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A History of the English Bible as Literature.

By David Norton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-77140-4 (cloth), 0-521-77807-7 (paper). Pp. xii + 455. $85.00 (doth), $35.00 (paper).

David Norton's A History of the English Bible as Literature is a revised and condensed version of his compendious two-volume series published in 1993. Norton's arrangement of his subject's 700-year history is literary-historical, and his methodology toward the English Bible as literature is genetic-critical. He traces the changes that have occurred to the scriptural canon and the ongoing effect that various translations of the Bible have had on English literary culture. Much of the history of the King James Bible (KJB) entails trying to define its power. Has the effect of the English Bible been spiritual, or was it merely poetic? Or are the two ultimately separable?

The evolution of the English Bible from sacred text to literary classic rivaled only by William Shakespeare began in the movement for vernacular bibles that split Christendom. To the early Church, steeped in the sacred languages of Hebrew, Greek, and later Latin, translation was heresy: it separated biblical content from the languages in which God was presumed to have spoken to humankind. More of historical necessity than theological accuracy, the Latin of the Vulgate was for a millennium the intermediary between sacred languages and the vernacular.

The central issue during the 300-year war over a vernacular English Bible was ownership of content, a struggle that endures in related areas of literature today. The Roman Church's argument against translation was that the laity was not qualified to interpret God's Word, which needed the mediation of a learned clergy. On the side of a vernacular Bible were those like William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, who felt that the Roman clergy hindered the layperson's religious experience. The question at hand was ownership, but the question was not to be solved ultimately by the production of vernacular bibles. To solve the question of spiritual ownership, the Bible needed to be viewed as literature in the language of those who read it.

According to Norton's chronology, the evolution of the Bible from inspired Word of God to literary classic moved forward by large figures in religion and literature. The earliest such interventionists in the dialectical struggle between the Bible as sacred text and the Bible as English literature were John Wycliff and Tyndale, the latter figuring as father of English biblical translation and martyr to the cause of wresting God's Word from the possession of the Roman Church. Although they championed a vernacular Bible, neither Wycliff nor Tyndale accepted the Bible's literary nature, which they regarded as a secular maculation on biblical purity. Perceived similarities between the English and the Semitic mind, however, permitted translation, since English as a language could bear, translators felt, the truths contained in the Bible without diminishing them. So strong was the perceived similarity among English, Greek, and Hebrew that English was regarded as superior in its power to capture the Bible's religious truths without Latinate loan-words and back-formations. Sir John Cheke, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, was among those who wanted to purge English of outside influences and "inkhorn" terres in order to increase the expressive similarity among English, Hebrew, and Greek. The early work of Wycliff, Tyndale, and Coverdale was incorporated into the Geneva Bible (1560), which Shakespeare himself read, one of the "great Bibles" that provided a theological and literary platform for development of the KJB (1611). On the Continent the translators of the Catholic Rheims-Douai Bible (1582 [New Testament], 1609 [Old Testament]) gave painstaking attention to literary matters, but those considerations placed further obstacles between the content of Scripture and the language of the common English speaker. If the Rheims-Douai was far too literary, however, the Geneva was felt to have too much license and too little literary value. Its advantage, like that of the KJB, was low price and affordability for the common man and the fact that it was favored by the Puritans. Gregory Martin, champion of the Rheims-Douai, preferred to see the piety of the commoners guided by the priesthood and fought vernacular translations, while his Puritan opponent William Fulke supported the right of the common man to possess the Scripture in his own tongue.

By the time the KJB was commissioned, the dialectic between the Bible's religious and literary natures had raged long enough for the translators to have a solid understanding of the issues. The panel of translators was advised by the eminent Hebrew scholar Hugh Broughton. For his part Broughton espoused "plainness and literal accuracy" (56), qualifies compatible with the Anglo-Saxon component of English, though not necessarily with the Latin component. The goals of the KJB translators and their instructions, nevertheless, were far from plain and literal. The three major aspects of KJB textual scholarship were "grace, fitness of phrase, and style" (66), which many scholars felt were not characteristics of English vernacular of the time. Furthermore, the translators sought qualifies for the KJB from its originals that are often incompatible--e.g., truth and clarity of speech. Such strenuous demands naturally came into confict, which was solved for some by the introduction of a new notion that gave way to what Norton calls "AVolatry"--the notion that God's inspired Word can be translated if the translators themselves are inspired. Thus the KJB defeated the Puritan Geneva Bible in competition for popularity among English speakers, due in part to its clarity and fitness of phrase but also due to government support of the KJB, which increased sales and recognition. Likewise, the KJB had no textual notes to distract the reader, and its English was fairly true to the language of the day.

