General and Miscellaneous -- A History of the Bible as Literature. Volume One: From Antiquity to 1700; Volume Two: From 1700 to the Present Day by David Norton

By Hornsby, S. G., Jr. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

General and Miscellaneous -- A History of the Bible as Literature. Volume One: From Antiquity to 1700; Volume Two: From 1700 to the Present Day by David Norton


Hornsby, S. G., Jr., The Catholic Historical Review


A History of the Bible as Literature. Volume One: From Antiquity to 1700; Volume Two: From 1700 to the Present Day. By David Norton. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1993. Pp. xviii, 375; xii, 493. $75.00.)

David Norton's two volumes bring together an immense amount of material. At once conclusive and provocative, Norton's work is a history of ideas-ideas about literature, social ideas, cultural ideas, and ideas about the changing nature of the English language. While the focus of the study is upon the KJB (1611), Norton says from the start that he does not argue from a literary-critical or a translator's view of the work of the translators. Rather, indeed, he says that his aim is to present as fully as possible how people have thought about literary aspects of the Bible and how one may view the relationships between the translators and the qualities of their work as English.

The legacy of the English Bible must, of course, begin with the varied and diverse nature of the Bible itself, recognizing that the Bible for students of literature and religion needs to be viewed textually as well as a-textually. Norton begins his task with Augustine's reading of the Bible. Moving backward in time, he weaves a tight fabric, including the legends of the Septuagint and the concerns of writers such as Justin, Tatian, Tertullian, and Origen. Immediately a big question leaps out, one that continues to fret modern readers of Scripture. Elegant language or salvation? The pressure weighed heavily on Jerome's struggle with dynamic equivalent translation, that is, "that the new language is given equal weight with the original and that the translator attempts to make his work equivalent not just in meaning but in quality of style" (I, 33). Significantly, Jerome's position was not that of Tyndale or Coverdale, who worked without a sense of a literary standard for English. Yet for Jerome the anti-literary pressures were sufficient in strength to halt him from a consciously literary version. Norton gives a clue of what is ahead. How much more would these pressures affect the English translators, "themselves just as aware of the opposition between sacred and profane, but in no conflict over their allegiance to the sacred" (I, 37)?

Since substantial changes were taking place between Tyndale and the KJB in the English language, it is unlikely that early English translators would have used a literary language if they had had it, for their attitude toward literature was "fundamentally hostile" (I, 65). Thus Tyndale had to invent his own appropriate English, setting a model for subsequent translations. Though Tyndale's influence is well-recorded, Norton examines the principal aspects of Tyndale's emphasis on meaning--feeling and study--so that some literary sense of the Bible may be inferred as Tyndale invokes terms with aesthetic weight. Here Norton asks us to look at the work of Mozley and Gerald Hammond to begin to assess Tyndale's variety of renderings for single words and his repetitiveness. Semantic or stylistic?

In the years following, the language of the Bible became a political issue as well as a theological one, and a succession of English translations followed--the Great Bible, the Geneva version, the Bishops', and the Douai-Rheims. While the "official" Protestant Bibles encourage a studiously devout reading of the Bible "without hinting at pleasure of any sort" (I, 118), the Catholic translation, largely the work of Gregory Martin, does give some attention to literary issues. Even though Martin troubled himself over the expressive ability of English, he clearly set before the KJ translators a version they could not ignore.

In the following chapter (chap. 10) Norton turns directly to the KJB. King James' "fifty-four learned men" faced a challenge not encountered by Wyclif, Tyndale, or Coverdale. Not only did they have a number of translations from which to work but they also had very explicit guidelines. …

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