On Improving the Style of the Bible

by John H. Gardiner

Atlantic Monthly, vol. 94 (1904), pp. 683-92.

In recent times we have heard much of new versions of the Bible which shall freshen its message and restore the vivifying power of its great truths. It has been discovered that there is something deadening in the old division into verses, and a hidden but magical virtue in the restoration of paragraphs; and that new light clothes the poetical passages when they are printed in broken lines. In somewhat the same spirit there are writers who look on a preference for the King James Version over the Revised as a willful choice of darkness rather than light, and a sign of blind medievalism; and who hold that the language of the old version, not being the language of the street and of the newspaper to-day, is unintelligible and repellent to our modern babes and sucklings; so that ministers and Sunday-school teachers must translate it laboriously into commonplace words in order to make clear that the book is inspired.

One need not go far afield for examples of this spirit, nor to such extravagant examples of this spirit as the following, from an article in the Biblical World of the University of Chicago: —

“As a people Israel followed a zigzag pathway down through antiquity. It was also beset by unnumbered difficulties of various kinds. It led through daring and danger, through woes and foes, through knavery and slavery, through water, waste and war into the promised land. Once here, Canaan on the right of them, on the left of them, in front of them, and among them rallied and plundered.”

In a tempered and intelligently considered form the love of paraphrase appears in many Scripture histories. Here is an example from a recent work of scholarly importance; it is a paraphrase of the stirring account of the murder of Jezebel in 2 Kings ix: —

“Jehu had not followed Ahaziah, but, giving command to his adjutant to throw the body of Joram into the vineyard of Naboth, he himself proceeded to secure the palace. Jezebel, as queen-mother, had continued to rule the kingdom after the death of Ahab. Her death was even more necessary than the death of her son. She was not ignorant of what was going on and was doubtless aware that the hearts of her people were estranged from her. Nothing was left her except to meet death as a queen should meet it. So she arrayed herself in her royal robes, and from a window that commanded the palace gate, saluted the entering enemy. ‘Hail, thou Zimri, thou assassin!’ was the cry that uttered all her scorn. Jehu could only reply : ‘Who are you, to bandy words with me?’ Then, as he saw the servants near her, he commanded them to pitch her headlong from the window. None seemed able to resist his will, and the eunuchs threw her down. Her blood spattered the wall, and her body was mangled by the hoofs of the plunging horses. Such was the end of the imperious Jezebel, daughter of kings, wife of a king, mother of kings. Her unscrupulous acts brought destruction upon herself and upon her children, but we can hardly refuse our tribute of admiration to the right royal way in which she met her fate.”

So strong is this feeling that the old language of the English version has lost its virtue, that a body of anonymous scholars has set forth a Twentieth Century New Testament, whose origin, as they declare, lay in “the discovery that the English of the Authorized Version (closely followed in that of the Revised Version), though valued by the more educated reader for its antique charm, is in many passages difficult for those who are less educated, or is even unintelligible to them. The retention, too, of a form of English no longer in common use not only gives the impression that the contents of the Bible have little to do with the life of our own day, but also requires the expenditure of much time and labor on the part of those who wish to understand or explain it.” Here are some examples of their labors. From Matthew xxiii: —

“The Rabbis and Pharisees now occupy the chair of Moses. Therefore practice and lay to heart everything they tell you, but do not follow their example, for they preach but do not practice. While they make up heavy loads and pile them on other people’s shoulders, they decline, themselves, to lift a finger to remove them. Indeed, all their actions are done to attract attention. They widen the texts which they wear as charms, and increase the size of their tassels, and like having the place of honour at dinners, and the front seats in the Synagogues, and being greeted in the streets with respect, and being called Rabbi by everybody.”

And from Luke xii: —

“Think of the lilies, how they grow! they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his grandeur was not robed like one of them. If then God dressed in this way the very wild-flowers, which are living to-day and will be used for the oven to-morrow, how much more will he do the same for you, you men of small faith! And so in your case, do not be eager about what you can get to eat or what you can get to drink, and do not live in a state of suspense.”

