]
The result of such a practice is, that the English reader, using a Concordance or the marginal references of his Bible to compare passages where the same word occurs, is sometimes misled and frequently loses much useful information.
In such cases the Revisers have sacrificed elegance to accuracy of translation, though, of course, that is not a sufficient plea, unless it can be shown that elegance and accuracy cannot here go together.
The Marginal Notes contain much valuable information, and often throw fresh light on the translation in the text. But it is to be regretted that in a book intended for indiscriminate circulation the Revisers have used one class of these notes rather unguardedly. When such expressions are found as "Some manuscripts read the passage thus," "Some ancient authorities omit these words," &c, the reader who understands the state of the case sees nothing disturbing in the fact that out of a large number of authorities examined some few should vary from the reading found in all the others. Such readers the Revisers seem to have had in view. They did not enough think themselves into the position of the plain simple men and women who have never heard of such matters, and on whom one cannot help fearing, from the frequent repetition of such notes, a disturbing effect which is in reality quite unwarranted.
A very valuable improvement is the arrangement of the text into paragraphs adapted to the subject. The continuity of thought is not, as in our Authorized Version, interrupted by frequent and often very injudicious breaks into verses, while yet the facilities for reference are retained by the numbering of the old division in the margin. The printing of the Poetical Books in proper metrical form may be considered, too, a decided advantage. They were directed also to revise the headings of chapters, and it would certainly be an advantage if this were well done, adapting it to the paragraph system. But there is much force in their reason for leaving it undone. It involved in many cases expressions of theological opinion which could not fairly find a place in the Bible. Indeed, Jewish readers have had to complain of the Old Testament chapter headings in the Authorized Version, that when the prophets speak of sin it is always the sin of the Jews, but when of glory and of holiness, it is the glory and holiness of the Church.
On the whole, whatever the imperfections of the Revised Bible, and whatever its fate may be in the future, we may at the very least claim a present position for it as a most valuable commentary to the readers of the Authorized Version, placing them as nearly as an English version can do on the level with the reader of the original tongues.