Many thanks to Chris for another great guest post.
One of the pleasant surprises coming out of the recent Catholic Bible Taxonomy post was spending time with some less familiar translations during the Office of Readings in Morning Prayer. This week, let's take a closer look at a little “school edition” of the Knox Bible.
Although Timothy chose him to be the patron of this blog, I confess I am late to the school of Knox myself. I’ve been impressed by the isolated readings Timothy shares each week, and found his essays on Scripture translation quite compelling in “On Englishing the Bible.” Also, raised Protestant and trained in an academic seminary, all of my experience of Scripture has been from translations directly from the original languages. The “Vulgate Tradition” is still quite new to me. In fact, simply coming to value the Vulgate as anything other than an inferior and corrupted Latin translation of inspired Scripture was perhaps the largest hurdle I had to leap in order to become Catholic as an adult. Before, a Bible translating a translation was automatically suspect, especially given the many points of divergence between the Latin Vulgate and later textual discoveries in the original languages. Now, however, I was looking forward to spending some regular time in this translation.
Although Baronius Press has recently acquired the rights to this translation and makes it available in a very attractive hardcover, the price was a bit steep for me, so I took to Ebay to see what else I might find. Oddly, given how prevalent this text was in English liturgy until well after the Jerusalem Bible was published in 1966, it is still very hard to find in an affordable single volume. I was about to give in and purchase from Baronius, when I located this terrific little volume in the UK, listed not as a Knox Bible but as a “lectionary” for use in the “traditional mass.” Since Timothy hadn’t come across it before, I offered to “unbox” it together here.
It’s a handy “school edition,” essentially a British student edition from 1960 reprinting the 1955 one-volume edition that came out after Knox published his final tome. The book itself is quite attractive and surprisingly compact. After reprinting the 1954 foreword from Cardinal Griffin for the original single-volume edition, it contains the full text of the Knox translation in two columns with translation footnotes at the bottom. The notes are printed in a miniscule font, making them hard to read in dim light during morning prayer, but they are there and they no doubt kept the size - and price - of the student edition down.
As for the translation itself, having spent a few weeks with it now, I admit I’m not the fan of Knox I thought I’d be (sorry Timothy). Full disclosure: I copy edit technical and corporate writing for a living. That means I spend my days making passive voice active and every weak verb strong. I set right every inverted sentence, and unsplit every split infinitive (i.e. “To boldly go…”) Unfortunately, that means older writing just smashes up against my editorial screens whether I want it to or not. Also unfortunate, I entered Knox through the prophets in the Office of Readings this month, specifically Amos and Hosea (Osee) which I understand are often his weakest, most obscure work. This surprises me, given Knox’s own dual guiding principles:
● "To break away from the literal order of sentences" - "Not to ask, 'How shall I make this foreigner talk English?' but 'What would an English man have said to express this?'"
● "To use no word, no phrase, and as far as possible no turn of sentence, which would not have passed as decent literary English on the seventeenth century, and would not pass as decent literary English to-day." - "In a word, what you want is neither sixteenth-century English not twentieth-century English, but timeless English." ("Thoughts on Bible Translation" from On Englishing the Bible)
Clearly, as Timothy recently pointed out, Knox is capable of sublime prose. But there’s nothing timeless about his treatment of the prophets. To my ears, they read like Lord Byron aping King James English. Sentences are inside out. Subjects and objects are easily confused. There’s an artificial use of second person archaic pronouns. As a result, I can’t help but think of Knox as the “Yoda Bible.” Read some of the following samples with your inner Jedi master voice, and you’ll see what I mean.
Osee 13:1-3 Spoke Ephraim, all Israel trembled at his word: how else came they, for Baal's worship, to barter away life itself? And they are busy yet over their sinning; melt down silver of theirs to fashion models of yonder images, craftsman copying craftsman's design! And of such models they say, The man who would do sacrifice has but to kiss these calves. Fades the memory of them, light as early mist or morning dew, light as chaff on the threshing-floor, smoke from the chimney, when high blows the wind!
To be fair, here are some of my favorite litmus texts, which you can compare to my post on the Christian Community Bible.
Gen 1:1 God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth.
Is 7:14 Sign you ask none, but sign the Lord will give you. Maid shall be with child, and shall bear a son, that shall be called Emmanuel.
Jer 20:7 Lord, thou hast sent me on a fool's errand; if I played a fool's part, a strength greater than mine overmastered me; morn to night, what a laughingstock am I, every man's nay-word!
Jn 1:1 At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God.
