The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, conflict and the quest for meaning
Church Times Bookshop £18
THE dust-jacket design is as strange as the title, being based upon a 13th-century miniature and yet reminiscent of the Horrible Histories series. The book’s tripartite division — “Before the violence”, “The violence begins”, and “Enlightenment” — makes Harry Freedman’s title relevant only to the central section. It is as if either the academic author, who specialises in Jewish culture and has a Ph.D. in Aramaic, or his publisher has decided to sex up the complex subject of Bible translation for a general readership. This is a pity, as Freedman’s skilful summaries are marred by populist clichés and a restless search for “human interest”.
The story begins with Alexandria and the Septuagint, without which, we are assured, “London and Rome would still be heathen and the scriptures would be no better known than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Subsequent chapters cover areas that are perhaps less familiar to modern readers than Jerome’s Vulgate, such as the Old Testament Peshitta, an Aramaic translation of Jewish origin which the Jews rejected but which was preserved by the Assyrian Church, and the Targums, over which there was much dispute among the rabbis, and the story of the Arabic Bible in eighth-century Baghdad (cue a paragraph of exotic scene-painting).
Freedman’s Jewish perspective on the history of Bible translation is carried over into Part Two, which opens with a lively account of “Moses’ horns”, a misreading by Jerome which appealed to the anti-Semitic medieval mind.
But soon we are in Languedoc, where the Cathar Bible was banned by Rome and the leading Cathars were slaughtered, and in England, where “the fourteenth century was not a happy time,” but Wycliffe of Balliol, author of a translation of a (Latin) translation, was the morning star of the Reformation.
Now we are moving into more familiar terrain. Freedman takes us through the 16th and 17th centuries at a brisk pace, making helpful observations on the impact of translation on the English language itself. References to “greedy, over-stuffed friars and privilege-toting bishops” do not inspire confidence, however; and, on the brink of a catalogue of burnings, we are presented with the lapidary statement that with Tyndale “the murderous age of Bible translation was heating up.”
In Part III, discussion focuses on the dominance of the King James Bible, early American translations, and the plethora of modern translations into English, ranging from the New English Bible to the Queen James Bible of 2012, which aimed to “resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality”, based on the KJB because the king was “a well-known bisexual”.
Violence to the text and to history is perhaps underplayed in Freedman’s conspectus, a work that might possibly have been written for TV.
Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.