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And the Word was made words

23 December 2022

John Barton considers new translations of the familiar Christmas texts


St Matthew writes his Gospel in a c.1400 fresco on a ceiling vault in the church of the former Franciscan convent at Susa, Piedmont, Italy

St Matthew writes his Gospel in a c.1400 fresco on a ceiling vault in the church of the former Franciscan convent at Susa, Piedmont, Italy

ONE of the things many people know about the Authorised Version of the Bible is that it was never authorised. It was commissioned by James I and VI (it is now often referred to as the King James Version or KJV); but it was simply published when it was ready in 1611.

Never the less, it became, in practice, the accepted Bible for English-speaking Protestants, and even vernacular Catholic and Jewish Bibles often used it as a starting-point. Only in the last century did it come to be widely replaced in the worship of many churches.

The versions used now tend to be either essentially revisions of the KJV, such as the New Revised Standard Version (which is printed in all the Church of England’s Common Worship books), or more innovative translations such as the New International Version (often preferred by Evangelicals), or the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible, of which there are also revised editions.

What is notable about the Bibles used in churches of every kind is that they are nearly all, just like the KJV, the product of a panel of translators. But the 20th century saw a new development: Bibles translated by individuals. Examples are those by James Moffatt (1870-1944), and J. B. Phillips (1906-82). These were much read by Christians for private devotion, and by interested non-Christians for whom the Bible was a significant cultural monument, but, on the whole, they were not used in public worship.

Inspiring as they often were, they probably seemed too quirky for liturgical use. They also tended to follow the approach to translation known technically as “functional equivalence”, in which the translator asks how the meaning of a passage would normally be conveyed in modern English, and therefore does not keep close to the original wording. Many probably felt that this was inappropriate for public reading.


BIBLES produced by committees tend instead to embrace “formal equivalence”, in which the shape of the original Hebrew or Greek is followed more closely. The result is a version that anyone can see is a translation, not something an English speaker would have written.

In recent years, there have been several “solo” translations of the whole Bible or parts of it. What marks them out is that they develop the two approaches — functional and formal equivalence — in more extreme forms than anything seen in committee-produced Bibles. As it’s nearly Christmas, I’ll illustrate some of them with reference to some of the traditional readings of the Nine Lessons and Carols.

First, two translations that follow the “functional” line. Tom Wright, in his justly acclaimed New Testament for Everyone (SPCK, 2011), has Herod, in Matthew 2, tell the wise men what to do in a rather peremptory way: “‘Off you go,’ he said, ‘and make a thorough search for the child. When you find him, report back to me so that I can come and worship him too.’” This is already far enough from “biblical English” to irritate some more traditionalist worshippers at Christmas — reimagining Herod as an irritable bureaucrat, or perhaps an old-fashioned teacher (“report back to me”).

The translator in this mode who shows how far functionalism can go is Eugene Peterson in The Message (various publishers, 1993-2002). Here is his version of the well-known events described in Luke 2:8-15:


There were sheepherders camping in the neighbourhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them, and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody worldwide: A Saviour has just been born in David’s town, a Saviour who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”


“Wrapped in a blanket” is uncompromisingly modernising, abandoning the swaddling-bands that belong to an ancient culture’s approach to birth and childcare, and propelling the scene into the present. Peterson builds explanation into the translation, so that the reader doesn’t need a guide to ancient customs in order to understand the gist of the passage.

Explanatory translations such as these are reminiscent of what has always been done in children’s Bibles. They render the text in what one of Wright’s favourable reviewers called “non-repellent language”. Today, casual visitors to carol services, and perhaps even regular worshippers, can benefit from translations like these, in which the first-century Greek (and its world) shows through less, and things are explained in contemporary terms. Historical distance is lost, but contemporary relevance is gained. The “point” of the stories isn’t spoiled by the reader’s needing to look up actual, or metaphorical, footnotes.


A MORE surprising recent trend, which would have startled Moffatt or Phillips, has been to eschew all modernising and go in the opposite direction, sticking even more closely to the words of the biblical text than the KJV does. This results in formal-equivalence renderings strange enough to puzzle most readers.

These provide a salutary reminder, the translators would say, that the books of the Bible are indeed from an ancient and “foreign” culture. Among recent translations of the Old Testament, John Goldingay’s The Old Testament for Everyone (published with Wright’s New Testament in a composite volume, The Bible for Everyone (SPCK, 2018), but in a quite different style) stands out as an example of this more — as it’s known to translators — “foreignising” tradition. Here is his version of part of the lesson from Isaiah 9:

Because a child has been born to us,
a son has been given to us,
and government has come on to his shoulder.
People have called him
“An Extraordinary Counsellor Is the Strong Man God,
the Everlasting Father Is an Official for Well-being.”
Of the growing of government and well-being
there will be no end on David’s throne and on his kingship,
to establish it and to support it,
with authority and faithfulness,
from now and permanently,
the passion of Yahweh of Armies will do this.

