Historical Cycles and the Modern Situation
The English Biblical scholar, F. J. A. Hort once made the observation that Protestant Christianity as we know it today, “. . . is only parenthetical and temporary.” Any student of church history would have to concur with his observation. The renewed Christianity of the sixteenth century gained a hard-earned peace and freedom which it has experienced since the triumph of the Reformation in the West; and though it may sound paradoxical, it is not suited to such leisure. Historically, the purest form of Christianity tends to thrive in a persecuted state. It was Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, who said that it was “the blood of the martyrs that was the seed of the church” [Earle E. Cairns, “Christianity Through the Centuries”, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 72].
If one could draw a principle that best bears this out from church history, it would be that persecution produces a pure form of Christianity which, in turn, becomes adopted by the persecuting powers; and thus it then loses its power and purity; then the cycle begins again when persecution is permitted to come and purge the church back to its pure state. The “blood of the martyrs” purchased the freedom of Christianity from “Imperial” Rome when Constantine adopted Christianity in 313 [B. K. Kuiper, “The Church In History” (Grand Rapids: The National Union of Christian Schools, Eerdmans, 1975), p. 24]. Just prior to the Protestant Reformation (speaking in broad terms) a decadent form of late medieval Christianity prevailed. With the reassertion of a more Biblical Christianity (still speaking in broad terms), Luther and the Reformers suffered great persecution from “Catholic” Rome, until at last Protestant freedom was purchased by “the blood of the martyrs.” It is under this present “parenthetical phase” that we are again entangled with an aberrant form of Christianity, which explains why the publishing of a Bible can be reduced solely to a moneymaking proposition. The Bible has in our age passed from the oversight of the church, into the hands of corporate Bible landlords, each with their own copyrighted editions of Holy Writ.
The Authorized Version is the one supreme treasure left to us from the last period of renewal, the very era that purchased our freedom, and it is meant to be a constant reminder of what is the true nature of Christianity. The A.V. translators still had fresh impressions of the Marian persecution at Smithfield. Without in any way wanting to needlessly invoke old sectarian animosities, nevertheless, it is important to understand the ethos from which the A.V. arose. This intensely emotional feeling is conveyed in the “Letter of Dedication to the King” (still found in many editions of the A.V.) in which the translators make reference to the freshly won victory over medieval religion. Here they speak in terms of the truth prevailing over the Pope, “. . . which hath given such a blow unto that man of sin, as will not be healed . . .” They also invoked the tendency of the old church to thwart distribution of the Scriptures to the common man:
“So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s Holy truth to be yet more and more known unto the people whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness . . . we may rest secure, supported within by the truth . . . [Oxford or Cambridge Editions of the Authorized Version. Citing this provocative document should not be interpreted as a piece of Protestant triumphalism, particularly in light of the historical record of misapplication of Scripture once placed in the hands of Protestant communities, i.e., the burning of Michael Servetus at the hands of the Genevan Calvinists, the slaughter of the peasants under Luther’s watchful eye, and the regicide at the hands of the English Puritans. Rather, it is intended to be honest about the historical ethos from which the 1611 edition came forth.]
Scholars agree that the A.V. is virtually the work of William Tyndale (the A.V. is nine tenths his version) [Neil R. Lightfoot, “How We Got the Bible” (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), p. 101], and as such, it is a blood-stained book in one respect, because Tyndale sealed his work with his death at the stake. His parting prayer was for God to open the eyes of the king of England so that he might grant to the people the freedom to read the Bible in their own language [Ibid., p. 99. What Tyndale meant by in their “own language” was ENGLISH, rather than LATIN, not conversational colloquialism!]. That prayer was answered, but how insignificant such freedom seems to most of us today, particularly as a result of the cheapening of the Biblical text in the hands of so many religious merchandisers.
The A.V., on the other hand, has for 385 years been our link with the conservative Anglican Reformation heritage and as such represents a William Tyndale type of Christianity; and if given the choice to embrace the type of Christianity historically produced by the A.V. (if I may be allowed to speak in such terms), or the type that has been produced since the arrival of “the Bible in the language of the people,” I feel constrained to embrace the former, archaisms and all.
