Bible Language

Part 2 —- Bible English

by Glenn Conjurske

We have endeavored to demonstrate in a previous article that the New Testament was written in a language of its own, a language replete with theological terms which never formed any part of secular Greek. The Hebrew of the Old Testament is of course “Bible language,” for the Jews never had any other language, their religion being an integral part of their existence. In the wisdom of God—-and we might say in the necessity of the case—-God gave the Scriptures of both Testaments to a people already in possession of a religious heritage, and therefore in possession of a religious language, in which the oracles of God could be written. This being the case, we suppose that it was never the design of God that the written Scriptures should be given to a people not already in the possession of the divine religion. In the beginning, he established the church first, and then gave to it the Scriptures. This is our pattern, and it is certainly thus that missionary operations ought to be carried out. God sends men to preach the gospel. When that is done, and the church established—-and a Christian vocabulary necessarily established in the process—-it will then be time to translate the Bible.

But the unspiritual intellectualism of modern times has completely repudiated this. Eugene A. Nida, “PH. D.,” whose influence and principles have been one of the leading factors in corrupting the Bible in our times, wrote fifty years ago, “In many instances missionaries have fallen into the habit of using a specialized vocabulary and the natives at the mission station have learned to mimic it to perfection, so that the translation may seem perfectly understandable to this small group but quite inadequate for more extensive distribution and use. Non-Christians may not understand all of the Bible, but it should make some sense to them. The real test of the translation is its intelligibility to the non-Christian, who should be reached by its message.”

But Nida faults the missionaries for doing precisely as they ought to do. That “specialized vocabulary” which he deplores, is not only desirable, but necessary, to a proper translation of the Bible. We entirely agree with him that “Non-christians may not understand all of the Bible, but it should make some sense to them,” but the latter clause of this sentence is a gross overstatement of the difficulty. We doubt that it is possible to translate the Bible in such a way that will not “make some sense,” even to the most ignorant and ungodly, while it remains certain that they will “not understand all” of it. But Nida grossly overstates the difficulty, thus to give countenance to an over-reaction against it. The real test of a translation is not its intelligibility to the ungodly, but its faithfulness to the original. Let it be faithful to the original, and those whose hearts are in tune with its Author will understand it. God gave the Bible to his own people, and it was evidently never his design to replace the evangelist with the Bible.

We grant that the opposite plan may bear a certain kind of fruit. This was notably the case in the early days of missions in Burmah, where a widespread spirit of inquiry—-though but few converts—-was established primarily by the broadcast circulation of the printed page, including portions of the Scriptures. Yet concerning Adoniram Judson, the founder of that mission and its most spiritual man—-as well as one of the most spiritual missionaries of all time—-we are told, “But far more important than the work of translating and distributing tracts, catechisms, and portions of the Scriptures, was the oral preaching of the Gospel. For this Mr. Judson had rare aptitude, and in it he won his most signal triumphs. While engaged in the necessary work of translation, he was always pining for the opportunity of imparting the message of salvation with the living voice. In a letter to Dr. Bolles he says: `I long to see the whole New Testament complete, for I will then be able to devote all my time to preaching the Gospel from day to day; and often now the latter appears to be the more pressing duty. May the Spirit of the Lord be poured out!’ When eye meets eye, and the mind of an objector is confronted by a living, loving personality, he receives a deeper impression of religious truth than he can ever get from the leisurely perusal of a printed book. The press can never supplant the pulpit. The truth, which, when pressed home by the earnest voice of the speaker, carries with it conviction, and arouses the conscience, and kindles the affections, is often weak and thin when presented on the printed page.” This is the very truth, and very well spoken. Judson feared “that the Scriptures will be out of the press before there will be any church to receive them.”

Nevertheless, when the Scriptures were translated, Judson favored their widespread distribution, “a plan,” he said, “that will tell more effectually than any other to fill the country with the knowledge of divine truth.” He lived, however, to change his mind. “He spoke also of his favoring the distribution of so many Bibles, after his revision, as the greatest mistake of his life”—-for the precise reason that there was no church to receive them. “He once said, in relation to a man who had stumbled on the Old Testament, and apostatized: `It is the last thing such a fellow as he ought even to have touched. I am more than ever convinced that our business is to propagate the Gospel, scatter the good news of salvation, and let everything else alone.” This may be too strongly stated, though certain dispensationalists will doubtless like it well enough as it is. But the fact is, the printed Bible is not what Burmah needed at that time, but the preached Gospel.

