Thursday, 27 January 2011

Which translation?

As it is its 400th anniversary, I have committed to reading through the King James Bible this year. It is the first time I have properly read it and am enjoying it. A fresh translation with more unusual words forces the reader to look more closely at what is being said.

Doing some research I have also been introduced to the debate about whether the KJV is an infallible translation. This is quite a world to enter into - one inhabited by all sorts of rather ungracious accusation. The general arguement is that the KJV is based on a more reliable line of manuscripts stemming from Antioch rather than Alexandria (on which most modern translations are based), and that its translators were Bible believing Christians rather than an unholy mix of people (again, as with most modern translations).

I have to say I understand the desire to affirm an absolutely accurate English translation and sympathise with the concern over the agenda and thoroughness of translators. However I just cannot see that (a) the Bible texts affirming that God will preserve his word give us grounds for applying this to every word of the KJ over any other version, nor (b) that the history of textual criticism that prefers either Antioch or Alexandria could give us grounds for believing a specific compiled Greek text is absolutely accurate. Indeed there are good reasons to believe both to be erroneous to a small degree (see:

Reading between the lines, the logic of those who uphold the KJV seems to be that God's promise in scripture to preserve his word means that there must always be an absolutely accurate translation in use somewhere, and that because the KJV was used for 400 years and was based on the most used and most recently used manuscripts before its writing, it must be here that God has preserved his word.

The is ultimately a faith position which explains its refusal to accept scholarly suggestions that the KJV is not infallible. We should not scoff at this, as it can be likened to the mainstream Christian belief in the infallibility of the orginal autographs meaning the rejection of scholarly doubting of say the resurrection. No, the issue is whether scripture itself does actually teach that God would always preserve an infallible translation. And it is here, rather than over the technicalities of the transmission of the texts, that the debate should first be fought.

Much could be said. In brief, this is to move beyond what scripture actually says and what history actually attests:
  1. First, the two texts used to argue the case are Psa. 12:6-7 and Mat. 24:35. However, if this is a correct translation of the former, the Psalmist does not intend a absolute literalism that affirms a correct transmission of every word. His point is that the truth of God's law will be preserved and not disappear amidst the ungodliness of that generation. And that truth is not brought into question by minor uncertainities in the text. Again, even more explicitly, the point of the second verse is that Christ's teachings are sure and certain and will be a sure foundation for every. And no debated transmission or translation question actually changes these teachings. So neither of the two Bible verses is intended to refer to issues of translation etc.
  2. Second, history is actually clear that there was no complete Bible until some years after Christ. Until then therefore, if an infallible whole was being preserved, it was being preserved in different parts of the world in the form of different partial manuscripts that could only later be brought together. Yet this is is similar to what the textual scholars are always trying to do anyway. They are trying to collate what is likely to be most accurate from various manuscripts.
It seems then that the advocates of the KJV only cannot make their case consistently. So we are all left simply with trying to establish not what is the 'entirely accurate' translation, but what is the 'most accurate.' Here in my view some of the points made by the KJV advocates do need careful thought. If errors were included in the earliest Alexandrian manuscripts, they would have been copied and disceminated. However we cannot be sure that did not happen in the Antiochian school just because Antioch is portrayed in a more positive light in scripture. Instead, we can be confident where both lines of manuscripts agree, and must debate each point where they don't on its own merits. In this, it seems very sensible to (a) use a translation based on each school in Bible study and would suggest the ESV for Alexandria and the KJV Antioch, (b) read a commentary where there is debate, (c) consider context for any clues it may give, and (d) use a translation that has the alternatives made clear in the footnotes (as the ESV does).

A final point to make is that the majority of peoples in our world need the Bible in their own language not ancient English. The KJV advocates are therefore saying that God has preserved his word for the English speaking world but not for the rest. Surely it is far more consistent with the sovereignty and integrity of God to recognise that he has ensured such accuracy of scholarship and such clarity of truth in scripture itself that, even given minor textual uncertainities, that truth has been perfectly preserved in the sense that everything he expects us to hold to can be deduced from the better translations - whatever stream of transmission they favour.