Not only does the A.V. supply a Christian with a sense of identity by giving him a direct link with his Protestant roots, and the “via media” of the English Reformation, but it also undergirds this sense of identity by supplying him with a unifying force for the present. For example, there is a popular misconception that the name “Authorized Version” was given to the 1611 edition because of some official decree given by King James, but this just was not so. King James merely gave permission for the translation to take place only after he was asked by John Reynolds, one of the translators. “Strictly speaking, the authorized version was never authorized, nor were parish churches ordered to procure it [S. L. Greenslade, ed., “The Cambridge History of the Bible”, vol. 3, “The West From the Reformation to the Present” (London: Cambridge University Press) p. 168]. It seems to have acquired the title on its own merit!
This common consensus is so well established it hardly requires to be labored. F. F. Bruce acknowledged that,
“it is well recognized that, throughout the English speaking world, there are hundreds of thousands of readers by whom this version [the A.V.] is accepted as ‘The Word of God’ in a sense in which no other version would be accepted” [Bruce, “The English Bible”, p. 112].
It has also been described as having “acquired a sanctity properly ascribable only to the unmediated voice of God” [Greenslade, “The Cambridge History”, p. 168].
The most telling summation, however, both of the unifying effect of the A.V., as well as its ability to command authority, was given by Burgon:
“Whatever may be urged in favour of Biblical revision, it is at least undeniable that the undertaking involves a tremendous risk. Our A.V. is the one religious link which at present binds together ninety millions of English-speaking men scattered over the earth’s surface. Is it reasonable that so unutterably precious, so sacred a bond should be endangered, for the sake of representing certain words more accurately — here and there translating a tense with greater precision — getting rid of a few archaisms? It may be confidently assumed that no revision of our A.V., however judiciously executed, will ever occupy the place in publick [sic] esteem which is actually enjoyed by the work of the translators of 1611 — the noblest literary work in the Anglo-Saxon language. We shall in fact never have another “Authorized Version” [John W. Burgon. “The Revision Revised”, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1885), p. 113].
Another illustration of the A.V.’s ability to command authority to the popular mind is seen in the Gideon Bible found in most hospitals and motels. In spite of all the Madison Avenue talk about “more reliable manuscripts” the Gideons still publish the A.V. text as their Bible. The Gideons have seen them all come and go over the years, from the first Revised Version in 1883, to the present “superstar,” the New International Version, and to date, it is still the A.V. that holds sway over the popular mind [They do, however, supply modern language versions on special request]
With so much discussion about the need for unity in the church one would think that more people would recognize the value of the A.V. to this end, but instead one hears only of using “the Bible of your choice,” which tends to lead to fragmentation in any group study, rather than to unity.
The results of having an abundance of modern versions to choose from are anything but constructive. According to an article in the New York Times, within the past twenty years “several hundred versions of the Bible, catering to every niche of reader” has resulted in a glut in the market, “too many Bibles for too few faithful” [”The Bible, a Perennial, Runs into Sales Resistance,” New York Times (October 28, 1996)]. The obvious problem of conflicting translations is illustrated by the many books that follow in the wake of the many translations, which attempt to clarify why there are so many translations! A few recent titles are, “Why So Many Bibles?”, 1968; “What Bible Can You Trust?”, 1974; “Which Bible?”, 1975; “So Many Versions?”, 1975; and others.
John 1:18 provides a good example of the kind of confusion that results from conflicting translations. The A.V. (and the KJ21) reads
“No man hath seen God at any time; The Only Begotten Son, Which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.”
The italicized portion of the verse is rendered in the following different ways by some modern versions:
N.I.V. and T.E.V. “The only Son” [”begotten” omitted]
N.A.S.V. “The Only Begotten God” [Polytheism?]