This, however, is only a correlative point. The point upon which I insist here is that the church must be planted, its doctrines and heritage inculcated, and a theological language developed, before the Bible can be properly translated. And to translate the Bible into the language of a land in which Christianity has been but lately planted is necessarily a different matter than to translate it into a language in which Christianity has been established for centuries. Any such language certainly possesses a well-developed theological vocabulary, and a well-developed mode of religious speech, and that speech of course ought to be used in translating the Bible.

Now it is a fact as clear as the sunlight that we possess such a “Bible language” in English. Indeed, in a certain limited sense we might almost say that English is Bible language. The contents of the Bible have so thoroughly permeated the customs and the thinking of English peoples that the English language itself has been thoroughly tinctured with them. That this was always the case we would not pretend, any more than we would pretend that there is a “Bible language” in every heathen tongue scattered over the globe. In order for any such Bible language to exist, there must first be a people of God, who are conversant with divine things. Such a people must, by the same process which took place in the Greek language, adapt their mother tongue to the things of God, and so raise it up from the level of the natural, or the pagan, to the divine and the spiritual. This process has of course long since been accomplished in English. We have a “Bible language,” and in the limited sense already mentioned it might almost be said that English is a “Bible language.” Isaac Taylor wrote concerning the English language, nearly two centuries ago, “This language, now pouring itself over all the waste places of the earth, is the principal medium of Christian truth and feeling, and is rich in every means of Christian instruction, and is fraught with religious sentiment, in all kinds, adapted to the taste of the philosopher, the cottager, and the infant. Almost apart, therefore, from missionary labor, the spread of this language insures the spread of the religion of the Bible. The doctrine is entwined with the language, and can hardly be disjoined.”

A great deal of this remains to the present day, so that the facts of revelation—-God, Christ, hell, and damnation—-are constantly on the tongues of the most profane and wicked of those who speak English. Not that they much understand the things of which they thus profanely speak. We live in a very shallow generation, which seldom thinks at all, and I would be the first to grant that most of those who use these sacred terms as profanity have never given a passing thought in all their lives to the meaning of those terms. They use them only as language which is profane, and use them with no grammatical sense at all. The only man I ever knew who actually knew how to curse was my grandfather. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such sacred language among the most ungodly is a proof of what English once was. We are well aware that the past few generations have seen an increasing secularization of life, and a steadily decreasing consciousness of divine things, so that the glowing account quoted above from Isaac Taylor is no longer true today. At least it is certainly not true in the same degree. Though much of the historical content of the Bible may remain entwined with the language, its theological content is largely lost.

Nevertheless, there remains among the people of God a “Bible language” in English, as surely as ever there was one. It is, in general, the language of the King James Version. This is true even of its archaic diction, and even the world knows it, so that when the men of the world wish to say something religious, they will often adopt archaic language for the purpose. They may do this facetiously, but still they do it. This is often done by shallow and ignorant folks, who do not know how to use the old English correctly, but still they are conscious that the old English is Bible English. An article on Bible versions in the secular Time magazine for Sept. 9, 1996, entitled “The Power of Babble” (sic), contains a good example of this. The end of the subtitle reads, “What hath they wrought,” while the article begins, “Yea, verily.” We do not relish such a facetious usage of the old English, but the fact that it is so used is proof enough that the world itself recognizes it as “Bible language.” The old English has been the “Bible language” of the English people for more than half a millennium, and only in the past generation or two has anyone dreamed of displacing it. There were earlier attempts—-such as the Revised Version—-to displace the old Bible version, but they made no attempt to replace the old Bible language. That was reserved for the present generation, which is determined upon change, but which does not understand the issues involved. Not that most of the modern versions have endeavored to completely replace the language of the old version. The Christian Bible has almost entirely eliminated it, but the other modern versions are more conservative. Yet they have all partially abandoned it, and their principle of translating the Bible into common English will lead them always further down the same wrong path. It will lead them to take out the common theological language of the church, and put in its place something which they suppose to be the common language of the natural man.

