C.S.Lewis: Modern Translations of the Bible

This material is Copyright © 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis, All Rights Resered. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, 70-129851 from God in the Dock Essays on Theology and Ethics Edited by Walter Hooper. I have placed it here for storage purposes since this section of my copy of the book is falling apart and as such I tried to keep as much of the original paragraph breaks, Brittish-isms and footnotes although I incorporated those into the text within brackets. I thought the essay spoke to Today particularly well. You can also see some of Lingimish’s comments here, here and here.

(This essay was originally published as an Introduction to J.B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles (London, 1947)

It is possible that the reader who opens this volume on the counter of a bookshop may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible, and, if of any, why of the Epistles. ‘Do we not already possess’, it may be said, ‘in the Authorised Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?’ Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very li8ke the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being moderniz3ed is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who haven no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoken when they were children. It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

In the second place, the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ‘sacred’, so ‘comforting’ and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many places unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says ‘I know nothing against myself,’ it translates ‘I know nothing by myself’. [I Cor 4:4]. That was a good translation (though even then rather old-fashioned) in the sixteenth century: to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox—we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful an so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hoes and adoration. Does the word ‘scourged’ [John 19:1] really come home to us like ‘flogged’? Does ‘mocked him’[Matt 27:29, Mk 15:20; Lk 22:63, 23:11, 23:36] sting like ‘jeered at him’?

We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars) and most certainly those who are approaching the Bible for the first time will be wise not to begin with the Authorised Version—except perhaps for the historical books of the Old Testament where its archaisms suit the saga-like material well enough. Among modern translations those of Dr Moffat [James Moffat (1870-1944), whose translation of the New Testament appeared in 1913, his translation of the Old Testament in 1924, and the whole being revised in 1935.] and Monsignor Knox [Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957) published a translation of the New Testament in 1945, and a translation of the Old Testament in 1949.] seem to me particularly good.. The present volume concentrates on the epistles and furnishes more help to the beginner: its scope is different. The preliminary abstracts to each letter will be found especially useful, and the reader who has not read the letters before might do well to begin by reading and reflecting on these abstracts at some length before he attempts to tackle the text. It would have saved me a great deal of labour if this book had come into my hands when I first seriously began to try to discover what Christianity was.

For a man who wants to make that discovery must face the epistles. And whether we like it or not, most of them are by St Paul. He is the Christian author whom no one can bypass.

A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the Gospels) and that St Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the Epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St Paul. If it could be proved that St Paul altered the teaching of his Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed. But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from St Paul’s. The Epistles are, for the mot part, the earliest Christian documents we possess. The Gospels came later. They are not ‘the gospel’, the statement of the Christian belief. They were written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted ‘the gospel’. They leave out many of the ‘complications’ (that is, the theology) because they are intended for readers who have already been instructed in it. In that senses the Epistles are more primitive and more central than the Gospels-though not, of course, than the great events which the Gospels recount. God’s act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the Epistles: then, when the generation who had known the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide for believers a record of the great Act and of some of the Lord’s sayings. The ordinary popular conception has put everything upside down. Nor is the cause far to seek. IN the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage of which you do no yet attack the King in person. You say, ‘The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans—which, I’m sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect.’ And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself. In the same way, the nineteenth-century attack on St. Paul was really on a stage in the revolt against Christ. Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ Himself. They made the normal first move—that of attacking on of His principal ministers. Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St Paul. It as unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the Gospels and the Epistle with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the first victory was won. St Paul as impeached and banished and the world went on to the next step—the attack on the King Himself. But to those who wish to know what St Paul and his fellow-teachers really said the present volume will give very great help.

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