Sunday, June 1, 2008

Roll Over, Tom Paine, and Tell Fred Nietzsche the News

We’ve all heard the old joke about the rube who says, “If the King James Version was good enough for the Lord Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Imagine my surprise, then, on finding Owen Paine chuckling, William F’Buckley-like, about the Scopes Trial, “Now truth be told, I enjoyed [William Jennings] Bryan’s insistence on the original text in Jacobean translation, over [Clarence] Darrow’s smart-alec paraphrases.”

The Authorized Version, known as the King James after the king who commissioned the new translation for use in the Church of England, isn’t even the first translation of the Bible into English. The first, by John Wyclyffe, was done in the 1380s, two centuries before the KJV. These earlier versions had been works of insubordination and courage, often under threat of death. Because James “gave the translators instructions designed to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy,” they had to walk a line between opposition to Rome and opposition to “dissenting” sects in England. Dissenters, including the Puritans and the Pilgrims, therefore rejected the King James Version, which they considered too Papist, and it didn’t come into general use among American Protestants for a century.

A politician and public speaker like Bryan would like the KJV if for no other reason than that it was meant to be used, and read aloud, in church. Its grand phrasing rolls satisfyingly off the tongue; its now archaic language compels reverence and shuts off the audience’s mind. And since by the end of the 19th century it was the most influential English version around, most lay Christians naturally tended to treat it as the “original text.” But it isn’t, even among English translations.

Paine also gushes over Bryan’s “occasional insistences on exact translation, as in the tale of Jonah: it was ‘a great fish’, not a ‘whale’ that swallowed that overboard soul; or that in the Bible, ‘day’ can mean any ‘distinct period of time’.” That latter point is not exact translation but apologetics, the kind of elastic interpretation which belies the claim that fundamentalists read the Bible literally.

As for Darrow’s smart-aleck paraphrases, they’re not necessarily a bad thing. People are so used to the KJV’s phraseology that they sometimes don’t hear what it’s saying. Restating the rhetoric more bluntly can sometimes shock people out of complacent acceptance. In that respect Darrow was following in Mark Twain’s footsteps, knowingly or not; the material published later as Letters from the Earth is even snottier than Darrow was.

Paraphrase is a tricky business, and Darrow no doubt made some mistakes. It’s a recurring thorn in my side that many of my fellow atheists feel free to be sloppy about their facts. Thomas Paine, Owen’s presumable namesake, made plenty of mistakes about the Bible in The Age of Reason. But so do Christians, fundamentalist and liberal alike. The dread Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism is so full of factual errors about the Bible that I made dozens of pages of notes listing them; gay Christian layman Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus is no better. At the other end of the theological spectrum, here’s an example from the late D. James Kennedy’s Skeptics answered: handling tough questions about the Christian faith (Sisters OR: Multnomah Books, 1997), page 120:

The Greek word for gospel is the same root word for our dynamite. When someone speaks or reads the gospel, even in bits and pieces, it has tremendous power -- no less than the power of God – to break down barriers, penetrate hearts and minds, and transform lives.

To be pedantic, gospel is the English word for evangelion, not the other way around. Leaving pedantry aside, as you can see, it doesn’t have the same root as dynamite, which comes from the Greek dunamis, or power. That’s the word used in the gospels for Jesus’ miracles, his mighty acts of power over spirits, nature, and human beings. Evangelion means “good news” or “glad tidings,” and while any preacher worth his salt could spin out yards of edifying verbiage on that subject, it has no connection to the word “dynamite.” … But who cares, right? I’m just a smart-alecky skeptic, picking apart the beliefs of simple folk. I consider that better than patronizing them, though, as Paine (and earlier, his co-blogger Michael J. Smith) is doing.