Concerning such results, of which I shall presently quote some more examples, one must admit that they attain the level of style of the daily newspaper. They certainly do not cloud the meaning by any glamour of literary distinction.

Still further examples of this desire to put meaning into the words of the Bible may be found in the studies in “Comparative Translation” set forth in the Biblical World in each number since January, 1903, in which the authors present a short passage in the original language, followed by the rendering of the Authorized and the Revised Versions, and then by a number of modern renderings, ending with “a translation of the editors, which will seek to express the idea as one would now express it if the idea were quite new, and he wished to tell it to some one else.” Here are two examples of their results: In Ecclesiastes xi, 1: For the “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shall find it after many days,” of the Authorized, they suggest: “Do good even to those from whom you may expect no gratitude and no return: after years of waiting you will find your reward.” The second is from 1 Peter i, 17-21, where the Authorized reads: —

“And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:

“Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers:

“But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot:

“Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,

“Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.”

Here these clarifiers and improvers of the text offer us the following: —

“God your Father requires of you, as of all men, a holy life. He has lifted you from your pagan ideals and practices to this higher plane of living, not by an ordinary commercial transaction, but by the giving of his own perfect Son. This supreme blessing to men, which God planned before he created them, has now been bestowed in Christ, whom he raised from the dead and exalted to heaven. You therefore have the best reason to trust God and to hope through his assistance to live aright.”

The spirit of which these quotations are crass examples is tolerably widespread, as may be seen from the number and variety of modern renderings quoted by the Biblical World. The advance of scholarship has made possible the many corrections of the old text which are set forth in the Revised Version; and in technical works scholars are apt to cut entirely loose from the old phrasing in order to reach a higher degree of accuracy. For all such efforts there is undoubtedly a call and a need; otherwise scholarly and earnest men, who give their lives to the spread of the Gospel, — Good News, as the Twentieth Century New Testament translates the word, — would hardly have spent so much time on the task. Forms of words which are familiar tend to lose their hold on the attention; and in the case of the Bible there is an especial danger that the words may pass through the mind without making much articulate impression, since many of us have first known them through church services or family reading in the earlier days of childhood. At that age many words must be heard without understanding; so that afterwards, we may for a long time listen to them without ever clearly realizing their actual meaning and implications. For this vague and unapprehending kind of reading the modern paraphrases are a correction. The very unfamiliarity of the phrasing pricks the mind to attention; and a flagrant and ugly incongruousness between the thought and its form forbids the diffused, half-dreaming enjoyment which sometimes veils for us the precise meaning of a passage in the Authorized Version.

Moreover, it is also true that in many cases the words which to the scholar of the sixteenth century were natural and true renderings of the Hebrew and Greek, to-day are either somewhat archaic or have been found to be inaccurate. Thou or ye for you, swine for pigs, sore afraid, all being no longer in familiar use, have a somewhat different connotation for us than they had for Tindale and his successors. So, on the other hand, modern historians are probably right in holding that it gives us a clearer notion of the real facts, to call Barak the Sheikh of Naphtali, and David, in the days of his alliance with the Philistines, the Emir of Ziklag. Nevertheless, one may doubt whether strangeness or inaccuracy in such minutiae ever produced any serious misunderstanding. To children many more words are unfamiliar than their elders suspect; as the teacher in Minnesota would testify, who, in reading the Wreck of the Hesperus with her class, discovered that to some of them the word “schooner” meant only a vessel to hold beer; or as was the case with the child who, hearing Sunday after Sunday the lines of the hymn, “The lambs He in His arms doth hold, and in His bosom bears,” pictured to herself a mingled burden of white lambs and woolly black cubs. Teachers of children must be resigned to “the expenditure of much time and labour,” not to speak of quick and sympathetic imagination, if they are always to keep the imaginations of their charges from ever roving in strange directions. And even a grown-up reader must put up with some inaccuracy of understanding in details if his reading has much range, since he can keep himself posted only in the larger results of current scholarship.

