Chronicles: Readable as Froissart
Luckily for us Catholics, we do not need to be quite so anxious about the “precise sense of the original” than our separated brethren. I am reminded of a comment a friend made: “I’m done studying the Bible. Now I just want to read it.” After years spent knee deep in NABRE notes and study bibles, I am starting to see it that way too, and finding the Knox to be a constant companion. Let’s see what Bruce has to say now that he has his qualms with translating a translation out of the way.
“But Knox’s version has the overwhelming advantage of being the work of a man who had an uncanny instinct for getting the right word or the right phrase in any given context. As readers of his other works know, Knox was a master of English style, and not of one English style only. He can adapt the style to the subject-matter and the author’s purpose with convincing effect…Never did a translation read less like a translation.” Bruce quotes Knox’s remark that Paralipomena (known to you modernists as Chronicles) should be as readable as Froissart, the Medieval French historian renowned for his Arthurian romances, and then, as if to advertise, quotes two selections of 2 Chronicles at length.
“That same night, the Lord appeared to him, bidding him choose what gift he would. Thou hast been very merciful, Solomon answered, to my father David, in granting him a son to succeed him; and now, Lord God, make good thy promise to him. Since thou hast made me king over thy people, a great people countless as the dust, grant me wisdom and discernment in all my dealings with them. How else should a man sit in judgement over such a people as this, great as thy people is great? And the Lord answered, For this choice thou hast made, thou shalt be rewarded. Thou didst not ask for riches or possessions, for glory, or vengeance upon thy enemies, or a long life. Thy prayer was for wisdom and discernment, to make thee a better judge for the subjects I have given thee. Wisdom and discernment thou shalt have; and I will give thee riches and possession too, and such glory as never king shall have before or after thee.” (2 Chronicles 1:7-12)
“But this greatness of his made his heart proud, to his own undoing. He slighted the Lord his God; into the temple he would go, and there burn incense at the censing-altar. Close at his heels the high priest Azarias entered, and eighty priests with him, strong men all, to withstand the royal will. Not for thee, Ozias, they cried, to burn incense in the Lord’s honour; that is for the priests, the sons of Aaron, that are set apart for this office. Leave this holy place, and profane it no more; thou wilt win no favour from the Lord God by such doings as these. At this, Ozias turned round in anger, the censer already in his hand with the incense ready for lighting, and began to threaten them. And with that, in the priests’ presence, there in the Lord’s house, by the censing-altar, the mark of leprosy started out on his brow. No time they lost, Azarias and his fellow priests, that sign once seen, in thrusting out the leper; he himself, feeling the stroke of the Lord’s present judgement, was in haste to be gone. King Ozias remained a leper till the day of his death, dwelling apart in a house of his own, while his son Joatham had charge of the palace, and heard the complaints of his subjects. What else Ozias did, first and last, stands recorded by the prophet Isaias, son of Amos. At last he was laid to rest with his fathers, not among the royal tombs, because he was a leper, but in the same burying-ground. And the throne passed to his son Joatham.” (2 Chronicles 26:16ff)
While conceding Knox’s point that no translator will ever make Leviticus “newsy”, Bruce offers a few verses which make the book seem rather inviting. (I read Leviticus in the Knox last Lent and was surprised how engaging it was.) “Any Israelite, or alien dwelling among you, who consumes the blood when he eats, becomes my enemy; I will sever him from my people. It is the blood that animates all living things, and I have destined it to make atonement for your souls upon the altar, blood for the purgation of your souls. That is why I have warned the sons of Israel that neither they nor the aliens who dwell among them must consume the blood when they eat. Any Israelite, or alien living among you, who hunts down a beast or snares a bird, such as you are allowed to eat, must drain its blood and cover it with earth. Because it animates all living things, I give the songs of Israel this warning: Never, on pain of death, turn it to your own use, the blood that holds the life.”
One element of Knox’s translation that gets very little mention, but is one of his largest philosophical differences from other translators, is his resistance to Hebrew parallelism. It isn’t that he wasn’t aware of it, rather he thinks it quickly grates on the ear when translated into English. As an illustration of this, Bruce compares the KJV and the Knox in their respective openings to the book of the prophet Amos. The KJV carries the parallel lines, rendering, “The Lord will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem”, while the Knox reads “Loud as roaring of lion, said he, the Lord will speak in thunder from his citadel at Jerusalem.”
