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Interview: Malcolm Bishop, lawyer and translator

06 April 2018

‘The Greek of John’s Gospel is run-of-the-mill — not highbrow literature’

I’m mainly involved as a QC in criminal and family cases; but I also get instructed in general civil work, as well as the occasional foray into the rarefied world of wills, trusts, and company law in the Chancery Division.

I worked on the longest murder trial at the Old Bailey, which involved four young men, each of whom blamed the others for what happened; so we had four trials running side by side, and many of the witnesses required interpreters.

I’ve been in a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean for two-and-half years, working on a fraud case involving the former premier’s brother, and it will take another year. It’s a great wrench being away from the UK, despite the weather, but we feel it’s our duty to help a developing country. I can keep up with people on Skype, and we generally work three weeks on and one week off; so I’ve accrued a lot of air miles.

Every barrister, from the first day, is taught that we can’t refuse a case because we don’t like the look of the defendant. We call it the “cab-rank rule”. If you’re given a brief, then you’re duty-bound to accept it if you’re free.

Some cases are extremely upsetting, but you’re taught not to become emotionally involved, and to do your professional best to present your client’s case in the best possible light consistent with their instructions. I’m not there to judge where the truth lies: that’s for the jury or the judge in a civil or family case. It’s essential to remember your job is to be an advocate, not a cheerleader, for one side or the other.

There’s a great difference between the life of a junior barrister and a QC. A junior will have many cases in court or in preparation at the same time. A QC is only engaged in the most serious cases; so you do fewer but bigger cases, and have more time for preparation and reflection.

I get to court an hour or more before the 10.30 sitting — to see the client, liaise with the solicitor and witnesses, do some last-minute legal research. We usually get a short break mid-morning, and gossip over lunch with colleagues, including opponents in the trial. Back in court at 2 p.m. until about 4.30, when the judge rises. Then there’ll be another conference in Chambers in a different case, or admin. to attend to. At 7 p.m., it’s home, a quick supper before further work on the next day’s case, and bed — hopefully before midnight.

I studied theology, with Greek and Hebrew, at Oxford, before law, and it was one of my Greek tutors, Brendan Devitt, who encouraged me to translate John’s Gospel. Over the years, I read my New Testament in Greek for spiritual and devotional comfort. John’s was always my favourite Gospel; so I hope I’ve developed a feel for what he’s on about.

My motive in translating it was to see what happened when the great mystical Gospel was put in a contemporary, everyday idiom. Many modern translations make the Johannine Jesus sound rather stuffy — “I do not say” or “I who speak to you am he,” whereas I simply translate “I don’t say” or “That’s me.”

John humanises Jesus, and allows his divinity to shine through a more recognisably human person, and I try to bring this out. I also wanted readers to hear an urgent message which demands a response. It seemed natural to convey this in everyday spoken language.

The tools of a lawyer’s trade are words. We use them to enlighten and to persuade. We deploy both the blunderbuss and the rapier. The Gospel is full of forensic scenes, and some say the whole work is a defence of Jesus against the accusations of the religious authorities.

The AV is, without question, a majestic translation; but the Greek of John’s Gospel is run-of-the-mill. The first hearers wouldn’t have felt they were listening to highbrow literature. The AV contains a lot of “biblical” English — literal translations of Greek or Hebrew idioms — which would have sounded strange even to its first audience. So, instead of “he that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me” becomes, in my translation, “the one who eats my bread has kicked me in the teeth.”

Sometimes, a literal translation can’t be improved: “I am the good shepherd.” On other occasions, a bit of flexibility and imagination helps bring out what John’s getting at. So, in the story of the blind man in John 9.37, I translate Jesus’s response to him as “He’s looking you in the eye,” instead of the bland “It is he who speaks to you.”

The great challenge in translating is not the Greek, surprisingly, but the English. You can pretty much know what John is saying in a given sentence, yet struggle to convey his thoughts in English, particularly with the prologue. John is a mystical book — my translation is an attempt to bring the mysticism a bit more down to earth.

I also wanted to do something to support the suffering Church in the Middle East and Africa; so all proceeds from the book will be divided between Aid to the Church in Need and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.

I’d emphasise the need for prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit when translating. I’ve also tried to keep abreast of scholarly commentaries on John, and have discussed my work with people like Paul Fiddes, at Oxford, who kept me on my toes. I’ve just finished a translation of the book of Revelation, and I’ll shortly start to translate the Synoptic Gospels.

What surprised me most in translating John was the use of the present tense, which I’ve preserved throughout: “Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb. She sees that the stone has gone from the entrance. So she goes running to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple and says to them. . .”

The profundity of the message in a contemporary idiom has brought me to closer knowledge of our Saviour Christ, and his relevance for the chaos of the modern world. I’d been brought up as a Christian, but it’s only when I sat down to do the translation that I read through the entire Gospel and became aware of the unfolding drama of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the way he confronted people so they were either for him or against him.

It’s taught me how to answer the question: What would Jesus do? “Now off you go — and no more sinning!” he says to the woman caught in adultery — I’m sure, with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew she would sin again. We all do. Hypocrisy must be exposed; kindness defeats cruelty; there’s always room for forgiveness following repentance.

My friend Lord Irvine of Lairg, the former Lord Chancellor and author of the Human Rights Act, has been a great professional influence; and, in my spiritual life, my friend from Oxford days: the Baptist minister John Henson.

I like musicals, films, and reading political thrillers and theology.

I pray throughout the day. We always gave thanks at home, and I’ve continued this before every meal, although silently when in company. Just before the court sits, I say a private prayer for guidance, and last thing at night I bring current concerns and desires before God.

Cruelty makes me angry, and kindness makes me happy.

I’m very hopeful. I’m touched by young people’s inclusivity, generosity, and lack of self-righteousness. The world will thrive in their hands.

A few hours locked in a church with that great lawyer Abraham Lincoln would be illuminating; or perhaps with the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who epitomised all that’s most lovable about the Church of England.

Malcolm Bishop QC was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

St John’s Gospel: A lawyer’s translation from the original Greek is published by Matador/Troubador at £9.99. There is also an ebook version on other outlets.

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