But I must speak more particularly of this “Bible English.” Since I began to write this article I have read the chapter on “The English Bible” in the Lectures on the English Language, by George Perkins Marsh. In so doing I found that he repeatedly expressed my own thoughts exactly, in language as cogent and forcible as any which I could employ myself. This being the case, I supposed that I could do no better than to quote what he has said so well—-to give my thoughts, that is, in his words—-for I suppose it likely that the observations of such an authority on the English language will carry more weight than anything which I might say. Meanwhile I highly recommend the careful perusal of the entire chapter. The book may no doubt be found in any good public or university library.

Marsh refers to this “Bible English” as a “consecrated diction,” saying, “Wycliffe and his school in the fourteenth, Tyndale early in the sixteenth, Coverdale, Cranmer, the Genevan, and other translators at a later period, had gradually built up a consecrated diction, which, though not, as it certainly was not, composed of a vulgar vocabulary, was, nevertheless, in that religious age, as perfectly intelligible to every English protestant as the words of the nursery and the fireside.”

It may be necessary to remark upon this that the word “vulgar” as Marsh uses it is not to be taken in its modern sense of base or filthy. In its original meaning the vulgar language is the common language of the people, and Marsh here rightly asserts that the vocabulary of the King James Version “certainly was not” the common language of the people, though perfectly intelligible to religious people. In this it was an accurate representation of the original from which it was rendered. It may be further necessary to remark that “Bible English” certainly did not begin with Wycliffe. It was in use four centuries before him. Yet the language was rapidly changing in those times, due undoubtedly to the inability of the masses to read and write, so that “Bible language” as we know it did not crystalize until some time after the Reformation. But whatever it may have been then, there is no question that it exists in a stable form now.

Marsh repeatedly describes this “Bible English” as a “consecrated dialect,” a “sacred phraseology,” a “special nomenclature,” and a “religious dialect.” It is not only right, but absolutely necessary that such a Bible language should exist. The Bible itself could hardly exist without it. The subject matter of the Bible requires it. The same is true in every other specialized field. I recently read a very brief item on a football game in the local shopping paper, but I could not understand it. I could not understand the terminology—-have no idea, for example, what a “sack” is. The same thing will certainly be the case when the ungodly, with no Christian background, read the Bible. This is necessarily so, and it is really folly to endeavor either to deny or to alter it. Every special field—-from football to psychology—-has its own language, which the uninitiated cannot understand. To attempt to produce a Bible, then, in the common language of the uninitiated—-in the common language, that is, of non-Christians—-is simple folly and ignorance. On this theme Marsh writes,

“In fact the English Bible sustains, and always has sustained to the general Anglican tongue, the position of a treatise upon a special knowledge requiring, like any branch of science, a special nomenclature and phraseology. The language of the law, for example, in both vocabulary and structure, differs widely from that of unprofessional life; the language of medicine, of metaphysics, of astronomy, of chemistry, of mechanical art, all these have their appropriate idioms, very diverse from the speech which is the common heritage of all. Why, then, should theology, the highest of knowledges, alone be required to file her tongue to the vulgar utterance, when every other human interest has its own appropriate expression, which no man thinks of conforming to a standard, that, because it is too common, can hardly be other than unclean?”

These are words of solid wisdom. Marsh continues,

“There is one important distinction between the dialect of the scriptures, considered as an exposition of a theology, and that of a science or profession. The sciences, all secular knowledges, in fact, are mutable and progressive, and of course, as they change and advance, their nomenclature must vary in the same proportion. The doctrine of the Bible, on the other hand, is a thing fixed and unchangeable, and when it has once found a fitting expression in the words of a given language, there is in general no reason why those words should not continue to be used, so long as the language of which they form a part continues to exist. There are many words in the English Bible which are strictly technical, and never were employed as a part of the common dialect, or for any other purpose than the particular use to which they are consecrated in that volume; there are others which belong both to the appropriate expression of religious doctrine, and to the speech of common life, and of these latter, some very few have become obsolete, so far as their popular, every-day use is concerned; but they still retain in religious phraseology the signification they possessed when introduced into the English language.

