This Sunday, August 6, would be my mother’s 98th birthday, but she died in January of last year. Fifty-one years ago her birthday was on a Saturday. That morning our family went to the south Relief Society room of our double chapel on 9th East in Provo across the street from Deseret Towers. The south Relief Society room was the one with the font, and as we sat there in our white clothes some priests (which will have an entirely different connotation to someone unfamiliar with Mormon culture) gave us a demonstration, standing in the middle of the room, of how the baptisms would proceed, how to hold our fathers’ hands, how to lean back under the water.
People born in June were normally baptized the first Saturday in July, but we had been on vacation that day. (That may have been the day we climbed Boot Hill. Disappointing. First, not much of a hill. Second, only six men had been gunned down and buried there. Six was the first 30 minutes of a John Wayne film, not a legendary event in the American imagination.)
Sometime during that first week of August I walked across the street to Beverly Broadbent’s, the Primary president, to pass off the Articles of Faith, including this one,
We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
Or maybe it was four years later, when I graduated from Primary, that I memorized and recited the Articles of Faith. At any rate, for half a century now I have associated the word translate with words like Bible, Book of Mormon, and scripture. In that time I’ve read a fair number of translators’ prefaces, a fair amount about the problems of taking words from one language and setting them down in another. (And I did some work on the manual for Book of Mormon translators.)
I’m comfortable with the idea that translations are incomplete, that things can be lost and gained in translation, and that translation can have a wider meaning than simply finding word equivalences between languages, such as transforming from a lower state to a higher state.
No piece of writing, my father had said, is perfect.
What if you got a perfect essay from a student?
I guess it would be translated.
Into what language?
If he had been talking about a person rather than a piece of writing I wouldn’t have been confused. And yet, why couldn’t a piece of writing be translated to a higher state as Enoch and his citizens were? I first came across the idea that translate had that kind of meaning for Joseph Smith in Brant Gardner’s The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, then again in “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” on lds.org. (See #43 for other comment on this essay.)
I’m hardly the only Mormon with an interest in translation–certainly not the only Christian, so you can imagine my surprise when I came upon the a statement claiming the King James Bible as the author’s “final written authority”–not the Hebrew or Greek texts.
To research the conjunction in Matthew 3:5 for #77 , I was looking for online versions of tools James E. Faulconer mentions in a chapter of Scripture Study, “Doing Bible Research without Knowing Hebrew or Greek.” Duckduckgo found Frederic Blume’s review of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament in the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Digital Library. Researching something Blume had mentioned the Duckduck got me an essay by Will Kinney titled, “Archaic and Inerrant” beats “Modern but Corrupt” any day:
One such Bible agnostic who was criticizing the words “wimples and crisping pins”, named Hugh, writes: “Can you point us to the infallible Word (Hebrew & Greek) that the KJV translators used?”
To whom I answered: “No, I cannot with 100% accuracy, nor do I need to. You see, “the” Hebrew and “the” Greek (there is no such animal) is not my final written authority. The English text of the King James Bible is. That is what God has used to convert hundreds of thousands and been translated into hundreds of different languages. It is the English text of the King James Bible that I read every day.
Surprising statement, considering how active Protestants and Evangelicals have been in researching the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. I dismissed it as not well-informed, especially in asserting that the King James Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages. (It has been widely used as the basis for English translations–a blurb for Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses says something like it has reinvigorated the King James, Avraham Gileadi’s translation of Isaiah draws on it extensively, and comparing Gileadi with the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh I find numerous phrases from KJV–but I know of no translation of the KJV from English to another language.)
Looking for the quote later (before it occurred to me to search my browser’s history), I came across Ken Matto, D. Min’s “Why I am King James Only,” While neither essay elicits an “almost thou persuadest me,” they are worth a little comment. I’ll look at three assertions.
Behind Kinney’s assertion that the KJV is God’s inspired word for the English language is the conviction that “there is no such animal” as a settled text for the Bible in Hebrew or Greek, but that the KJV represents a fixed, settled text in English. Matto, too, claims there is no fixed text in the original languages, so God prepared a purified text through Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Textus Receptus. Thus the KJV represents a stable text which doesn’t change “with every new manuscript discovery,” a text with no revisions in 400 years–only about 400 minor changes to correct typos or grammar.
Second, Matto looks at how four modern versions handle the contradiction between 1 Samuel 17:50
So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him;
and 2 Samuel 21:19
And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Beth-lehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.
Matto notes that the King James translators added three italicized words the brother of for clarity, and faults the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the New International Version and the New World Translation for not adding them. Which means he faults them for sticking to the Masoretic text. (And he’s wrong about the NIV; the online version at Bible Study Tools says “the brother of Goliath.”)
To be sure, there is textual support in 1 Chronicles 20:5 for the King James translators’ emendation:
And there was war again with the Philistines; and Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear staff was like a weaver’s beam.
But Matto doesn’t cite that, he simply says, “We now have perfect harmony between 1 Samuel 17:50 and 2 Samuel 21:19 instead of total contradiction. Still think your modern version is superior?”
Third, Matto claims that Desiderius Erasmus’s Textus Receptus is God’s purified text that bypasses the corrupt Catholic scholars, and their corrupt manuscripts like the Vaticanus and Siniaticus, to continue an unbroken line purified by God back to the original manuscripts.
All three of these claims involve the work of preparing, publishing and preserving the canon, which is the work of prophets, or people designated as “stewards over the revelations” (D&C 70:3). Indeed, Joseph Smith did a lot of work with the italicized words in preparing his translation of the Bible. (See Gardner’s discussion in The Gift and the Power, 212-15.) And he also emended a passage to resolve a contradiction, changing Acts 9:7 to read
And they who were journeying with him saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him who spake to him.
clearing up the contradiction with 22:9,
And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
We need the work prophets do even if we deny the efficacy of prophecy, prophets and revelation after New Testament times. So why is the Christian tradition so set against new revelation and prophets?
There are lots of reasons, but let me suggest one that I don’t think I’ve ever quite heard articulated, but seems to be there in the background. The Tanakh presents prophets as wild people who have terrifying experiences. They’re not safe and predictable, and may overturn the social order. The most terrifying of these incidents is when God commands Abraham to kill his son on a sacrificial altar.
Joseph Smith said once that he liked to try and understand the question a given revelation answers–what was the prophet asking that any given revelation was the answer to? So what question could draw forth the answer,
Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
How about, “How can you do it? How can you sacrifice your Son, your only son, who you love, for the sins of the world?”
Whatever question elicited that response, the response is so overwhelming it blocks out any context. Abraham’s grandson told a story about Yahweh trying to kill him. My brother Dennis pointed out to me that Jacob’s experience and Joseph Smith’s at the First Vision are the same. He believes Jacob mistook his deliverer for his attacker. An easy mistake to make for someone who grew up with a story about grandpa’s encounter with Yahweh? Four hundred years later Yahweh asked one of Jacob’s descendants to bring the others up to the mountain to see his face. They refused, saying they would die. I wonder how much of that refusal was related to the family story, and how much of that origin story reverberated down through Jewish and Christian history, and how it affected our rhetorical ideas about how prophets and scripture behave, and how God behaves?