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.)

Righteousness

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.

Conclusion

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.

8 thoughts on “F. F. Bruce on the Knox Bible (Part 3) — Guest Post by Bob Short”

  1. Bob,

    This has been a fantastic read. Thank you.

    I really do wish Bruce would have addressed the prophets in the Knox Bible. As one who loves the Knox I have never been able to fully make it my daily bible because of the difficulty there. I know his reasonings for rendering it in that way, but it becomes tedious reading.

    Also, what are your thoughts concerning the Knox at this point? Is there any hope for it to be relevant in the future? I am not sure. I wish so, since I am so fond of Knox. But there remains a number of obstacle that seem to me, at least, to force the Knox Bible into a category of “historical” bible and not one that is used in the 21st century.

    Great work!

    1. You know, I’ve always wondered why Knox doesn’t get more attention from Traditionalist Catholic groups such as the FSSP or other Latin Mass groups. I would love, for example, to see a 1962 Missal that utilizes Knox’s translation for the English side of the page.

      Before reading this series from Bob I had assumed that perhaps that translation would be considered too loose for that purpose, but after hearing how apparently strictly Knox adhered to the Clemetine (SP?) Vulgate, it seems like it does have some points in it’s favor. Besides, its not like the Mass itself is being done in the vernacular so how strictly literal does the English that the lay people are reading actually have to be? Seems to me this would be a situation where conveying the meaning of the text, vs it’s specific literal details, would be the priority.

      Sadly, due to Knox’s working from Latin, the only hope this translation has for continued use would seem to be in traditionalist circles, or perhaps those more interested in the Bible as a literary work rather as a texts for precise theological parsing.

      I’d be curious to know how well Baronius Press edition has sold, would probably be a pretty good indicator of the level of interest. Their edition was my first exposure to Knox.

      1. I think there is still a little wiggle room in how strictly Knox keeps to the Clementine text. The orbi vs. urbi choice I wrote about in Part One is a good illustration from something he seems to do every so often: if the Latin seems obscure or erroneous he sometimes “triangulates” a bit toward the Greek or Hebrew.

        I’m curious about the link between the Clementine Vulgate and the Douay Rheims. The original Douay Rheims was translated from the Vulgate BEFORE the Clementine rescension. (this is assuming what scholars believe that the DR Old Testament was translated at about the same time as the NT, but they didn’t have the money to print it for a while).

        Supposedly Challoner was updating the Douay Rheims but also checking it against the Clementine Vulgate. Some people say the Challoner hardly changed the DR, while others say he wrecked it by turning it to the King James. I can’t say which is true, but I bet it is in between, but slightly closer to the “hardly changed” than “turned it to the KJV”.

    2. I first bought the Knox Bible in early 2015, and definitely felt like the prophets were a problem! I have spent so much time teaching and reading Shakespeare in the last 5 years, though, and when I started reading the Knox a lot again last year I discovered that I didn’t find the prophets so strange anymore. I’m actually kind of enjoying the vigor and elevation of it. It feels strange saying that–I’m 33 years old, not an antiquarian in taste, and definitely not a Trad, but I think the prophets are just fine these days. I’m beginning to feel the same about the Douay Rhiems–it no longer feels so hard to understand, though there are a couple places in the prophets and epistles where it just seems like word-salad!

      Do I think the Knox would be relevant in the future? Maybe with enough effort it could be used in the FSSP lectionary. I am aware the Knox was allowed for use in the liturgy in the last years of the old Mass, but in the Tridentine Masses I’ve been to, the Epistles did not sound very Knox-y to these ears!

      It certainly will not be mainstream in any way. Anyone who wants a pre-1965 translation put in the lectionary is dreaming. I even doubt Baronius press will release another edition, like a pocket edition or a New Testament.

      I do think at some point the Church will double back and begin to show more respect to the Vulgate tradition, which could lead to a revision of the DR or the Knox. Revising the DR would be far easier, so I think we will see that.

      As for me, I could care less about its relevance to anyone else. That sounds more aggressive than I mean it to. I’m on the path of becoming a Benedictine Oblate and most of my bible reading is in the Liturgy of the Hours and lectio divina.

      As a side note, I have fallen in love with the Cistercian Studies series of books, and one of theirs is Praying the Word by Enzo Bianchi. Bianchi is not a Cistercian, but the prior of the Bose Monastic Community in Italy, which is kind of an ecumenical monastic movement that seems kind of like a more ascetic Taize. Anyway, the book is about lectio divina and Bianchi actually suggests bibles based on the Vulgate. He doesn’t go into why. In the context I think it is similar to my sympathy for Vulgate derived bibles lately–they are already embedded in the tradition of the Church. I wonder if there are more Vulgate derived bibles in Italian than in English. The way he wrote it as an offhand comment leaves me the impression that this attitude was a common one in Italy, but I could certainly be wrong.

      If the copyright lapses on the Knox, Timothy, you and I are going to update it for the 21st century. Or we can just 1941 Confraternity-ify the Douay.

  2. Hello Timothy. I have owned the Knox Bible for a good while but have not read through all of it. I was wondering what the issue is in the Prophets so I can look into it. I appreciate your insights on this and a lot of other Bible issues. Also, a little off topic, I have taken up the Message lately on your recommendation of it and find it fresh and invigorating in a lot of ways. I’m a little troubled in finding that Peterson kind of got into some controversy about same sex marriage and not translating homosexuality explicitly in the Message. It’s kind of got me a little torn but I have been enjoying it for sure. Any insight you can offer on this would be greatly appreciated! Thanks. Dave Awbrey.

    1. Dave,

      I don’t want to hijack Bob post on the Knox but I have never had an issue with how EP translated issues related to the homosexuality in the MSG. There are other passages, like in Romans 1, which I think informs how he translates those other passages. If you want to chat more about it, feel free to email me at mccorm(45)(at)yahoo(dot)com

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