He mentions, as do many, Knox’s bravura performance with the acrostic of Psalm 119, and then moves onto the poetry of the Song of Songs, where he compliments Knox’s literary style and poetry in comparison with other dynamic equivalence translations: “What wonder the maids should love thee?” vs Moffat’s “the girls are all in love with you”. “Indeed,” Bruce writes, “the Song of Songs has probably never been rendered into such beautiful English as in Knox’s version.” He then goes on to quote another large block of Knox’s text: Song of Songs 2: 8-14: “The voice I love! See where he comes, how he speeds over the mountains, how he spurns the hills! Gazelle nor fawn was ever so fleet of foot as my heart’s love. And now he is standing on the other side of this very wall; now he is looking in through each window in turn, peering through every chink. I can hear my true love calling to me: Rise up, rise up quickly, dear heart, so gentle, so beautiful, rise up and come with me. Winter is over now, the rain has passed by. At home, the flowers have begun to blossom; pruning-time has come; we can hear the turtle-dove cooing already, there at home. There is green fruit on the fig-trees; the vines in flower are all fragrance. Rouse thee, and come, so beautiful, so well beloved, still hiding thyself as a dove hides in cleft rock or crannied wall. Shew me but thy face, let me but hear thy voice, that voice sweet as thy face is fair.”
He then comments more on Knox’s remarks from On Englishing the Bible regarding the idiom and register he used, as he tried to create a Bible that wouldn’t be seen as hopelessly dated by the Englishmen of 2150. We may say now that Knox had grossly underestimated the quickening rate of social change, but how many of us would have predicted the new round of pronoun wars (they as a singular) even three years ago? Knox tried to steer between too archaic and being too idiomatic in a “contemporary journalese sense”. For the Old Testament, though, Knox interestingly thought that only “an earlier and more vigorous tradition of English” gave the proper effect. That would explain why Knox’s rendering of the prophets, especially, are divisive among modern readers, though Bruce does not comment on this at all. Perhaps the problem is with us provincial Yanks, who likely were not educated in the fine art of subject-verb inversion as a man born in Edwardian England. (As for me, I will gladly refuse to watch Star Wars films for the rest of my life so I do not have to hear Yoda’s voice when I read Knox’s Jeremiah—or excuse me, Jeremias.)
For many readers of On Englishing the Bible, the most mind-blowing section is Knox’s complete and utter takedown of “righteousness” as a biblical word so full of shades of meaning that it has been reduced to utter meaninglessness. While Bruce is obviously quite familiar with this work, he does not see fit to reference it while making a desultory complaint that the doctrine of justification is a bit hard to see in Knox’s translation.
“This, then, was reckoned virtue in him; and the words, It was reckoned virtue in him, were not written of him only; they were written of us too. It will be reckoned virtue in us, if we believe in God as having raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead: handed over to death for our sins, and raised to life for our justification.”
After quoting these words from Romans 4, Bruce complains that the “introduction of such words as “holiness” and “virtue” tends to confuse the issue.”
I’ve often thought that Paul would be very surprised to meet a contemporary Protestant and discover that the main thrust of his theology was “justification by faith” over and against “works righteousness”, even among the people kind enough not to blame him for penal substitution theology and double predestination. I’m not an iota of the scholar Bruce was, but I’m glad the New Perspective on Paul movement has liberated mainstream Protestant scholarship from this theological box, though some are slow to realize it.
After a rundown on the sort of footnotes one might expect reading the Knox, Bruce ends with some words doubtlessly edited for the second edition: “It is with difficulty that one resists the temptation to go on giving further sample quotations. Suffice it to say that, for all the inevitable limitations of a secondary version, Knox has given us a most readable edition of the English Bible. It may now, as some suggest, have something of the nature of a period piece, but it is none the less attractive for that.”
A translation of a translation, a period piece, a triumph of literary style. I think that F.F. Bruce hit the nail on the head. This is a translation, for me at least, where I can sense the beauty of God. It makes me want to read more scripture. It is highly compatible with praying with scripture. Maybe if I were an apologist I’d pick up something more literal, but for where I am in my own journey it is just perfect.