The 400th anniversary of the King James, or “Authorised”, version of the Bible is currently being voluminously celebrated by the BBC (apart from the buildings, the delight of hearing it occasionally read in Church is the only thing about the Church of England that I miss).
Yesterday, throughout the day, lengthy (and glorious) passages from both Old Testament and New were read out; and James Naughtie did several programmes last week about how it came into existence. I don’t remember anything being said about the possible influence of the original version of the Douai-Rheims New Testament (which appeared some 20 years before it) on the King James translation. Despite the fact that the Douai-Rheims was explicitly forbidden as a version to be consulted, there are scholars who maintain that its influence can be detected. The later Challenor version of the Douai-Rheims is the one we know today: and the King James Bible was undoubtedly, in its turn, a major influence on that: one scholar even calls it Challenor’s “base text”. Consider this wonderfully taut and sonorous translation of Matthew 3: 13-17, in the Authorised version:
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptised of him.
But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus, when he was baptised, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
All the drama of this cosmic event is powerfully and with great simplicity conveyed by the King James version: and it is maintained in the Douai-Rheims version, which in some of its most beautiful passages is identical:
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptised by him. But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptised by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfill all justice. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus being baptised, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
“Forbad” becomes “stayed”; “righteousness” becomes “justice”: but those wondrous words spoken by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, are preserved. The passage I have chosen to quote is, of course, the gospel from this week’s Sunday Mass, and if you didn’t recognise it, there is a good reason: we, of course, have to suffer in Church under the ghastly, tone-deaf, flat-footed mediocrity of the Jerusalem Bible. So, that last sentence is gawkily and prosaically rendered: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.” Even worse, surely unpardonably, the sentence rendered by King James [Douai-Rheims] as “But John forbad [stayed] him, saying: I ought to be baptised by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now”, appears in the Jerusalem Bible as “John tried to dissuade him. ‘It is I who need baptism from you,’ he said, ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being’. I am not making this up: “Leave it like this for the time being” is how this wretched travesty renders what ought to be memorable words, as though our Lord were a car salesman with a special offer, or a politician suggesting some murky compromise. “Leave it like this for the time being”. Strewth! It would be comic if it were not so serious. The whole of yesterday’s gospel, in all its heartbreaking bureaucratic flatness bathetically runs as follows:
Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him. “It is I who need baptism from you,” he said, “and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being: it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” At this, John gave in to him.
As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.”
Some time in the next year or two, the bishops will run out of delaying tactics, and we will be allowed at last to begin using the new translation of the Mass. But if nothing is done, our liturgy will still be disfigured by the Jerusalem Bible. I have a suggestion: that any recognised Catholic translation should be permitted as an alternative. Why not? Why would the bishops want to hang on to the control-freak policy which allows only one version, and that the flattest and clumsiest of all? It’s a real question, and I think we deserve an answer. I would like some bishop to give us one. Why not after this blog? Disqus awaits.