April 26, 2007

The politics of Translating the Bible in the 18th Century

Often within the blogging community the question of how far you can identify a religion easily through what its holy texts say. The question of to what degree there is a common Muslim position on anything or a common Christian position is often discussed or assumed by commentators. However of course things aren't that straightforward. Intelligent Christians consider often the dating of various of the gospels and what that means for their own theology and the way that they defend the faith that they hold to. Given the nature of the texts in question, their age and provenance, such debates aren't going to go away.

The ways that they affect the content of what people beleive though is often forgotten- there are many examples of the impact that new translations of the Bible can have upon believers and what they do in the context of their beliefs. The Reformation can be described as a battle between various attempts to translate the Bible. We can see this on a minor level in the work of Neil Hitchin upon the Anglican Church and debates within it during the 18th Century about a new translation for the Bible.

As Hitchin unfolds it there were plenty of reasons for a new translation of the Bible to be made in the 18th Century. The last translation had been performed in 1611, by seventeenth century divines. As many ministers and scholars noted techniques of translation and knowledge of the languages involved had advanced a great deal in the subsequent 100 years. The Authorised Version was transparantly out of date- both in terms of its style of English and also in its translation of terms. Edward Harwood, the Presbyterian scholar, suggested that young men and women turned away from the Bible because of its archaisms- he attempted to translate the Bible into the language of Hume and Cicero rather than the archaic seventeenth century version: he rendered for instance John iii 16 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' to be 'For the supreme God was affected with such immense compassion and love for the human race, that he deputed his son from heaven to instruct them- in order that everyone who embraces and obeys his religion might not finally perish, but secure everlasting happiness'. Any reader can see the distinctions in style between the versions of the James I's scholars and that of Harwood. William Jones of Nayland argued that one might by translating the Bible fix the meaning of a seventeenth century text which had become over the passage of time rather uncertain and unclear.

But the distinctions of style were not the major issue at stake here- political issues also errupted into how one might translate the scriptures. The Authorised Version, James MacKnight moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, argued was based too closely upon the Latin Vulgate, widely thought of as a Catholic text. Men like MacKnight wanted a new translation which would not be based on the Vulgate and did not follow (as the Authorised Version did) the Bishop's Bible of 1537 (a bible put together under Henry VIII's supervision). For example the translators of the Authorised version used the word 'church' to translate ekklesia, as opposed to the reformed translation which was 'congregation'. Edward Law, Master of Peterhouse and future Bishop of Carlisle in 1757 compared the Authorised Version with the Geneva Bible produced by Calvin, he argued that the Geneva version was much closer to the original Hebrew than was the Anglican version. Less reformed ministers sought instead of a re-translation a modification of the Authorised version- looking to ammend it in places rather than discard it. Most advocates of reform looked back on the process that had produced the Authorised version- a committee of the learned clerics and dons of the realm- and saw in that process the way forwards to performing a new translation. Of course they failed and no new translation was made or authorised officially in the eighteenth century.

Partly this, Hitchin argues, was because it was blocked by the Church and possibly by ministers at Court. Working from a set of letters, Hitchin demonstrates at least a plausible reason for thinking that Archbishop Secker of Canterbury (an early advocate of re-translation) was the key influence in blocking what he had earlier supported. Hitchin argues that the fear that Secker and others like him had was that the translating the Bible would blow the Anglican compromise sky high- and would risk conceding too much to the dissenters whilst alienating more moderate and high clergymen. Consequently Secker suggested to several scholars the preparation of a much less politically contentious authorised Hebrew version- the kind of enterprise that would make full use of the new learning but have very few implications for the Church.

The dilemmas of 18th Century Bible translation suggest to me the fact that at most times through history the contours of religion have remained indeterminate. What is and is not a source? What is and is not the true contemporary word to use for an ancient concept in another language? All these questions bedevil all faiths- and ultimately suggest, not that faith itself is a folly- but that too precise interpretations of what Christianity or Islam are are follies. Faiths change as the texts and the interpretations of the texts that they are based upon change. Often minor changes in the text can prompt major theological shifts- ekklesia's re-translations from church to congregation for example- but more even than that combat over the essense of faith is possible because it takes place within what is always a difficult task, the translation of documents left from long ago, by people we know little of.