The New English Bible

All over the world, early impressions of religion are often associated with unbearable tedium. In the West, the eye following the long lines of Gothic arches, or trying to make out the detail of stained-glass windows, while the priest intones incomprehensible texts; in the Far East, having to sit still for long periods, looking at the faces of the Buddha images and wondering whether they too get bored, while the resonant Sanskrit and Chinese syllables boom on hypnotically; in India, Sanskrit again, slightly relieved by the clanging of bells at the light ceremony; in the Middle East, the gaze tracing never-ending Arabesque ornamentation in the mosque while the half-understood Arabic drones away.

Nearly everyone agrees that the actual language of the original religious texts is hopelessly obscure to modern hearers, and that one’s real idea of the religion is based on simplified teachings given at special meetings for children, in colloquial language.  Nevertheless, the sheer mystery of sacramental language, the hint of something profound wrapped in inscrutability, has a sort of magic. But magic depends on obscurity, and to lighten the darkness might run the risk of losing the magic. Then the believer would have to think out his religion, and he may not be sure, in his heart of hearts, that it would bear thinking out. And if he regards it as anyway an important social unifying force, he may not want other people thinking it out either.

While faith depends absolutely on authority, then the more awesome that authority, the more suggestive of hidden reserves of wisdom and power, the firmer will be the faith. So it is that the forms, and especially the language, of the old religions are clung to jealously, as children jealously preserve – without any compulsion – the exact wording of their traditional nonsense rhymes (the first line of “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo” can be traced back to the Middle Ages).

The picture is quite different when we come to read about a foreign religion. Translations are in clear modern language, revised periodically to keep them up to date. We will not tolerate obscurity, and the whole doctrine has to be considered in a clear light. We are not willing to accept as a statement of profound significance a passage like this:

As he saith also in Osee (who’s he?) I will call them my people which were not my people, and her beloved (who’s she? it’s not Israel) which was not beloved.

(Epistle to the Romans in the Authorized Version).

So, we have often a clearer idea of a foreign religion in which we are interested than of our native religion. It seems that the foreign religion is simpler and more vigorous, and though it lacks the childhood associations of magic, it gains a far-off enchantment because its daily practice is little known and can be idealized.

The conclusion is that each religion tends to cling to obscure language because it is old, and this tendency is strengthened by the childish attitude of being automatically impressed by the incomprehensible. (It has to be admitted that once a man has been converted to a foreign religion, he takes to the obscurities with avidity, and will cheerfully recite things which he does not understand).

The great ones have always been aware of all this, and did all they could to prevent their sayings becoming mere incantations. Christ spoke in parables so that his hearers would be forced to think instead of mechanically quoting. Zen masters of the Tang dynasty deliberately used colloquial language, even slang, in order not to distract hearers by a literary style; but their sayings were faithfully preserved and now a thousand years later that Tang colloquial style is more obscure than the most high-flown literary productions of the period. Yet it is clung to tenaciously.

In Christianity, the New English Bible represents a major attack on obscurity. As such, it has been disturbing. It is now a convention that the Authorized Version of 1610 is a “monument of English literature,” – a monument, as T. S. Eliot remarked, over the grave of Christianity. Even that Bible was already antiquated when it appeared, because it was largely a revision of Coverdale’s Bible of a hundred years before. Some of the contemporaries of Shakespeare regarded the language of the Authorized Version as “barbarous,” but few would be bold enough to say that today. In the nineteenth century a Revised Version was produced, but with the declared aim of introducing as few changes as possible, and it duly preserved phrases and especially Latinisms which had long gone out of use.

The New English Bible, completed in 1970, is the work of a joint committee meeting under the Chairmanship of the Archbishop of York, and appointed by the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Methodist, Baptist and Congregational Churches. The translators were to keep their language as close to current usage as they could, while avoiding expressions likely to prove ephemeral.

As a result, the spell-binding incomprehensibility has gone out of some famous passages, but in compensation, meaning emerges. English people sometime smile when they discover that the incantatory “Behold ye Behemoth” of the Book of Job appears in the French Bible as “Voici l’hippopotame.” (In the New English Bible it is: “consider the crocodile.”) The hippopotamus (or crocodile) lacks the monstrous otherworldly aura of Behemoth (whatever Behemoth may be). But the point of the passage is that the Lord makes Job consider the wonders of the earth before his eyes; the Lord is not here citing wonders beyond Job’s experience.

