|Woe unto trendy Bibles
Rex Murphy, Saturday, July 10th., 2004 Globe and Mail
We are, I hope, past the hollow fury that greeted Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Mr. Gibson has done well for himself — even Michael Moore must envy the box office success of The Passion. Of course, here in Canada, we've had the irritant of the recent federal election to keep our minds off things Godly, even those that come with previews and in Dolby sound.
Election past, I've felt some need to put the satanic thoroughly behind me, and found a welcome means in a couple of books about William Tyndale, the earliest translator of the New Testament into English. I hadn't realized till now that his work was so foundational to the great text of the King James Version, which has had the approval of centuries for its elegance, beauty and pith. Poor Tyndale got burnt at the stake for his labours.
Two books exhaust the glories of the English language: that great translation worked by the scholars and linguists of the early 17th century, and the works of Shakespeare. Between them, Shakespeare and the King James set the limits of what the English language is capable of, in poetry or prose, in rhythm and cadence, in eloquence and plain speaking. It takes a nervy person to tamper with either of them.
Alas, there are always nervy people. Shakespeare has been bowdlerized, amputated, updated, and there is even a plain-language version put out for the "benefit" of college students. I read a sample in a downtown bookstore recently; fortunately, there was a washroom nearby. "Wha' sup, Romeo?"
The Bible, being a sacred book, one would think had more defence against vandalism by the tasteless. Alas, not. New versions of the Bible have always been with us, but with the age of therapy, feminism, and the dread, clammy spectre of inclusiveness, the poor old Bible has been pillaged — they call it "updating the text" — by more Visigoths than we can number. About the only qualification they bring to the art of translation is tone-deafness to the prose they set out with such reckless insolence to mutilate.
The latest torment is a translation going under the inspiring rubric Good as New. It is what the makers of computer commercials call user-friendly.
A few samples are all I have space for. Let us try the famous, sad episode where Peter, the chief of the apostles, denies Christ. The earlier version, familiar to Christians worldwide from the Authorized Version: "Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, 'Thou also was with Jesus of Galilee.' But he denied before them all, saying, 'I know not what thou sayest.' "
What a lovely thing it is. Peter is sitting "without in the palace." A "damsel," in this wonderfully antique formality, "comes unto him." She merely states that "Thou also was with Jesus of Galilee." But the statement is for Peter a most terrible inquiry and challenge. His fury, a compound of cowardice, and shame at that cowardice, is in the clipped "I know not what thou sayest."
Now let's see what happens when you take the Authorized Version to the body shop, and let loose the monkey mechanics of Good as New. [I forgot to mention: Good as New has updated the names. Peter is such an off-putting name. In the new dispensation he — I am not making this up, cue the music — ROCKY.] New: "Meanwhile Rocky was still sitting in the courtyard. A woman came up to him and said: 'Haven't I seen you with Jesus, the hero from Galilee?' Rocky shook his head and said: 'I don't know what the hell you're talking about!'"
John the Baptist is renamed The Dipper, aka, The Voice; Mary Magdalene is a comfy-cute Maggie. Even the Biblical execrations are defanged. For example, the perfectly good imprecation "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" is Simonized into some 1950's style pseudo-slang: "Take a running jump, Holy Joes, humbugs!"
Ah, Tyndale. Burning again, I suspect.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has give his seal to this gibberish. He regards it as "fully earthed." So is compost. And he expects it to spread in "epidemic profusion." I can't quarrel with his metaphor: It won't be the first time a plague of bad taste, backed up by the two Horsepersons of Witlessness and Condescension, caught the ear of a trendy time.
I'm with Peter, er, Rocky on this one: I don't know what the hell they're talking about.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.