Nevertheless, as I have said, one must recognize the good service paraphrases and fresh translations may do by correcting and vivifying impressions of meanings when they are become either vague and inaccurate or else dulled through easy familiarity. It is well that we should be made to realize the Oriental setting of the Old Testament, and the homely simplicity of Jesus’ intercourse with his disciples; and in so far as the language of the Authorized Version obscures such facts it needs correction.

On the other hand, when paraphrase or retranslation shows such unskillfulness in the use of language as characterizes the Twentieth Century New Testament or the renderings of the Biblical World, the actual loss of meaning is greater than the gain. Translation calls for a thorough and sensitive knowledge of two languages and high skill in the use of one; and skill in the use of a language means not only a nice feeling for the distinctions between synonyms, but also a feeling for the associations which give the color to words, and for the rhythm which gives life to connected discourse. One may easily attain novelty by disregarding such matters in a translation of the Bible, but neither full expressiveness nor universal acceptance and permanence.

Mere literary ineptitude, however, needs no serious discussion. What I wish to consider here is rather the diminished power of expression that one notices in reading even the best of modern translations and paraphrases; and in the second place the special source of power which lies in the sensuous form of style, over and above the meaning of the words. Thus we may arrive at a definition or indication of some of the attributes which are essential, over and above literal accuracy, to an adequate translation of the Scriptures. Some comparison of modern versions or paraphrases with the corresponding passages of the Authorized will provide us a favorable base for such a study, since the substance is the same, and the difference in power of expression therefore lies almost entirely in the less tangible elements of the style.

In this discussion one must not neglect the fact that the hold of the old version on our feelings is due in part to long familiarity; for in such matters mere strangeness creates dislike. The intimacy with which the Bible is woven into English literature is, without doubt, in considerable degree a result of the absorption of our fathers in the stories and teachings of the book. On the other hand, if the view which I shall here set forth be sound, this close and affectionate acquaintance with the book is in itself partly due to the musical attributes of the style; and we can point to the slight hold which the French Bible, which is inferior in just these respects, has gained on the French people, contrasted with the strong and deep hold of the German and English versions, each of them masterpieces of style, as a partial confirmation of this view.

In secular writings we call the special power of style to move the feelings eloquence, and recognize its potency without question. Only in matters which fall under the sway of scholarship is it commonly neglected. In no case is it susceptible of any thorough analysis and definition, for it is bound up with the deeper emotions and feelings of mankind, which cannot be reasoned about. Nevertheless one can point out, on the one hand, some aspects of the fundamental truths which can be expressed only by these non-rational and indefinable qualities of style; and, on the other hand, can name some, at any rate, of the attributes or qualities which a style must possess if it is to express such truths.

In the first place we may point out that the deeper and more elemental truths come to us by intuition rather than by reasoning: and that truths thus intuitively apprehended have an especial and coercive power of conviction. Faith, whether in the power of the Gospel or in the present and future dominance of science, is more compelling than reason. Moreover, in almost all our active life, we arrive at our conclusions by intuition or feeling; we judge of our acquaintances, we buy or sell, we choose our books or our occupations, because of causes which we can never exhaustively explain even to ourselves. Much more is this true of our apprehension of the underlying truths and principles which determine the set and tendency of our thought. We give elaborate and ingenious reasons why we are idealists or rationalists, believers or agnostics; and all the time the real cause lies far below the soundings of analysis in temperamental feelings too vague and diffused to be brought within the limits of a definition, too impalpable to be drawn into any process of abstraction. The perennial failure of metaphysicians to catch one another by the most cunningly and strongly woven arguments is the standing example of the prepotence of intuition, even in what we call our intellectual life.

