Amidst the plethora of contemporary translations of the Bible, all of which have contributed untold munificence to the emerging and flabbergasting journey of certain individuals, there is an gathering sense, for me at least, that ― in addition to the eclecticism thus forced upon us ― we should perhaps recognise a tendency for new versions of the Bible to tie themselves in knots.


I have written over many years and in many notebooks of the dilemmas posed by translations of the Bible. In the pre-digital era, it is very hard to discover these passages again among the lucubrations of so many large black volumes. But the gist of my conclusions seems to be that, if you want to discover what actually happened during the shipwreck of St Paul, you need a modern version; and if you want to discover how David danced before the Lord in one or another psalm, you need the King James Version. In other words, the present age is good at objectivity, but previous ones were ages of faith.


We have other preoccupations:


You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.[1]


There is also a distinct tendency to migrate from the concrete to the abstract, as if this were a form of progress, rather than mere generalisation – dilution. The modern mind is enfeebled by abstraction. In fact we have lost access to the secrets of language (eloquence), just as we have lost access to the secrets of the heart (faith), with the former weakness contingent upon the latter. The darkness no longer fails to comprehend the light; it merely fails to overcome it.


Reading the first chapter of the fourth Gospel in French, Évangile Selon Jean, one quickly comes upon the repetitions ― things are said in pairs ― and indeed perhaps we need to be told things twice. It is striking that, although they were cousins and their mothers were certainly acquainted, John twice says,


Moi-même, je ne le connaissais pas … et je ne le connaissais pas (Traduction Œcuménique, Jean 1: 31,33)


Then, in the famous Prologue we find:


“This is the one of whom I said: He who comes after me has passed ahead of me because he existed before me.” (John 1:15 NJB).


Before long we are given this again:


It was of him that I said, “Behind me comes the one who has passed ahead of me because he existed before me”. (John 1:30 NJB)


Like a tripod, three verbs are made to carry what is evidently to be regarded as something of a weight.


In spite of its promise of coherence and continuity, the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Anglicised Text, published in 2005 (NRSV; Darton Longman Todd) retains very little of what one is familiar with:[2]


This is he of whom I said, “After me comes the man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” (v. 30).


This has already appeared, in parentheses for some reason, as follows:


(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”‘) (NRSV John 1:15)


But already there is a slithering between possible alternative verbs – ranks, passed and so on. Things are a little clearer in the French ―


C’est de lui que j’ai dit: Après moi vient un homme qui m’a devancé, parce que, avant moi, il était. (TOB, Jean 1:30).


This is because the French word devancé does quite a lot of work (overtaken, surpassed) in a concise fashion. But the convoluted English, in which ontological status is made to determine physical position, is of a kind that sub editors normally reject. The problem is not merely that of clarity ― perhaps one knows what is meant ― but of conviction.


And so one turns to the Authorised Version and reads as follows:


John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me … … he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. (KJV John 1:15, 30)


Again, the simplicity of was is present in the modern French – était. And preferred is at least the equal of devancé.


The superiority of Jacobean English is simply that of faith. This splendid committee of about fifty scholars from Cambridge, Oxford and London knew what they thought and believed and, although in the throes of a Protestant revolution, manoeuvred within margins which left little room for existential doubt.


A much more serious tangle has already occurred in this, perhaps the best known chapter in the Bible:


Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. (John 1:3 NJB).


There is nowadays something of a fascination with the linguistic mechanics of the verb to be and its associated Heideggerian possibilities. I suppose there is a suckling tide – to and fro – around the word creation, with creationists and anti-creationists, and I have recently found it helpful to think of the universe as given rather than created. Not that there is much difference, though this mattered to St Augustine. Now the conciseness of the French is startling:


Tout fut par lui (TOB, Jean 1:3)


And we turn to the Authorised Version with the greatest relief:


All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:3 AV)


Here there is no ebb of faith whatsoever: things were made. They did not come into being. We descend no slope of existential ingenuity. We are not obliged to contemplate non-being with the help of continental philosophers. We need not even juggle created and given with images of the toymaker in his Lapland smithy moving in the distance.


The assurance is there, the confidence of things unseen, above all the obeisance of attitude to which no amount of objectivity contributes anything at all.

[1] Amos, ch. 6, v. 6. New International version, 1989.

[2] Except here and there: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth”; “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” ― John 1:14, 16.