Key words in the Authorized Version have since 1610 changed the centre of gravity of their meaning; one such word is “vanity.” In 1535, Coverdale’s translation of Ecclesiastes 12:8 was, “All is but vanite (sayeth the preacher) all is but playne vanite.” In the Authorized Version this became, “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.” To a young reader that represents perhaps the Englishman’s idea of the court of Versailles; the central meaning of “vanity” today can be seen from the modern compounds – vanity-bag, vanity case. If we compare a Chinese translation, we find the clear literal meaning (at once comprehensible to the Chinese reader as a pure Buddhist phrase) : “Void of the void, says the preacher, all is the void.” In the present New English Bible it is, “Emptiness, emptiness”, says the Speaker, “all is empty.”

Take verse 11 of this same chapter of Ecclesiastes. In the Authorized Version,

“The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.”

What does it mean? It is understandable in the new version,

“The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they lead the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd.”

Genesis 1:2 in the Authorized Version reads: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” For those familiar with the Vedanta concept of the wind of Maya stirring up waves of manifestation in the absolute, it is interesting to compare the new version, “And a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.”

There is a vision of the Lord in Exodus 24:10, which the Authorized Version gives as follows:

“And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”

It is likely that the translators did not know quite what to do with the words (a feeling familiar to all translators of Oriental religious texts). In the Revised Version the last phrase reads: “His body as it were the heavens in clearness.” In the New English Bible the passage is:

“And they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was, as it were, a pavement of sapphire, clear blue as the very heavens.”

The New Testament translation was produced separately, as a sort of trial run, in 1961. It was angrily assailed for the colloquialism of its language – “Commercial English,” ran one criticism, “one would not be surprised to read that the disciples went into committee.” This remark was met forcibly by a number of scholars who pointed out that the Greek of the New Testament was just that commercial Greek which was the lingua franca of the minority peoples of the Near East.

Three times in his letters (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:14) St. Paul speaks of the inner experience of the Spirit as a “down payment.” The Greek original (arrabon) was trader’s jargon; the Authorized Version gives it as an “earnest”. (The reviewer has asked some under-25’s the meaning of an earnest, and they did not know). The new version gives “pledge,” which is of course correct, but which also has the meaning of a politician’s promise, with its unfortunate association of fragility. So even the new translation is not perfect, because it is ambiguous. Paul’s point is that the experience of the Spirit now is of the same nature as the final blessedness; just as the down payment is actual money, the same in nature as the full payment to be made. It is essentially different from a mere promise.

This is technically called “realized eschatology,” and it is the thought especially of the Fourth Gospel written at Ephesus, and of Paul in the later letters written from prison – Ephesians, Colossians, perhaps Philippians. In the new version, the translators evidently shrank from the vulgarity of “down payment,” which appears in every hire-purchase contract, but that was what Paul intended; consciousness of the inner presence of the Spirit is a living experience, had now, of final beatitude.

Again and again Paul speaks of Christ in the believer and the believer in Christ. Compare Ephesians 2:8, “For by his grace you have been saved” in contrast to the “will be saved” elsewhere. The realized eschatology here in Ephesians and in many other places in the later epistles reminds us of the Fourth Gospel and the Ephesus tradition behind it. Some scholars hold that Paul had some experience of facing death at Ephesus (hinted at twice in his letters), after which this line of thought became his dominant one.

The Gospel of John was specially recommended by Dr. Shastri to Vedantins. The doctrine given in other Gospels, “the Kingdom of heaven is within you” and “the Kingdom of heaven is upon you” preached by John the Baptist and also by Christ himself, is here clearer still. Christ says (John 5:28) :

“In truth, in very truth I tell you, a time is coming, indeed it is already here when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and all who hear shall come to life.”

The dead are the spiritually dead, who come to life at the sacred word.

John 3:5 (to Nicodemus),

“Flesh can give birth only to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit. You ought not to be astonished then when I tell you that you must be born over again.”

John 17:22,

“May they all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, so also may they be in us … The glory which thou gavest me I have given to them, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and thou in me, may they be perfectly one.”

(There is an interesting parallel with Swami Rama Tirtha in America telling his audiences that the experience of the divine Self within is not a promise of the future, but “hard cash,” “the hard cash of Self-realization.”

John 14:16,

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another to be your Advocate, who will be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth. You know him, because he dwells with you and is in you.”