This helplessness of reason and logic is much more obvious in the field of religion, where of necessity, if God is infinite and the soul is immortal, we must be content in this life to see through a glass darkly. Here the most that we can hope for is to have glimpses of the truth; for the truth itself, being infinite, must transcend finite powers of apprehension and definition. In the matters, therefore, with which the Bible is concerned intuition is our only means of grasping the truth; and forms of speech which have been invented to express reasoning by analysis and abstraction are of no service. Our intuition of such truths can at best be only shadowed forth, and then only by that inspired use of language which we call eloquence.

In the second place, as all men recognize, the element of emotion, which is inseparable from intuition, is even less separable from religion. How large a part it plays in any given case depends on temperament: in those churches where music and a luxuriant ritual are the chief constituents of worship, emotion is the largest part of the force that moves to a pure and charitable life; and even in the extreme forms of Puritanism the minister in his prayers aims to inform both his audience and his Maker of the emotion welling up within his soul that makes for righteousness. But whether warm and dominant, or cool and restrained, this emotion is the essential characteristic of religion.

We may say, therefore, that any translation of the Bible which shall be at all adequate to its task must be able to express those deep truths which we can reach only by intuition, and those large and noble emotions which make religion an active force in the world.

The language of such a translation will, as I have said, have little to do with the expression of abstract reasoning, for there is none such in the Bible; and it will therefore need few of the abstract and general words in which philosophers and theologians delight. But in proportion as abstract words of a precise denotation are less important, the connotation of concrete words, and the expressive power of rhythm become a larger and pressing necessity. It is a fundamental truth in rhetoric that those overtones of meaning which we call connotation inhere in the concrete word, and fade out as a vocabulary becomes abstract; and that the expression of feeling is through this connotation, which includes all those emotional associations and implications of a word which elude the makers of dictionaries. Mr. Kipling’s fine lines from The Five Nations

“The solemn firmament marches,
And the hosts of heaven rise” —

express more of the feelings which fill one when out at night under the great field of the stars than all the terms of scientific precision by which the nebular hypothesis must be expounded. Feeling and emotion cannot be expressed by abstract and general words.

Now this is one point in which modern translations and paraphrases of the Bible tend to fail. Let us begin with a piece of simple narrative, and compare with the modern historian’s account of the death of Jezebel, quoted above, the following from the Authorized Version: —

“And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window.

“And as Jehu entered in at the gate, she said, Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?

“And he lifted up his face to the window, and said, Who is on my side? who? And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs.

“And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot.”

Apart from the loss of swiftness and compactness in the modern paraphrase, it will be noticed that the words are far more general. “So she arrayed herself in her royal robes” for “she painted her face and tired her head” is the most striking example. Even if the latter words do convey to us to-day a somewhat wrong impression, yet they have a vividness which has fixed the popular idea of Jezebel for all time. A more instructive example we may find by comparing a verse from 1 Corinthians xiii, in the accepted version, with the rendering of the same verse in the Twentieth Century New Testament. In the former it is (I quote from the Revised Version in order to avoid the contrast between “love” and “charity”): “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly.” In the latter it is: “Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is never envious, never boastful, never conceited, never behaves unbecomingly.” Here the difference between “suffereth long” and “is long-suffering,” and still more that between “is not puffed up” and “never conceited,” is the difference between a concrete, figurative phrase, in which the burden of the meaning is in the connotation, and a more abstract and general expression, in which the feeling is paler. The mere physical figure of speech in “is not puffed up” expresses an emotion in the only way that emotion can be expressed, that is, by naming the bodily sensations from which, as the psychologists tell us, emotions are inseparable and indistinguishable. In this special case any one can find a striking proof of the psychologists’ theory in the vivid response of his own consciousness to the figure. Here the modern version, by substituting the paler phrase “is never conceited,” loses in force of connotation, and therefore in the power of expressing and arousing emotion. Some more striking examples of this inseparable dependence of any appeal to the feelings on concreteness of phrasing may be found in the declaration of God’s omnipotence in the answer of the Almighty from the whirlwind, in Job xxxviii, and in St. Paul’s triumphant declaration of immortality, in 1 Corinthians xv. No poetry is more highly figurative — or, in other words, more concrete — than these passages; and their expressive power — apart from the rhythm, which I shall consider later — lies chiefly in this concreteness of the words; for the full contents of such splendid declarations of faith cannot be expressed through the denotation of abstract words. Here style, if it is to be in any way adequate to its task, must fall back on its power of connotation, which can lift the imagination to regions which the intellect, proceeding soberly by the measuring staff of definition, can never attain.