N.E.B. “God’s Only Son” [”begotten” omitted and “God” added]
Which is correct? [For a detailed and technical treatment of this variant, see Theodore P. Letis, “The Gnostic Influences on the Text of the Fourth Gospel: John 1:18 in the Egyptian Manuscripts and the Canonical Approach,” in The Ecclesiastical Text: Textual Criticism, Biblical Authority and the Popular Mind (Institute for Reformation Biblical Studies, 1997)].
As for the footnotes in the modern versions, they seem to be questioning the authenticity of every other verse with comments such as “not found in some ancient manuscripts” or “some manuscripts add,” without offering any explanation as to the value of these optional readings, or the various manuscripts they come from.
This tends to leave the average reader (unconsciously perhaps) with a doubtful attitude regarding what he can consider authoritative and in some sense final. Burgon noted this when such footnotes were first employed in the R.V. (1881):
“The marginal readings, which our revisers have been so ill-advised as to put prominently forward, and to introduce to the reader’s notice with the vague statement that they are sanctioned by ‘some’ (or by ‘Many’) ‘ancient authorities’, — are specimens ARBITRARILY SELECTED out of an immense mass . . . No hint is given as to WHICH BE the ‘ancient authorities’ so referred to: — nor what proportion they bear to the ancient authorities producible on the opposite side: — nor whether they are even the MOST ‘ancient authorities’ obtainable: — nor what amount of attention their testimony may reasonably claim . . . How comes it to pass that you have . . . instead, volunteered in every page information, worthless in itself, which can only serve to unsettle the faith of unlettered millions, and to suggest unreasonable as well as miserable doubts to the minds of all? [”The Revision Revised”, pp. 130, 131].
We have become so desensitized by these notes in our modern editions that one can hardly appreciate the impact they must have had on the first generation to encounter them in the Revised Version (1883). An example that might be able to shake us afresh will serve to illustrate just how misleading such footnotes can be.
At Mark 16:9-20, in the “New International Version”, there is a footnote stating, “The most reliable early manuscripts omit Mark 16:9-20.” What they fail to make clear is that out of the approximately 5,487 [Graham Stanton, “Gospel Truth: New Light on Jesus and the Gospels” (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 37] Greek manuscripts available to scholars, of those that contain Mark, only three manuscripts omit this passage. Two of them, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, were put to the most detailed study of perhaps any others to date, by Herman Hoskier, in his “Codex B and Its Allies: A Study and an Indictment” (1914). No man in his day, nor perhaps since, knew these two documents as intimately as did Hoskier. The conclusion of his study offered the following consensus:
“To revive the Egyptian textual standard [represented by Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus] of A.D. 200-400 is not scientific, and it is certainly not final. The truth is scattered over all our documents and is not inherent entirely in any one document, nor in any two. Hort persuaded himself that where Aleph B were together . . . they must be right. This kind of fetishism must be done away with” [”Codex B”, vol. 1, p. 487].
In conclusion the Authorized Version should be retained by the churches, as well as in Bible study and in the classroom, because of the superior consensus represented by its Greek text, its translation technique, and its English usage; and because it not only provides the Christian with a link to his Protestant heritage, but it also supplies him with a sense of unifying identity for the present.
I do not believe, however, that anyone has the right, nor the authority, to pontificate to the Christian world one Bible alone as Holy Scripture, while anathematizing the rest to the incinerator (the Holy Spirit Himself must ultimately bear witness to the Divine final authority). We have all heard testimonies of people who have come to the Christian faith by reading a Jehovah’s Witness Bible. Martin Luther received salvation light from a Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate. We should never think that the Holy Spirit is limited to Elizabethan English.
But to whom much is given, much will be required. Those of us who have become aware that the modern Bibles represent more the abstract concerns emanating from the competing textual theories of various specialists, as well as representing the more pragmatic concerns of the Bible marketing industry which has capitalized on the loss of consensus produced by the specialists, it would seem we have a responsibility. That is, to direct young and seeking pilgrims, as well as seasoned saints, back to the “old landmarks.” John Wesley stated it this way:
“I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a Book. 0 give me that Book! At any price, give me THE Book of God!” [emphasis mine]
veritas temporis filia
(Article by the late Theodore Letis)