As an experiment, let us take some passages from the greatest letter of Paul, the Epistle (now Letter) to the Romans. A reader can test his comprehension of the old version by asking himself what exactly it means, before moving on to the new one.

Example I
4:14-16

Authorized Version:

For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect; Because the law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace….

New English Bible:

For if those who hold by the law, and they alone, are heirs, then faith is empty and the promise goes for nothing, because law can bring only retribution; but where there is no law there can be no breach of law. The promise was made on the ground of faith, in order that it might be a matter of sheer grace….

Example II
8: 19-21

Authorized Version:

For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,  Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

New English Bible:

For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made the victim of frustration, not by its own choice, but because of him who made it so, yet always there was hope, because the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God.

This passage is of special importance and is bound to be misunderstood from the old version, because the use of “creature” in the sense of the whole creation went out 360 years ago (this passage from Romans being the last known instance of it). The normal meaning of the word today is an animal.

These verses disclose Paul’s view of the created world, which in its chaotic state manifests a cosmic striving toward the very goal set for man himself. Both the human and the non-human world share in the redemption of Christ; as a matter of fact scholars hold that the noun used here implies “material creation apart from man.” The “ground” was created for man, but was cursed as a result of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17) and since then has been in a state of abnormality or frustration, according to Paul, being subject to corruption itself. Yet he sees it sharing in man’s destiny; for it too is somehow redeemed. And the whole creation has been given hope of sharing in man’s redemption. God, though he cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin, still gave it a hope of spiritual transformation. Paul is the first writer in the Bible to speak of this cosmic hope, at least in such a specific way – redeemed humanity will live in peace with God in a world transformed by his Spirit: Paul sees this condition as the aspiration of the whole creation, not merely humanity.

Readers of the Chandogya Upanishad will remember how in the great world-analysis in Part VII, deeper than the material elements of fire and water and even space, there is memory, and deeper even than this cosmic memory, is hope. Everything (says Shankaracharya) has its existence based on memory, and all is encircled and held by hope. Beyond hope is the divine life itself, which is the reflection of the Lord, the shadow of the Lord, the highest servant of the Lord.

In the Old Testament, there is a hint at the spiritual awakening of the universe in Isaiah 55 : 12,

You shall indeed go out with joy and be led forth in peace. Before you mountains and hills shall break into cries of joy, and all the trees of the wild shall clap their hands, pine-trees shall shoot up in place of camel-thorn, myrtles instead of briars.

Paul’s letters read with wonderful freshness, as if they had just come through the post; the reader is not distanced by the “ye” and “saith” of the old version. The development in the mirror simile is now clear, whereas the Authorized Version’s “through a glass darkly” gives the idea of a window-pane perhaps. I Corinthians 13:12 now reads: “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face.” Paul is said here to be using two similes, one from the Old Testament (Numbers 12:6, where the Lord says the ordinary prophet sees God only “in an enigma,” but to Moses God speaks face to face, openly and not in riddles), and the other from the popular Cynic-Stoic philosophy, the indirect vision of an object seen in a mirror.

The simile is developed in II Corinthians 3:15,

“But to this very day, every time the Law of Moses is read, a veil lies over the minds of the hearers. However, as Scripture says of Moses, `whenever he turns to the Lord the veil is removed.’ Now the Lord of whom this passage speaks is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And because for us there is no veil over the face, we all reflect as in a mirror the splendour of the Lord; thus we are transfigured into his likeness, from splendour to splendour; such is the influence of the Lord who is Spirit.”

Dr. Shastri said of this passage of Paul that it gives the secret of meditation, expressed as only Paul could express it. Quite a few Pauline texts are quoted in Early Christian literature as words of Jesus himself, and it may be that there is a connection here with an uncanonical saying of Jesus found in a book which is said to belong to the oldest literature of the Latin Church. This saying is, “Ye see me in yourselves, as one of you sees himself in water or in a mirror.”

In Ephesians are many texts which now speak with great directness, of Christ filling the universe, and the believer becoming a knower and one with him:

“So shall we all at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God-to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.”

There are some famous sayings elsewhere in the New Testament which in the New English Bible have a deeper meaning for yogis. “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self.”

Those who wish to keep to the Authorized Version will find their understanding increased by re-reading it after going over their favourite passages in the new.

As Paul says repeatedly, to hear with understanding is to hear truly and be truly uplifted.

Without clear language, the impressiveness of texts is only (as he says in another connection) “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal,” or in the new version “sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

© Trevor Leggett