In general, one may say that this cooler and paler tone is the almost inevitable tendency of all modern translations. Since the sixteenth century the English language has been enriched chiefly in the abstract and general words which have been adapted, mostly from the Latin and Greek, to express the constantly enlarging range of scientific and philosophical thought: and we write naturally and necessarily nowadays in these abstract terms from which the figurative force has long since faded out. Where Tindale wrote “suck out the sweet pith of the Scriptures,” we should say “extract the essence;” and thereby, with what is to us the quaintness, lose also the eagerness and delight which color his words with their halo of feeling. Even when we take into account the love of picturesque phrases which effervesced into the affectations of euphuism in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and clothed itself in soberer colors in the quaintness of Thomas Fuller a couple of generations later, we must still recognize that King James’s companies of revisers in 1611 must sometimes have adopted concrete and even figurative forms of expression for the reason that the abstract word had not yet been assimilated in the language. The same change in the character of the language shows in the richer colors of Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, as compared with Langhorne’s or Clough’s, in the liveliness of Shelton’s Don Quixote, and in general in the warmth and life of all the translations of the period. The difference lies in the emotional richness of the expression: and that goes back directly to the greater or less degree of concreteness in the vocabulary.

There is still another fact to take into account here. Along with the enrichment of the language through the constant acquisition of new abstract words, and the consequent gain in range and precision of thought, there has gone a considerable increase in the number of words which are used vaguely and lazily. Every general word will for an indolent thinker take the place of several specific words: move, for example, in an abstract but vague way, covers the meaning of run, hop, slide, roll, tumble, and a host of other specific words. In many cases these abstract words are hardly more definite than gestures: we use such counters of speech as element, relation, result, effect, without ever stopping to come to close quarters with their meaning. For several years I have set a class of sophomores in Harvard College to study a textbook in which elements of style, principles of style, and qualities of style are used as technical terms; and not three students in a hundred get them straight in their minds on the first reading. This is no doubt an extreme case: but it is safe to say that the general careless use of common abstract terms has largely dulled their expressiveness. Our modern use of language, therefore, tends not only to be less concrete, but also to be vaguer and duller than that of our fathers. This danger obviously makes more difficult the task of modern revisers of the Bible. Unless their scholarship is mated to a keen sense of the expressiveness of words, their revisions will lose both in color and in precision; and even where a writer himself uses these commoner abstract words with entire precision, he cannot always forestall laziness of attention in his readers.

We may conclude, therefore, that in so far as any modern version tends to substitute abstract and general words for concrete, that version tends to lose its power of communicating an essential and invaluable part of the message which the Bible has to bring to us. Such abstract and colorless renderings as I have quoted above are as translations neither adequate nor accurate.

It is not only in the connotation of words and phrases, however, that the power inheres to express the deep and noble feelings which are so large a part of religion; it lies also in the rhythm and other purely sensuous attributes of the style. Here we approach the realm of music; and we are therefore dealing with a power of expression which appeals to various people in very different degrees; and just as there are people to whom music means nothing at all, so there will be many for whom these musical qualities of style do not exist. We should not argue from the case of Darwin that the temperament of such people lacks the emotional depths in which religious feelings find their scope. Nor, on the other hand, should such people argue that since they themselves are not sensitive to the musical expression of language, therefore such expression is either non-existent or of little value. Here we are in a field where the blind must have as much charity for the sight of the seeing as the seeing have for their blindness.

