A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 29th October 2023
Today is often called Bible Sunday, as an alternative to the Last Sunday after Trinity. It is a day on which we may reflect upon the Bible and how we use it. I’m beginning by mentioning two very remarkable and recent books about the bible by John Barton, an Oxford academic and priest: A History of the Bible and The Word: on the Translation of the Bible. I recommend them because they have opened my eyes, firstly, to many aspects of the long history of how the Bible came into being and, secondly, to the immense importance of how the Bible has been translated down the centuries. Though we may rarely think about these matters we are nevertheless markedly, even if subconsciously, influenced by them.
I’d like to pick up on just one aspect of this fascinating and complex topic – the power that a translator has over what we read. We can so easily come to forget that the translation we read is not the original text. There is a perception that the King James version is almost more inspired than its source – people forget that its meaning depends on the original Hebrew or Greek. There is a dangerous and linked attitude that religious beliefs are dependent on the exact wording of a Bible preferred by a particular community. It is as if a particular version is seen as God’s given text. If we pay close attention to the work of translators in their historical context, their own beliefs and assumptions, their denominational affiliations and so on, then misuse of the Bible is reduced, and the veneration of a particular version, which is very widespread, is avoided.
The literary merit of a particular translation does not make it more canonical than the texts from which it comes. We need to remember too that the so-called original texts are not without error: they come from different manuscripts which include errors in copying, gaps, inconsistencies and linguistic uncertainties in imperfectly known ancient languages. The translators of the KJV in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster were without doubt very devout and very learned people, but we cannot assume that they were flawless. What they did was remarkable, but to suggest that their work was without error is wrong, as is any assumption that it alone should shape the basis of our belief.
As we read the Bible we should view it as something which is adequate rather than perfect. Whatever translation we use is time-bound and context-bound. It depends not only on the views of the translator at the time the translation was made but also on subjective aspects of their own beliefs and personality. Even the greatest translations are only versions. No translation from one language to another can possibly be an exact equivalent of the original. The translator has to have a profound knowledge of source texts, and the culture in which they were written, to avoid distorting it. But equally the translator has to be rooted in the target language – English for us – and its culture and has to develop a distinctive way of communicating in it. Trying to capture one language in another is an endlessly fascinating task but ultimately it is never completely successful.
It may be helpful for us to be reminded that the earliest Christians transmitted the story of Jesus’ sayings, which were uttered in Aramaic, by spreading them from mouth to mouth. It was Greek-speaking converts who began to record these sayings and then translated them into Greek. They were translating material that no longer survives in its original language at all.
From the earliest days of Christianity it began to be clear that translation helps to determine the way readers and hearers assimilate and react to the text. Translation can change perceptions about the original meaning of texts and it can re-shape what the target language is capable of expressing. Thus its own vocabulary is streched to express new concepts. We can see that it was the Hebrew Bible as translated into Greek that provided the handles, however shaky they might have been, onto which the new religion could hold and shape its theology and doctrine. It was these which distinguished it from its Jewish parents.
At the Reformation Luther and others looked again at scripture and understood it in ways that countered those in authority. It was a time in which the Bible was in a sense remade in the light of the contemporary spiritual and intellectual setting. Inspiration for and vindication of new ways of reading the Bible was found in its translation into the vernacular. Though a great upheaval followed, each new translation was a fresh interpretation and a stimulus for yet more.
In the centuries since the Reformation many new renderings of the Bible have re-shaped religious faith and practice in churches of many Christian traditions, as well as in some parts of Judaism. That re-shaping has come about in no small measure because of the power of those who have translated the Bible.
Those who continue to study Biblical texts from many viewpoints will continue to influence the work of translators and thus the life of the churches in which their work will be used. Today is a day for us to give thanks for the immense amount of work by translators down the centuries. They have shaped our faith in many ways and so have brought us closer to God.
Collect for Bible Sunday
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.