A History of the English Bible as Literature

By Ford, E. H. | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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A History of the English Bible as Literature


Ford, E. H., Christianity and 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.

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