At the same time it must be clearly recognized that in dealing with the expressive power of rhythm and assonance, even more than in the case of connotation, one must never try to define: here we are entirely in the realms of feeling, where one cannot even begin to explain. All I shall try to do here is to suggest and to make somewhat more tangible the mode of expression of forces which must always hover beyond the limits of man’s comprehension. That style has this special power of expression inherent in its pure sound would seem to be too much a truism to need expounding: yet scholars in their absorption with the tasks which are within the power of learning seem continually in danger of ignoring those things which lie beyond.

The power of music to express and arouse feelings and moods by pure sound is generally recognized. Even the man to whom a symphony orchestra makes only wearisome noises will find himself stirred by the blare and beat of a good brass band; and in this crasser form one can almost recognize in the thrilling of the flesh the responsive sensations which are the excitement. As music rises to higher forms, to subtler rhythms and harmonies and mingling of tones, it gains in the power to body forth those deeper, more diffused moods which for lack of more exact expression we call stirrings of the soul. Now since the symbols of style are in the first place symbols for the sounds of the human voice, style shares to some degree this power of music to body forth by direct appeal to the ear these feelings which must always elude articulate expression through the meaning of the words. How far this power of music and of the musical sound of language lies in the qualities and successions of the sound, and how far in the beat of the rhythm, one cannot say, even if it were necessary for our present purpose to know. All that we need recognize here is that the sensuous forms of style are in themselves an expression of some part of man’s consciousness.

One may go somewhat farther, and declare that in these sensuous attributes style finds much of its power to express those deep and noble emotions which, as we have seen, are so large a part of religion. The case of the Authorized Version of the Bible cannot be cited here without seeming to beg the question. Perhaps the best example outside the Bible lies in the prayers and collects of the Book of Common Prayer. These prayers and collects, which were first translated into English by Cranmer and his associates before the middle of the sixteenth century, maintain their hold today on the affections of the Church of England and of the Episcopal Church of America; and the tendency of other churches to the adoption of a liturgy points perhaps to a wider place for them in the future. In the special aspect of their expression with which I am now dealing one may carry this appeal much farther back and to a much wider field. For Cranmer took over most of these collects and prayers from the old service books of the Roman Church, which in turn had gathered them from the writings of the ancient fathers of the church back to the time of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Chrysostom. With the genius of the sixteenth century for translation Cranmer transferred to the English not only the meaning of the words, but also the rich sound and rhythm of the mediaeval Latin; and that without the use of Latinate words. Here are two examples, — the first the collect for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, the other that for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity. I give first the English, then the Latin of each.

“O Lord, from whom all good things do come; Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same.”

“Deus, a quo bona cuncta procedunt, largire supplicibus tuis, ut cogitemus te inspirante quae recta sunt et te gubernante eadem faciamus.”

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded.”

“Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorura fidelium voluntales ut, divini operis fructum propensius exequentes, pietatis tuae remedia majora percipiant.”

In these cases, as in so many others in the book, one notices the small number of obviously Latinate words, and yet at the same time cannot help being struck by the similarity of the rhythm and coloring of the English to the Latin. This achievement in translation bv which Cranmer clothed a non-Latinate style with the organ-like richness of his Latin originals has not been surpassed in English.

It will undoubtedly be objected here that the example is of little force, since these prayers are known in this country to a very small number of people; and that the great mass of Americans, as well as a considerable percentage of English people, being descendants in religion of the Puritans and other protestants against the established church of England, find no comfort in a liturgy, and therefore no sympathetic expression in these prayers. The objection is sound and valid, but only within limits; for as we pointed out above, the bigotry of dissent is no less ignorant than the bigotry of response. I am here trying to deal with facts; and it is a fact that these collects and prayers are to great numbers of earnest people the most satisfying expression which they can find of deep religious feelings. This lasting power of appeal we may ascribe in part to the insight of the original writers into the spiritual needs of the soul; in part to the rich musical qualities which have been brought over with so little loss of color and fullness to the English. And we may think that, just as a cheerful frame of mind sometimes betrays the most unmusical and sedate of men into strange attempts at the whistling or humming of tunes, so here, in the case of these noblest and most searching of all emotions, the strong coloring of the sounds is at least as important a part of the power of expression as is the choice of the single words. Even the Ethical Society makes music a part of its cool and sober proceedings: and when we turn to religion we find music a spontaneous and almost universal part of worship. We may conclude, therefore, that the power of language to express religious feeling is inseparably bound up with rich coloring of tone and strong pulsation of the rhythm.

