The Bible in

Ancient and
English Versions

Bruce M. Metzger
(Baker Academic)
One of the earliest versions of the Christian Bible was translated from either Greek or Hebrew into Syriac --- a language akin to Jesus' Aramaic. It came from the hand of Tatian, and appeared around A. D. 170.

Latin versions from North Africa were in circulation around A. D. 200, and were the root for later versions, most importantly, the Latin Vulgate, created two hundred years later by Jerome. Jerome who? We don't know, but we are fairly sure it wasn't Jerome Kern, nor even Jerome K. Jerome.

Jerome went to Antioch --- the city, not the college, dummy --- in 373, and was called upon by Pope Demasus to do the translation. He did this in record time, not without some failings. In a North African Church at Oea, during the reading of a Scripture lesson:

    ...when the congregation heard that Jonah took shelter from the sun under some ivy jerera, with one accord they shouted "Gourd, gourd," cucurbita, until the reader reinstated the old word lest there be a general exodus of the congregation.

Despite the insult "Gourd, gourd" which would have downed a lesser man, Jerome persisted, and his version was the recognized text of Scripture for a thousand years throughout Western Europe. Despite being referred to as "The Vulgate," it was a far cry from being a Playboy version of the Bible --- the word merely means that it was written in Low Latin, the Medieval version of Valley Talk.

The first English Bible was a translation by John Wycliffe in 1382. Pope Martin V --- no relation to Mary, Dean, or Rowan & --- found it wanting, and since the offender had already died, he had Wycliffe's body dug up, burned, and cast in the Lutterworth River. Which is nothing to what they did to translator #2, William Tyndale. His version came out in 1525, and in it, God is introduced as "the Lord thy surgeon," Joseph is referred to as that "luckie felowe," and the serpent says to Eve, "Tush, ye shall not die."

Tush indeed. The authorities were so miffed at these fritterings that they had Tyndale strangled, which should have discouraged any others from undertaking similar projects. But we translators are a hardy bunch, so there appeared, in short order, the Coverdale (1535), the Great (1535) --- so called because it was so fat, and Taverner's (1539) --- whose use was restricted to pubs and bawdy-houses.

One version appeared in Switzerland in 1560, and is referred to the "Breeches" Bible because of the line from Genesis,

    They sewed figge-tree leaves together and made themselves breeches.

The King James version appeared in 1611 and in the earliest edition, the word "not" was left out of the 7th Commandment, so it came out "Thou shalt commit adultery." The printers were fined, not strangled, which demonstrates the onward and upward course of history, but because of the unfortunate wording, Western man went into moral decline for the next 500 years and you and I are the obvious product of this.

§     §     §

People had better sense than to mess with the King James version until the 20th Century, at which time, in a word, all hell broke loose. Metzger tells us that between 1952 and 1990, "twenty-seven English renderings of the entire Bible were issued." Included in this was the Revised Standard Version of 1952 which, because of the politics of some of the contributors, was called "a heretical, communist-inspired Bible" by a pastor in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He then baked the RSV with a blow-torch. This too might be considered a sign of progress since none of the contributors were braised, bruised, strangled, or thrown in the Lutterworth River.

The Revised English Bible appeared in 1989. According to Metzger, it was a prim little thing. Josh. 15:18, speaking of Achsah --- where previously it had read that "she broke wind" --- was decorously altered to read "she dismounted." Ezek. 21:7 previously stated, "all men's knees run with urine;" that became "all knees will turn to water." When the New Revised Standard Version appeared in 1990, there were other changes. Psalms 50:9 had previously read, "I will accept no bull from your house" which was changed, for obvious reasons, to "I will not accept a bull from your house." In a slap at pot smokers, 2 Cor. 11:25 went from "Once I was stoned" to "Once I received a stoning."

One Eugene Peterson of the Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland translated Matthew 5:41 as "If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff." And the Sermon on the Mount appears as:

    Our father in heaven,
    Reveal who you are.
    Set the world right;
    Do what's best ---
         as above, so below.
    Keep us alive with three square meals,
    Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others,
    Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
    You're in charge!
    You can do anything you want!
    You're ablaze in beauty!
         Yes. Yes. Yes.

To which we reply, "Gourd! Gourd! Gourd!"

--- A. W. Allworthy

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