Once established, the KJB progressed from God's inspired Word to classic of English literature by way of its effect on writers and thinkers, some cogent and engaged, a few irrelevant and disinterested. John Donne believed strongly in the Bible's literary qualities, though primarily in the original languages: he classed the Bible with Homer, Cicero, and Virgil. Donne also recognized that the KJB represented a new benchmark for stylistic and literary perfection and that religion and delight in language were compatible. To detractors who found the KJB far too Anglo-Saxon and hence coarse in style and content, chemist Robert Boyle responded that deep reading would render the text beautiful and inspiring, a validation of the KJB's literary nature. The Reformation preacher Robert South noted the simplicity of the KJB as a new standard for literary beauty and held that its eloquence, simplicity, and humbleness would set a standard for English in the future. Dissenter Robert Ferguson took the argument for the KJB's beauty even further: to criticize the Bible's style and eloquence, he said, was to criticize God's wisdom itself. To the extent that he showed both extreme skepticism and extreme faith, Sir Thomas Browne furthered the cause of the KJB when in Religio Medici (1642) he admitted that the power and truth of the Scriptures outweighed his rational objections to the content. In taking the Bible as the point of departure for many of his poems, John Milton exercised enormous influence on both literary taste and religious ideas. Milton's opinion of biblical greatness related to style as well as to content. But Norton reserves his best work for John Bunyan, who was obsessed by the text of the KJB that he saw as great literature to be inspired by and borrowed from. So deep was Bunyan's immersion in the KJB that it is at times impossible to separate his texts from the source of their inspiration. Here again the line that separates the inspiration of the KJB translators from the inspiration of writers such as Milton and Bunyan is blurred nearly to invisibility.

Robert Lowth, Oxford Professor of Poetry, added vast impetus to the KJB's acceptance as an English classic in his De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (1741-50). Written in Latin, Lowth's work dealt with the poetry in the Psalms and the prophetic books. Lowth argued that, aside from its inspired content, biblical poetry has vast literary quality in its structure, grace, and simplicity. Like many of his Bible-obsessed predecessors, Lowth contended that poetry is the highest form of literature, but he also noted the unclear line between biblical poetry and prose, especially in translations like the KJB.

By the time of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, three important assumptions regarding the KJB were held: first, that it was the standard by which English in general was to be judged; second, that the translators had themselves been inspired; and, third, that the KJB was a literary revision, which it was not. Sacred text and literature thus became inseparable. William Blake, though ambivalent toward biblical content, conflated poetry and divine inspiration: imagination and art, he maintained, were evidence of the "inner light." Other Romantics held the KJB to be primarily a literary classic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the Bible and Shakespeare great because both were inspired, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, like Blake, held that poetry was the soul of religion. Although a heady "AVolatry"--reverence for the AV itself as opposed to the originals--prevailed in the Victorian period, among scholars and translators the study of Greek and Hebrew had advanced to a point where the KJB was felt to be inaccurate and its English archaic. The result was the Revised Version (1881 [New Testament], 1885 [Old Testament).

Although the RV translators' goals were surprisingly similar to those for the KJB, the Victorian translators went a step further. They assumed that complete congruence between original and translation was possible. The goal of accuracy was overrated, however, and the RV's reception was mixed. The RV New Testament sold 300,000 copies on its first day of publication, testifying to the hunger of English speakers for sacred material, but many found the translation disappointing, especially when compared with the KJB's long-revered sonority. The result has been a continued division in modern opinion on the merits of the KJB versus the RV. While the former is often preferred for its classical tone and style, the latter is frequently preferred for its comprehensibility.

Norton's work is invaluable to the biblical scholar, and his approach is simultaneously enthusiastic and methodical. Norton appears strongly influenced by positivism and British empiricism, presenting the opinions of some authors that might otherwise be viewed as simple professions of faith as cant and bombast. Yet, at those times when clarity is called for, clarity is not always Norton's greatest strength. The flux of opinion on the Bible among English speakers and writers makes a clear evolutionary line to the present day unlikely, but for all its virtues--thoroughness, depth of understanding, and enthusiasm for the topic--A History of the English Bible as Literature presents that evolutionary line as less visible than it might be.
E. H. Ford
Morris Brown College
Atlanta University Center
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Author:Ford, E.H.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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