These same qualities of sound — the subdued richness, the strong beat of the rhythm and all the other subtler attributes which clothe the style with its simple and unconscious earnestness — are found likewise in the Authorized Version of the Bible. These qualities we owe chiefly to Tindale, the first translator. He set the style of our English version; his scholarship, his genius for language, fused by the heat of devotion to his mission and his deep piety, and guided by his passionate desire to bring the Gospel into the hands of the common people, wrought out a style which was worthy of the message which it was to carry. Though he did not complete the translation of the Old Testament, yet the New Testament and the historical books of the Old Testament which came from him needed only revision in details: and it is the crowning merit of the line of revisers down to and including King James’s companies that they were wise enough not to try to renovate the style. They all instinctively recognized and respected not only the simplicity and the concreteness of the words, but also the rich possibilities of expression in the unaffected rhythm and the warm tones of the sound. In the sensuous qualities of the style, as well as in the literal accuracy of the words, they made constant slight improvements. A striking instance of this instinct for the expressive power of pure sound is in the splendid climax to St. Paul’s declaration of immortality. In the verse “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” the two sonorous O’s were first inserted by the revisers of 1611; and the eloquence of the passage thus lifted to its final height. We must hold ourselves fortunate that the work of Tindale was completed by men who united to the best scholarship of the day such sensitiveness of ear and genius for expression; and that the authoritative revision of their work in the nineteenth century fell into the hands of men who in perfecting the literal accuracy were not insensible to the spiritual expression of their text.

It is in the neglect of these possibilities of expression that one sees the second weakness of most modern revisions and paraphrases. We must count almost among the lost arts the wonderful power which all writers of the sixteenth century had of clothing their words with the strong and varied coloring of emotion. Writing is drier and cooler to-day; and besides, students of the Bible must nowadays carry too heavy a burden of learning to the consideration of each single word to give to their style the strong flow which alone can create rhythm. Unfortunately, in too many cases they seem to have lost not only the command for these subtler capacities of style, but even the respect for them; so that despising them as matters of mere literary sweetness and charm, they leave their revisions bare, rough, and jolting. But bare and jolting language cannot express deep feeling: and unless modern translators and revisers of the Bible recognize that much of its meaning can be brought to expression only through these impalpable overtones of style, their labors, though perhaps necessary, can be only partial and ephemeral in result.

When we go back to the real value of the Bible we shall see how important are these considerations. The book has not survived through so many generations of men merely because it contains a national literature of extreme interest or because it is a fascinating mine for archaeologists. It is treasured because it communicates great truths and arouses in men the deepest and most ennobling emotions. If it be set before us in words which have none of the stimulating power of connotation, and therefore no capacity to set the imagination soaring, it may set forth the views of theologians about the truth, but it cannot give glimpses of those truths which pass human understanding. And if the rhythm of its language be flattened out and the rich coloring of its tones be laboriously dulled, it loses its power to suffuse the workaday fields of life with deep and noble emotion. If modern scholars are to improve on the established versions they must not forget the fact that the definable meaning of words is only a part, and not necessarily the chief part, of the power of language to body forth the great truths which stir men’s souls.

John Hays Gardiner John Hays Gardiner (1863-1913) was professor of English literature at Harvard College, and the author of several books, including The Bible as English Literature (1918) and The Forms of Prose Literature (1900).