Translating the Good Book

WIDE AS THE WATERS: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick. Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $26.

Newsday, May 6, 2001

FOR ANYONE WHO has ever spent time in a motel room, it might be difficult to imagine a world in which the average person couldn’t read the Christian Bible. In medieval England, however, books, which had to be copied by hand, were scarce (to say nothing of motels). Few individuals had the ability to comprehend the Old and New Testaments in the accepted form, the Latin Vulgate rendered by St. Jerome in the year 405. Moreover, the Catholic hierarchy prohibited laymen from perusing the Latin and considered the knowledge of biblical verses in the vernacular to be heresy.

When the first full English translation was completed in the late 14th century, “bible reading, even among the clergy, was surprisingly rare,” Benson Bobrick remarks early on in “Wide as the Waters.” By the end of Bobrick’s meandering and intermittently engaging trudge across four centuries and several disciplines, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan supporters are toting pocket-sized Bibles in their boots as they vanquish forces loyal to King Charles I at the Battle of Naseby. The image of the Bible-carrying soldier encapsulates the sweeping social changes that paralleled the translation and dissemination of the book: the invention of the printing press, the blossoming of written English, the Protestant Reformation, the weakening of the British monarchy and the emergent ideas about individual rights that would inspire reform at home and democracy in the American colonies.

Bobrick is a popular historian whose earlier books have tackled subjects from Siberia to stuttering to the American Revolution. As his lengthy bibliography attests, he is hardly the first to attempt to situate the development of an English Bible within these historical, theological and literary trends. The promise of a book such as “Wide as the Waters” is that by amalgamating and synthesizing earlier research, it will tell a story that is clear and compelling to the curious layman.

To be sure, Bobrick takes on a rich subject, and he approaches it with a genuine enthusiasm. The story begins with John Wycliffe, a 14th century theologian who spoke out against the corruption, politicization and arbitrary judgments of the church. Wycliffe, who rejected indulgences, confession and the infallibility of the Pope, “held that the only way to free the minds of Christians from the corrupt tyrannies of papal rule was to make the text of Scripture available to them directly, so they could judge controversial matters for themselves,” Bobrick writes.

Making that text available posed numerous challenges for the team of translators working under Wycliffe. English had many regional dialects; many ecclesiastical terms lacked equivalents in the vernacular, and volumes of the Vulgate accumulated centuries of copyists’ errors. The translators finished their work in 1382, but that same year the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group to condemn Wycliffe and his associates for their heretical views. By the early 15th century, the church ordered Wycliffe’s remains exhumed and burnt, his writings destroyed and traveling preachers or anyone in possession of a Wycliffe Bible arrested.

More than a hundred years passed before John Tyndale began to render the New Testament directly from the original Greek. By the 1520s, Gutenberg had printed his Latin Bible and Martin Luther posted his theses, and biblical translation became more perilous. Tyndale had to flee England, and his New Testament was completed and printed on the continent and smuggled back across the Channel. He then set to work on a Pentateuch from the original Hebrew but was executed before he could make his way through the entire Old Testament.

The English Bible finally found acceptance upon Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. “His open repudiation of papal supremacy left him implicitly committed to the Bible’s paramount authority,” Bobrick writes. Several new translations built upon Tyndale’s, including the Great Bible, authorized by Henry; the Geneva Bible, with its Puritan glosses, and the Bishop’s Bible, commissioned under Elizabeth I. Catholics countered with the Douai-Rheims Bible, which was more heavily inflected by Latin words and papist doctrine than Protestant renderings. Finally, King James I brought together a panel of learned scholars to pore over originals and previous translations to produce the version that bears his name.

Bobrick’s discussion of the King James Version, published in 1611 after six years of work, highlights the strengths and weaknesses of “Wide as the Waters.” It is chock-full of diverting tidbits, some of which advance the story; one edition, known as the Wicked Bible, accidentally omitted the word “not” from the commandment forbidding adultery. And the portrait of the erudite but inept James makes him perhaps the most intriguing character in the book.

Other figures come across less vividly, however. Some of this can be excused by a lack of information about what, say, John Wycliffe was like as a man. However, the overlong enumeration of the rosters of the six translating panels assigned to the King James is scarcely more illuminating for the nonspecialist than the extended genealogies in the Old Testament.

Bobrick does point out how the King James Bible, like the Tyndale before it, brought Hebraic syntax into English through possessive constructions like “book of Moses” and superlatives such as “holy of holies.” When comparing the final King James against early drafts or previous translation efforts, however, Bobrick does little more than print the passages one after another and proclaim that “the choices seem unerringly right” or that a given phrase is “just and enduring.” Without further explication, the reader is left to wonder whether Bobrick is basing his judgments on accuracy, poetics or personal taste. Instead, he supplies amusing but arguably relevant digressions about the plethora of ovine idioms (“dyed in the wool,” “homespun”) created in the 16th century.

Less frustrating than the linguistic analysis are the discussions of religious quarrels and political machinations, but how these events influenced, or were influenced by, the English Bible does not always come clear. “Wide as the Waters” explores many fascinating directions, but gives none of its grand themes its full due.

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