“Now the same thing is true with reference to all other knowledges which possess special nomenclatures. There are in law, medicine, chemistry, the mechanical arts, many words always exclusively appropriated to the services of those arts; others, once familiar and common, but which no longer form a part of the general vocabulary of the language, and which are at present restricted to scientific and professional use; and here the phraseology of the scriptures, and that of other special studies, stand in precisely the same relations to the common language of the people. Each has, and always must have, a special dialect, because it is a speciality itself, and has numerous ideas not common to any other department of human thought and action. And not only is this true of the language of science, and of art, but of the dialect which belongs to all the higher workings of the intellect. No man acquainted with both literature and life supposes that the speech of the personages of Shakespeare’s tragedies, or of the actors in Milton’s great epic, was the actual colloquial phraseology of their times; and it is as absurd to object to the language of the scriptures, because it is not the language of the street, as to criticise Shakespeare and Milton, because their human and superhuman heroes speak in the artificial dialect of poetry, and not in the tones of vulgar humanity.

“To attempt a new translation of the Bible, in the hope of finding within the compass of the English language a clearer, a more appropriate, or a more forcible diction than that of the standard version, is to betray an ignorance of the capabilities of our native speech, with which it would be in vain to reason.”

Of all of this I can only say, as Philip Doddridge said of John Wesley’s Appeals, “How forcible are right words!” Yet I, always hopeful, cannot suppose it altogether “in vain to reason” with the generation which has given us the modern Bible versions. Ignorant they surely are of the issues, but so plain are these matters to my own mind that I dare suppose they need only be pointed out to be embraced, except where prejudice reigns. That we do deal here with a great deal of prejudice I am very well aware, but I never suppose prejudice to be invincible until it proves itself so.

If it were possible to eject the theological vocabulary which forms the substratum of the common English Bible, it were certainly not desirable, though much of that vocabulary is certainly not common English. “Baptize” is a technical theological term, which never had any existence in English in any other sense, yet it is as undesirable as it is impossible to discard it. “Savior” is hardly common English, except as applied to Christ. Though dictionaries may define “savior” as “one who saves,” the word is probably rarely applied to anyone but “the Saviour,” without at least a mental allusion to him. Likewise “gospel.” The Bible is replete with such theological language, and it is perfectly intelligible to those who know and love the Book. They have neither need nor wish to discard it.

Marsh writes elsewhere, “…I do not hesitate to avow my conviction that if any body of scholars, of competent Greek and Hebrew learning, were now to undertake, not a revision of the existing version, but a new translation founded on the principle of employing the current phraseology of the day, it would be found much less intelligible to the mass of English-speaking people than the standard version at this moment is.”

This, while it may no longer be quite so true now as it was then of English people in general, is certainly as true as ever it was of religious people. An example has recently come to my attention, and that in a person who was not previously familiar with the language of the King James Version. In response to the article which I published on the single eye, an intelligent woman, who was raised in a liberal church using the RSV, and who continued to use the RSV for some time after she was converted while in college, tells me that she never understood that passage until she read it in the King James translation.

Marsh continues, “If the Bible is less understood than it was at earlier periods, which I by no means believe, it is because it is less studied; and the true remedy is, not to lower its tone to a debased standard of intelligence, but to educate the understandings of the Anglican people up to the comprehension of the purest and most idiomatic forms of expression which belong to their mother tongue.” This is truth well spoken, though I must introduce one caution. We do not suppose it either necessary or possible thus to educate the general populace. It is the people of God with whom we are concerned here, and the only step necessary to be taken to thus educate the people of God is to continue to use the old Bible. The people of God are already familiar with its language, as much so as football fans are familiar with the language of football, from “punt” to the mispronunciation of “offense” and “defense.” What follower of this sport would dream of giving up its particular language, to replace it with common English, so that the uninitiated could understand it? Even if such a thing were possible, football fans would certainly judge it undesirable. Verily, “The children of this world are wiser in their own kind than the children of light.” (Luke 16:8).

Ah, but my readers have caught me altering the language of the old version while I defend it!

