Friday, May 08, 2009

A Lamp Unto My Feet, and a Light Unto My Path

The year 2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. That would be a good time, I think, for preachers and teachers to tell the story of the Scriptures in English.

People like to hear about "How We Got the Bible." Lessons like that remind us of the incredible distance between the biblical world and our own. We come to appreciate that none of the Bible was written in English, that all of the Scriptures were hand-copied for centuries on end, and that people who had first dedicated themselves to the glory of God spent a lifetime learning the biblical languages and translating the Word of God into words that the ordinary person could read and understand.

When that saga is told well (and there are so many fantastic episodes!) people develop a greater respect for those who have gone before them. This is a natural and normally-effective cure for sectarianism.

We also develop a greater humility. When people know the history of the Bible, they never regard that TNIV newly purchased at the local bookstore as a new product. Instead, they see it as a recently-added link in a chain that is very, very long. When we know what it really cost for us to have a Bible in English, we can only give thanks to God.

Okay, so as you might have guessed by now, one of my current reads is a book about English translation of the Bible: In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, by Alister McGrath (Doubleday, 2001).

What a fine book. My copy is a first edition hardcover (without, alas, the dust jacket). I got it at an Amarillo Public Library book sale. I had seen and heard McGrath's name many times and knew he had a great reputation. (He's a scientist and theologian who taught for many years at the University of Oxford. Here's his homepage). So as I was going through the stacks at the sale, upon seeing his name and the title, I instantly put the book in my paper grocery bag that, when completely full, cost me a whopping three dollars. (The one thing that makes a great book even better is getting your own copy dirt cheap). Anyway, on the influence and significance of our best-known English translation, here's McGrath:

The King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians. The influence of this work has been incalculable. For many years, it was the only English translation of the Bible available. Many families could afford only one book--a Bible, in whose pages parents recorded the births of their children, and found solace at their deaths. Countless youngsters learned to read by mouthing the words they found in the only book their family possessed--the King James Bible. Many learned biblical passages by heart, and fund that their written and spoken English was shaped by the language and imagery of this Bible. Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim's Progress, no Handel's Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address. These, and innumerable other works, were inspired by the language of the Bible. Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished (pp. 1-2).

Now I'm curious, what would you recommend as the best resources and ideas for teaching about the history of the English Bible? The transmission and preservation of the biblical text? Biographies of people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale? The history of and different approaches to the task of translation?


1 comment:

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

McGrath's history of the KJV is marvelous. I read it five or six years ago and it is one of the finest around ... and incredibly readable.