It is said that each generation needs its own new translation of the foreign classics, and the Bible is no exception. The translators’ Preface to the Revised Standard Version details many of the “grave defects” in the King James, including words and expressions that have become archaic or that no longer mean what they meant at the time (“prevent,” for instance, meant “to go before” rather than “to obstruct”). Many of us have, quite simply, grown up with a Bible embellished in a mindset of the times of Henry VIII, rather than our own.

Reviving ancient texts

Now, thanks to a burst of scholarship and fresh translation, we find ourselves in an exciting time: newly unearthed manuscripts carry us ever closer to the originals, while ever-earlier texts and fragments are receiving the scrutiny of newly developed technical approaches. Textual and stylistic analyses are clearing away misunderstandings; new archeological and anthropological research is reordering our assumptions about the ways people lived. Over the past several decades, major new translations have appeared, each one drawing upon current research and presenting a widening array of alternatives to the reader. As we delve into these recent translations, I believe we need to be aware of two motions: on the one hand, the version before us can present the text in a vital, meaningful way unlike any other we have yet encountered (reading Isaiah in the New Jerusalem translation, I felt I was reading a report from our Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee rather than what some have declared to be the greatest religious poem ever written); on the other hand, the very freshness of a new translation may be at the cost of continuity with the past (I find it impossible to read a more traditional rendering of Isaiah without also hearing the great music of Handel’s Messiah swelling within me).

On the universality of Christ

Just listen to Elizabeth Bathurst (1655?-1685):

  • For by one Offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified, as saith the Apostle.
  • For we do not believe that this Light, Grace and Power of God, which is sufficient both to sanctify and save, and able to give an Inheritance among them that are sanctified, through Faith which is in Christ Jesus, where Christ is not outwardly named, I say, we do not believe that this is given to any without Christ.
  • But we do believe it to be to the Purchase and Benefit of his Death, who tasted Death for every Man.
  • Not by Works of Righteousness which we have done, but according to his Mercy he saved us, by the Washing of Regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundently through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by Grace we should be made Heirs according to the Hope of eternal Life.
  • And therefore was his Name called Jesus, a Saviour, for it was said he should save his People from their Sins.
  • For this Grace of God, which is the Light of Jesus, ’tis a Measure of the Divine Spirit, and a Manifestation of it is given to every Man to profit withal.
  • In whom we have Boldness and Access with Confidence by the Faith of him: And as we have Access to God by him, so likewise we find Acceptance with God in and through him.
  • And this is he who is without Beginning of Days, or End of Life, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the Beginning of the Creation of God, the Image of the invisible God, the First-born of every Creature, the faithful Witness, and the Firstbegotten of the Dead, and the Prince of the Kings of the Earth.
  • For the Lord of the whole Earth, who is the Preserver of Men, he is impartial in his Love to all Mankind; not only to them in Christendom, so called, who have the Scriptures amongst them, but his Love is extended unto all People, in one Land as well as in another, for his Spirit is not inseparable from the Scriptures, as some suppose.