Eph 1:3-14 (One sentence in the Greek!) Blessed be that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us, in Christ, with every spiritual blessing, higher than heaven itself. He has chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be saints, to be blameless in his sight, for love of him; marking us out beforehand (so his will decreed) to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ. Thus he would manifest the splendour of that grace by which he has taken us into his favour in the person of his beloved Son. It is in him and through his blood that we enjoy redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. So rich is God's grace, that he had overflowed upon us in a full stream of wisdom and discernment, to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will. It was his loving design, centred in Christ, to give history its fulfillment by resuming everything in him, all that is in heaven, all that is on earth, summed up in him. In him it was our lot to be called, singled out beforehand to suit his purpose (for it is he who is at work everywhere, carrying out the designs of his will); we were to manifest his glory, we who were the first to set our hope in Christ; in him you too were called, when you listened to the preaching of the truth, that gospel which is your salvation. In him you too learned to believe, and had the seal set on your faith by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit; a pledge of the inheritance which is ours, to redeem it for us and bring us into possession of it, and so manifest God's glory.
Especially when reading alongside a second, modern translation from the original languages, however, Knox is valuable for highlighting the many places where the Latin Vulgate differs from the Hebrew or Greek. For instance, in the third vision of Amos 7:7-9, God reveals himself to the prophet inspecting the walls of Samaria with a tool in hand. Relying on the Latin Vulgate, Knox renders this tool a “trowel,” which suggests that God is in the process of repairing the city and, symbolically, its broken people.
Amos 7:8-9a Why, Lord, I said, a plasterer's trowel! Ay, he answered, and here, in full view of Israel's folk, that trowel I lay aside; cementing they shall have from me no more.
Relying on the Hebrew, however, the RSV-2CE calls this tool a “plumb line,” the NABRE a “plummet.” The clear implication is that rather than repairing the broken society, God is evaluating its structural integrity, measuring how much it has shifted on its foundations or buckled, before demolishing it! Clearly the latter brings the Divine judgment of the prophetic vision to the foreground, where the former speaks to his steadfast love. To a Protestant, that’s nothing less than the corruption of the inspired Word. To a Catholic, on the other hand, it’s an example of how the inspired Word blossoms into multiple nuances of meaning.
This is the challenge of the Vulgate and, by extension, Knox. The Latin may not always capture what was originally written, but it does often preserve what was understood, especially when the Old Testament it translates is the Greek Septuagint and not the Torah in its Hebrew form. After all, it’s the Greek Old Testament that the apostle Paul quotes in his epistles to his Greek speaking churches, not the Hebrew. So even the first generation of apostolic Christians did not rely on the modern purists’s elevated view of the Bible in its original languages. For the Catholic, that’s a help, not a hindrance, since it allows us to tease more shades of meaning out of inspired texts. When it comes to faith, like the scholar of the law who stood up to test him, Jesus continues to ask the Church: “What is written in the law (i.e. Sacred Scripture)? How do you read it (Sacred Tradition)?” (Lk 10:26)
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like about the translation, and I think reading it from a more affordable used vintage copy like this is the way to go. I can forgive more of the archaisms that way because they are packaged with an “old book” scent. The student edition includes various Biblical maps which, in their period ink style, remind me a bit of Tolkien’s endpaper maps for the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
Similarly, there’s an interesting glimpse of pre-Vatican II feast days in a table of liturgical feasts in the back that seems strikingly Anglican now (e.g. St. David, St. George, Whit Monday).
As with all old books, especially old Bibles, their value grows with the lives they have touched before reaching our hands. Though I hate written notes in Bibles, I was delighted to see this inscription on the endpaper:
I have no idea who Davey and Rose are, but there’s a novel hidden in that sentence. Was this a sister writing to a brother in seminary? A pious girlfriend making a gift to her fashionably agnostic scholar boyfriend? A scandalous Anglican-Catholic romance? Are they perhaps a sweet aging couple today, somewhere south of London? Who knows? Thanks to Knox’s period and prose, I imagine Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger transported into a Graham Greene novel.
Do you read the Knox Bible? Why or why not? And the next time you do, please remember to pray for Rose and Davey.
Christopher Buckley holds an M.A. in Religion from the Claremont School of Theology. He began as a United Methodist and passed through the Episcopal Church before being confirmed into the Catholic Church as an adult. He lives and works in Seattle with his wife and two children, and blogs occasionally at StoryWiseGuy.com. Connect with him on Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Flickr, and LinkedIn, and Bible.com.