Arthur Middleton on translating the Bible

In the Prayer Book on the Second Sunday in Advent the Collect acknowledges that the Holy Scriptures were given for our learning and prays that we may hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them. When that Collect was first composed it was a time when possession of an English translation of the Bible could result in being burned at the stake on the charge of heresy.

The Church fearedthatuncontrolled reading of the Bible by people lacking the essential qualifications to understand what was being read might undermine the authority and stability of the Church. The Church’s official biblical text was the fourth-century Latin Vulgate text and, though an increasing number could read Latin, the risk of being led into error was great. It was the Church’s responsibility to communicate the right interpretation of the Scriptures; otherwise unorthodox interpretations would emerge, producing heresy that would corrupt other people and rob them of salvation. It was this increasing danger of heresy that provoked stricter rules about translations of the Bible into the vernacular.

Wycliffe had produced English translations of the Bible in the fourteenth century that led to stricter laws. When it comes to translating the words of Scripture the danger is even greater, as the translator can so easily introduce his own ideas.

Bible translation today has its problems. In 2003 Pope John Paul II condemned The New Revised Standard Version as an incorrect translation. The translators came to the translation with certain a priori political and sociological assumptions from late twentieth-century western secular culture, central to which was political correctness. So all language about God, humankind and society was rewritten within the cultural limitations of how the sexes are being engineered to relate to one another in modern secular society.

These assumptions emerge from the modern discussion as a priori guides, telling the translators beforehand what to see and how to translate the text. Feminists approach the interpretation of the Bible with their a priori assumptions about the place of women in modern society that tells them beforehand what to see. The proper approach to the text will let the questions emerge from the data observed even though these are ancient texts and the emergent questions may be irrelevant. Their irrelevance will mean they are independent of the modern discussion and can cross-examine and critique the presuppositions of our modern concerns. The translator’s task is to establish a strong, independent voice, and as far as possible keep these biblical writers true to themselves.

Another reason for resisting vernacular translations was the Church’s belief that alongside the written Bible she possessed certain unwritten traditions that were received directly by the Apostles and had the same authority as Scripture. Recently Margaret Barker (The Great High Priest, 2003) has written that there was far more to the teaching of Jesus than is recorded in the canonical Gospels. For several centuries a belief persisted among Christian writers that there had been a secret tradition entrusted to only a few of his followers. Eusebius (History 2.1) quotes from a now lost work of Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes: ‘James the Righteous, John and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the seventy, one of whom was Barnabas’; the tradition was given to an inner circle of disciples after the resurrection; and the tradition was a form of higher knowledge, i.e. gnosis. If the secret tradition did concern the practice and meaning of the sacraments, and was rooted in the symbolism of the temple and the teachings of the ancient priesthood, its recovery is of more than simply academic interest. It has been all too easy for sofa scriptura scholars to dismiss such a claim, and then find themselves constructing theological positions which are not even biblical, because they have ignored the environing traditions which could have illuminated the meaning of the biblical texts (Barker, p. 11).

The Church of England stressed the traditional coinherence of Scripture and the Church. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church was necessary if the Bible was to mean anything, for the Church expressed the life which the Bible indicated. It follows that the meaning of the sacraments and everything in the organic life of the Church are a fulfilment of that life which is proclaimed in the Bible. ND