I think not. I have never contended that the King James Version has no need of revision. In this article I contend for the “Bible language” which the old version contains, but certainly not for every application of that language which the old version makes. The verse which I have quoted has become practically unintelligible not only to the world, but to most of the people of God also. I say it “has become” so, though I am not so sure the King James Version ever was very intelligible here. In changing “generation” to “kind,” I only revert to the rendering of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Taverner, and the Geneva New Testament—-a rendering which ought to have been let alone. But let it be plainly understood, I do not contend in this article for every individual rendering of the old version, but only for its language in general—-for its theological vocabulary in particular, and for its forms of speech as a lesser matter.

Its forms of speech of course include its archaic diction. This I do not regard as of equal importance with its vocabulary, yet as I have pointed out above, the world itself is conscious that Bible language is archaic language. I have labored elsewhere in defense of the retention of this archaic language, and therefore need say the less here. It has been most interesting to me, however, to observe that the makers of some of the modern versions are themselves very obviously very conscious that archaic English is Bible English. It seems these new translators have some intuition—-some instinct, if you will—-which tells them that the old English is Bible language, and that something of the atmosphere, the spirit, or something of the Scriptures is lost when we abandon it. It is well known that the New American Standard Version has retained the old English in all prayers, for the saints of God have addressed God in Elizabethan English for centuries, and many of them still do. I grew up with the practice, but gave it up when I was a young liberal at Bible school. But the retention of such language as the language of prayer in the NASV has made many parts of the book a patchwork indeed, especially the whole book of Psalms, in which we must go back and forth between old and new English, often in the same Psalm. These translators did well enough to recognize the old English as the language of prayer, but it is strange they did not equally recognize it as Bible language. Another most interesting phenomenon in this connection has come under my observation, namely, that of a man who uses the New King James Version (which religiously avoids archaic language) and yet prays in the archaic diction of the old version. It is undoubtedly true that such a man sings praises to God in archaic English also, as all Christians do, whatever Bible they may use.

Another very telling instance is found in J. B. Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English. In Luke 18:18-20, for example, we read the conversation between the Lord and the rich young ruler in “Modern English,” of course—-until the Lord begins to quote the commandments from the Old Testament, and then we abruptly revert to archaic English, from “THOU SHALT NOT commit adultery,” to “Honor THY father and THY mother.” The instincts of the translator evidently told him that the quotations from the old book ought to retain their old familiar form. This principle was carried out throughout the New Testament—-though not with entire consistency—-so that in the midst of “Modern English,” irreverence, and loose paraphrasing, most of the quotations from the Old Testament appear in their old familiar dress, such as “There is none that seeketh after God” in Romans 1:11, and “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” in I Cor. 9:9. Here he somewhat alters the rendering, yet retains the archaic language. The translator evidently felt that it was fitting to quote the Bible in Bible language—-though he somehow failed to perceive that this principle ought equally to apply to the whole book which he had in hand, as well as to the Old Testament.

But mark, I do not put the archaic diction of the old version upon the same level of importance as its theological vocabulary. Yet they both belong to what is undeniably “Bible language,” and there is no sufficient reason to depart from either of them. I know, plenty of reasons are advanced. The public schools of our day have produced a generation of young people which cannot pass the tests which their fathers did. Therefore the standard must be brought down—-easier tests introduced, or lower scores passed. The second evil is brought in to cure the first, but it is no cure at all, but only a little bandage over a gnawing cancer. The evangelical church of our time has produced a generation of young people which is so spiritually illiterate that it cannot understand the old Bible language. We must therefore give them the word of God in “the language of today.” Thus we bring in the second evil to cure the first one. This is characteristic of the times. We will not assert that the remedy is worse than the disease, though it is certainly unlikely to cure it. We quote George Marsh once more, and quite agree with his assertion, “Whatever questions may be raised respecting the accuracy with which particular passages are rendered, there seems to be no difference of opinion among scholars really learned in the English tongue, as to the exceeding appropriateness of the style of the authorized version; and the attempt to bring down that style to the standard of to-day is as great an absurdity, and implies as mistaken views of the true character and office of human language, and especially of our maternal speech, as would be displayed by translating the comedies of Shakespeare into the dialect of the popular farces of the season.” We think also that a revival of New Testament Christianity would eliminate any “need,” and certainly any desire, for Bibles in common English.

Glenn Conjurske