Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: Bruce Metzger's 2001 "The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions"

Metzger, Bruce
2001 The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reviewer: Joseph Abrahamson

Bruce Metzger (1914 – 2007) was probably one of the most widely known and respected biblical scholars of the last 100 years. The obituary posted by the Society of Biblical Literature describes both his academic accomplishments and his personableness.

This volume, though published by Baker Academic, was written in a style more for the popular reader. The book is a historical “field guide” to two different but related topics: the Ancient Versions of the Bible and the English Versions. In this context the term “version” refers to a translation from the original language texts into another language.

Metzger does not cover every translation in each category. He covers those which he believed were of some enduring historical significance. His selectivity is especially apparent in his journey through the English versions through the latter half of the 20th century and later.

His review of the English versions mostly highlights selected new features of scholarship, translation, text, or publication which a particular version introduced and were adopted by later English versions. Occasionally his criteria for selection seem to be to highlight an historical curiosity which may resonate with the political sensitivities of post-sexual revolution American academia (Julia E. Smith’s version).

What Metzger avoids throughout his discussions of the English versions is consistent examination of the theological and philosophical positions of the translators and how these are reflected in their translations. He does make a few comments on the theological or philosophical positions of the translators on a few particular versions, but these are rare, and they seem to reflect more a personal note in Metzger’s reaction to a few particular versions.

The topics Metzger covers are:

Part 1: Ancient Versions
Ancient Versions of the Old Testament Made for the Use of Jews
  • The Septuagint
  • The Jewish Targums
Ancient Versions Intended Chiefly for Christians
  • The Syriac Versions
  • The Latin Versions
  • The Coptic Versions
  • The Gothic Version
  • The Armenian Version
  • The Georgian Version
  • The Ethiopic Version
  • The Arabic Versions
  • The Sogdian Version
  • The Old Church Slavonic Version
  • The Nubian Version
Part 2: English Versions
English Bibles before the King James Version
  • The Beginnings of the English Bible
  • They Wycliffite Bible (1382; 1388)
  • Tyndale and the First Printed English New Testament (1526)
  • Coverdale and the First Complete Printed Bible in English (1535)
  • Matthew’s Bible (1537)
  • Taverner’s Bible (1539)
  • The Great Bible (1539)
  • Edmund Becke’s Bibles (1549; 1551)
  • The Geneva Bible (1560)
  • The Bishops’ Bible (1568)
  • The Rheims-Douay Bible (1582-1610)
The King James Bible (1611)

Between the King James Bible and the Revised Version
  • Edward Harwood’s New Testament (1768)
  • Charles Thomson’s Bible (1808)
  • Noah Webster’s Bible (1833)
  • Julia E. Smith’s Bible (1876)
  • The British Revised Version (1881-85) and the American Standard Version (1901)
  • Early Modern-Speech Versions
  • The Twentieth Century New Testament (1901; 1904)
  • Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech (1903)
  • Moffatt’s Translation of the Bible (1913; 1924-25)
  • Smith and Goodspeed’s American Translation (1923; 1927)
The Revised Standard Version (1952)
The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
The New American Bible (1970)
The New English Bible (1970)
The New International Version (1978)

Jewish Translations
  • Translations Sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society (1917; 1985)
  • Heinz W. Cassirer’s New Testament (1989)
  • David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible (1998)
Revision after Revision
  • The New American Standard Bible (1971; updated ed. 1995)
  • The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
  • Revised New Testament, New American Bible (1986)
  • The Revised English Bible (1989)
  • The New Revised Standard Version (1990)
Simplified, Easy-to-Read Versions
  • The Basic English Bible (1949)
  • J.B. Phillips’s Version (1958; rev. ed. 1972)
  • The Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) (1976)
  • The Reader’s Digest Bible (1982)
  • The Contemporary English Version (1995)
  • New International Reader’s Version (1996)
Paraphrases of the English Bible
  • Henry Hammond’s Paraphrase and Annotations (1653)
  • Philip Doddridge’s Family Expositor (1739-56)
  • F.F. Bruce’s Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul (1965)
  • Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, Paraphrased (NT 1967; entire Bible 1971)
  • Eugene Peterson’s The Message (NT 1993; OT Wisdom books 1997; OT Prophets 2000)
Metzger follows the text with a Postscript in which he describes how the process of translation should be done. This section also leaves out any discussion of the influence of theological position or philosophical beliefs upon translation.

This volume is a very readable and brief survey, packed full of good information. The lack of the discussion of theology and philosophy and their relationship to the versions and the translation process is a serious defect. The lack of these considerations throughout with Metzger’s occasional comments on only a few versions tends to imply that the academic and scholarly translation of biblical texts is immune to theological or philosophical considerations. In this the volume is an example of the naivety of Modernism’s claims of objectivity. With this caveat, I believe this volume is a very handy “field guide” to these versions.