In one sense, this is indeed closer to the original than the familiar KJV rendering, well-known also from Handel’s Messiah: “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of peace”. “Well-being”, for example, is often a good equivalent of the Hebrew shalom, which often doesn’t mean peace (as in the absence of war) but, rather, a state of harmony and contentment. “Yahweh of Armies” is one reasonable interpretation of the phrase we know as “Lord of hosts” (though the armies meant may be heavenly ones).

The difficulty, however, is that it is an extremely weird and puzzling piece of English. It will convey to most readers the impression that the text being translated must be in weird and puzzling Hebrew — which it isn’t. So, this rendering is closer to the original in one respect — the literal meaning of the individual words — and yet more distant in another, in that it gives the false impression that the text is obscure, archaic, or eccentric.

This is equal and opposite to the problem posed by functional interpretations, which make biblical texts sound as though they are unproblematic — just the kind of thing we might have written ourselves — which is quite as misleading in its own, different, way. We begin to see why there are some who adopt the counsel of despair that says successful translation is really impossible.


A NEW Testament translator who stands at the opposite pole from Wright, and has said so in public debate with him, is David Bentley Hart (The New Testament: A translation, Yale University Press, 2017). He denies that he follows any theoretical model for translation, but it’s easy to see that he veers in the direction of literalism (formal equivalence) rather than towards Wright’s approach.

Wright tries to render the New Testament fully comprehensible in today’s setting, even if some of its distinctively antique features have to be given up, and its vocabulary adjusted. Hart, in contrast, wants us to realise that it comes from an old and unfamiliar culture. Matthew 2.7-8 in Hart’s version reads:


Then Herod, secretly summoning the Magians, ascertained from them the exact time of the star’s appearance, and sending them to Bethlehem, said, ‘Go and inquire very precisely after the child; and when you find him send word to me, so that I too may come and make my obeisance to him.”


A note explains what “Magians” were: there is no attempt to “naturalise” them in our own culture as “wise and learned men”, as Wright does. Wright’s version eliminates the need for notes, and avoids the impression that the magoi are even more exotic than Christian tradition has thought them. Hart keeps them firmly in their own world.

Hart’s rather literal translations require some special coinages: “the fire of the age” for “everlasting fire” — Hart does not believe that the New Testament supports the idea of a permanent hell; “the Slanderer” for “the devil”; “the chastening of that age” for “eternal punishment”. His work does, however (unlike Goldingay’s stimulatingly adventurous renderings of the Old Testament), read like relatively normal English, though definitely with the Greek “showing through”.


SARAH Ruden, an experienced and much-lauded translator of Classical texts, follows a similar formal-equivalence path, but feels the need to make greater modifications to English in order to imitate the Greek really closely, often playing on the etymology of words (The Gospels, Penguin Random House, 2021). Here is her account of the annunciation:

But in the sixth month, the messenger Gabriel was sent by god to the town of Galilaia with the name Nazareth, to a young girl who was betrothed to a man with the name Iosef, from the house of David, and the name of the young girl was Mariam. And entering her home and approaching her, Gabriel said, “Joy to you, who are given such a joyful favour! The lord is with you.” Now, she was thoroughly confused at the speech, and was trying to work out what this greeting could mean. But the messenger said to her:

“Don’t be afraid, Mariam: you’ve found favour with god.
And look, you’ll conceive in your womb and give birth to a son,
And you are to call him by the name Iesous.
He will be great and will be called the son of the highest one.
And the lord god will give him the throne of David his ancestor.
And he will be king over the house of Iakob for endless ages,
And for his kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mariam said to the messenger, “How will this happen, since I’m not familiar with a man?” Then the messenger said to her:

“The holy life-breath will come over you,
And the power of the highest one will send a shadow over you:
Therefore, also, the holy one who is born will be called the son of god.”

There are startling choices here, many based on what words “originally meant”. An “angel” (Greek aggelos, compare Hebrew mal’akh), was indeed once simply a messenger. By the time the New Testament was being written, however, the word generally meant what we call an angel: a supernatural being. Angels were, though, male, powerful, and awe-inspiring — certainly not as imagined for nativity plays, nor members of one of the medieval orders of sexless, celestial intelligences. “Messenger” may understate this.

Again, “the holy life-breath” for “the Holy Spirit” may bring us up short, as also the non-capitalisation of “lord” and “god”. Ruden’s translation shows us that the Gospels come from a past era, but the date of that era is left rather vague. For, by the first century, many of the word-derivations she tries to reproduce may already have been unknown to writers of Koine Greek — let alone to the actual people the Gospels describe, who spoke Aramaic anyway. But the jolt her translations administer may be worth the price.


BEING liturgically rather conservative, I hope that churches where I go to enjoy the Nine Lessons and Carols will stay with the KJV, or a mildly modified version of it such as the Revised Standard Version.

But to avoid merely settling into a Christmas haze, it’s worth looking at the recent solo translations surveyed here. Whether they update the text to make it speak “our language” (Wright, Peterson) or emphasise its antiquity and strangeness (Goldingay, Bentley Hart, Ruden), they make us read it actively rather than let it pass in front of us almost unnoticed as we wait for the next carol.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford. His most recent book is The Word: On the translation of the Bible (Allen Lane/Penguin, £25 (CT Bookshop £20); 978-0-2414-4881-6).

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