The Lively Oracles Given Unto Us

The end of the regular semester has come once again; the papers, presentations, memory work, and all manner of scholastic regalia having been given their due thought and composition. All that remains are five exams over the next two weeks. As is normally the case, I compiled throughout the semester a list of books that caught my attention but that I was unable to read for the time constraints. Being naturally drawn to words and the way that people use them, I have also found myself drawn more and more, throughout my post-secondary education in general, to the fields of literary criticism and hermeneutics. The book list, then, is heavy in that department, an added advantage being that the focus of the annual CRTS conference in January also happens to be on those subjects. It’s also the case that I cheat sometimes and get started on the book list before the semester ends. These are the first two books on the list: The Literary Impact of the Authorized [KJV] Version by C.S. Lewis; and Has the Church Misread the Bible? by Moisés Silva.

The former is more of an essay than a book, being only thirty-four pages long. In it Lewis engages with the claim that the KJV’s three and a half centuries of history have influenced the development of the English language. He also considers whether it is properly called a work of literature, or perhaps even a work of art. I’m an avid reader of the KJV, having read it exclusively for my devotions the past two years, and since I also greatly admire C.S. Lewis, it follows that a meeting of the two will be an enticing thing.

I did indeed enjoy the little book, not least because it challenged my own thinking. One of the reasons I began reading the KJV was because it was the version that my favourite writers quoted, whether those writers were Christian or secular. I even read an article once by Christopher Hitchens arguing that the KJV was a cultural treasure, and that its abandonment by the Church was evidence of declining literary taste therein. I rather enjoyed that article and adopted its line of argument in my own thinking. But those are the very claims Lewis challenges in his book. First of all, he asks the significant question of how you go about determining what the literary influence of a certain work has been. Can you determine how the language would have developed had that work never been written? Secondly, if you do conclude that the Bible has been influential, how do you prove that it was the KJV in particular? He argues that the KJV has not been nearly as influential as it is claimed to be, and that prior to the Romantic period of the nineteenth century neither was it considered by anyone to be “literature.” Rather, he shows that from the early church, through the middle ages, and right up to the eighteenth century the Bible was always seen as low-brow and mostly unimpressive as literature. Sacred? Absolutely. But aesthetically pleasing? Aside from certain passages, no.

I’ve also gotten a good start on Silva’s book. In the main, his answer to Has the Church Misread the Bible? is no. The reason he asks the question in the first place is because as modern people we tend to look negatively on the overall history of biblical interpretation. The way the story is usually told is that beginning in the very early church Christians worked with unreliable rabbinic methods adopted from the Jews. When that fell out of favour the Church developed the fanciful allegorical method which saw all sorts of meanings behind the plain meaning of the text. The middle ages were entirely useless. With the dawn of the Reformation, Christians began to read the Bible properly, and only with the scientific exegetical methods developed during the Enlightenment did God’s people truly come to understand the Bible. What this implies is that for roughly a millennium and a half the Church had misread the Bible, and this Silva refutes.

Like I said, I’ve only just begun. But I am very much enjoying what I’ve read. He has a very small section dealing with translations of the Bible, or more specifically, the various philosophies of translations that have prevailed in the Church since the NT. I always appreciate an author who takes the side of the ridiculed, and forces us to question whether our ridicule is warranted. For instance, he writes about Aquila of Sinope, a second-century Jew who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. It was about as literal a translation as you can get, and for this reason, he’s not at all popular today. Silva writes that “seminary teachers have learned that they can get a quick laugh in Hebrew class by informing their sophisticated students” of some of Aquila’s more questionable translation choices. He’s often ignored after that. But Silva points out that, far from being the fool we take him to be, he was one of the respected scholars of his day and understood very well what he was doing. He may have been mistaken in his reasons, but to mock him is ignorance on our part.

Silva doesn’t argue in favour of either the literal (formal correspondence) or dynamic equivalent philosophy of translating the Bible, but I will conclude this post with a quote that I appreciated:

“Translations that follow the principle of ‘formal correspondence’ (e.g., the NASB) are ridiculed as more or less obscurantist and unscientific. Critics will then suggest that literalistic translators are ignorant of modern linguistics or that their view of verbal inspiration disqualifies them from proper translation work.

“Now one must admit that a ‘dynamic equivalence,’ rather than ‘formal correspondence,’ approach to translation is more likely to transmit the main point of a text clearly and reliably to the reader. It is also undeniable, however, that the former approach, no less than the latter, entails almost inevitably the loss of certain aspects of meaning. For this reason, some classical scholars lament the modernized translations of Homer. One of them has argued that ‘the translator has to aim not at assimilating “otherness” into English, but in moving English into some kind of “otherness.” He has to let his own language be powerfully affected by another one'” (p. 50).

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