Atheists talking sense about the Bible.
I recently saw a debate between the Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist Christopher Hitchens and I wondered, once again, why it was that Christopher Hitchens is always so much more compelling as a practitioner of English than his theistic opponents. How does he manage, despite the mistaken nature of most of his beliefs about religion, to sound so bloody good? Why, by comparison, do his opponents seem so slow of speech and slow of tongue?
Now we know why Hitchens can talk circles around his debate opponents: he reads the Bible.
But not just any Bible: it is on the King James Bible in particular which Hitchens shews forth his praise. In fact, he pays it gushing homage in a new article in Vanity Fair, where he argues that the dignity of its prose, the beauty of its expression, and the appropriateness of its linguistic form to its exalted subject matter make it one of, if not the greatest work of the English language--a "repository and edifice of language which towers above its successors."
Oh, and he also thinks our culture is better for knowing it.
For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter? And so bleak and spare and fatalistic—almost non-religious—are the closing verses of Ecclesiastes that they were read at the Church of England funeral service the unbeliever George Orwell had requested in his will: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home. … Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain/ or the wheel broken at the cistern. / Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was.”There are the usual Hitchens errors, of course. He repeats the canard about the Catholic Church being opposed to William Tyndale's Bible translation because the Church was opposed to vernacular translations, when, in fact, there were an abundance of accepted vernacular English translations and there were accepted vernacular translations in existence well before the Protestant Reformation in many languages. There were even several English ones following Tyndale that the Church accepted. In fact, the Latin Vulgate itself was a vernacular translation in its time that allowed it to be understood by the masses.
The Church was opposed to Wycliffe's translation because it was concerned about the integrity of Bible translations at a time of heated theological controversy (one thinks of Martin Luther's insertion of the word "only" into his German translation of Romans 3:28, despite its absence in the original Greek to bolster his view of sola fide). Tyndale's Bible wasn't condemned because the Church opposed an English vernacular translation; it was condemned because contained marginal notes that were anti-clerical and, in some cases, heretical.
In fact, the King James Bible itself was influenced by the earlier Douay-Rhiems Catholic English translation.
Then there's his critique of Isaiah 7:14, which says, “behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Hitchens claims--along with not a few modern Biblical scholars--that the word translated here "virgin" (the Hebrew almah) should have been translated instead "young woman." This argument has the virtue--to those of Hitchens atheist orientation--of undermining the passage's application to the Christ story. But the case against it is rather weaker than Hitchens makes out.
The argument is that if "virgin" was specifically meant, another word (Hitchens doesn't mention it, but it is betulah) would have been used. But this word too was sometimes used even of widows (Joel 1:8). The word almah did more commonly simply mean "young woman," but young unmarried women of the time were presumed to be chaste.
But more telling is the fact that the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was conducted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B. C., translated the Hebrew word almah into the Greek parthenos, which is much more unequivocally the Greek word for "virgin." In other words, the Hellenized Jews of the 2nd and 3rd centuries--with no theological axes to grind regarding the word's application to Christ (who had not yet been born) thought it meant "virgin." And, of course, these were scholars who, being Jews and living over two millenia closer to the sources of the language, knew just a little about Hebrew.
But a day in Hitchens' linguistic court is still better than a thousand elsewhere. These problems are, in fact, incidental to Hitchens main point. He is neither a historian nor a Hebrew expert. But he is a masterful practitioner of the English language, and this is all that is needed in order for him to make his case for the King James Bible.
In a Biblical strife of tongues we call the modern Bible translations, there has been an attempt to be more "understandable," and this attempt has taken the form of the systematic elimination of the living metaphors in the original text in favor of the dead abstractions of modern technical speech. Both Protestants and Catholics have bought into the linguistically debilitating theory that bald abstract prose is a better conduit for truth than living poetic expression. But man cannot live by rational prose alone.
Hitchins calls this linguistic taxidermy "rinsing out the prose":
When the Church of England effectively dropped King James, in the 1960s, and issued what would become the “New English Bible,” T. S. Eliot commented that the result was astonishing “in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” (Not surprising from the author of For Lancelot Andrewes.) This has been true of every other stilted, patronizing, literal-minded attempt to shift the translation’s emphasis from plangent poetry to utilitarian prose."Utilitarian prose." That captures the problem exactly. Only someone linguistically inoculated against it by reading great literature such as the King James Bible would even be able to detect it.
To say that the best approach to truth is the direct route of bald prose not only goes against the approach of the original Biblical writers, who employed vivid imagery in their writings, but it also is an example of what Richard Weaver once called the "quest for immediacy," the idea that truth must be approached like a conquering mental army--besieged and taken captive. But truth is mystery, and tearing the veil off of it reveals little. It can only be approached indirectly. The modern Baconian attempt to put truth on the rack in order to give up her secrets will yield little. Modern Biblical translators goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to slaughter:
At my father’s funeral I chose to read a similarly non-sermonizing part of the New Testament, this time an injunction from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”The translator of 1611 wrote with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond. The modern translator writes with Word, published by Microsoft. And it shows.
As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative “ifs” and its closing advice—always italicized in my mind since first I heard it—to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts. I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s “Contemporary English Version,” which I picked up at an evangelical “Promise Keepers” rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.”
Pancake-flat: suited perhaps to a basement meeting of A.A., these words could not hope to penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy, as their original had done for me.
Translations such as the New International Version (NIV), the most popular version among Protestants, and the New American Bible (NAB), the "go to" modern text for Catholics, suffer greatly from the misguided attempt to serve two masters. There are two selling points on modern translations: their readibility or understandability and their accuracy. But any attempt at being "understandable to the modern reader" is threatening a step away from accuracy--at least if by accuracy you mean sticking with the original words of the text. All this talk is a vain oblation, and the Greek scholar N. T. Wright has called the NIV (just to take one example) "appalling."
So how shall we sing the Lord's song in this strange modern land? The first thing to do is recognize the importance--nay, the necessity--of literary expression. The King James translators themselves knew the value of this, and it is exemplified in the very prose they used to explain their goal in translating:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered.I'm sure the translators of modern versions of the Bible are quite competent in knowing how to read Hebrew and Greek. It's their facility with English that I question. I'm willing to bet that the modern scholars they hire to translate these things are not generally literary people. In fact, it's tempting to think that those who translated the King James simply had a far better grasp of their own language. There were literary giants in the earth in those days.
One also has to wonder whether these acts of publishing hubris have really resulted in more people reading the Bible. I have my doubts. Just as Christianity thrives on persecution (real persecution, not the kind that many American Christians today, living in the lap of luxury call persecution), so the Bible might benefit from some real censorship.
The point of reading the King James Bible (or, for Catholics, the Douay-Rheims)--in addition to simply imbibing the Word of God--is not so that we can pepper our speech with "thees" and "thous," but to fertilize our speech so that we may yield up a richer linguistic harvest.
Why is Hitchens is so much more articulate than is Christian opponents? While the theists are laboring over their fine dialectical distinctions and parsing complex syllogisms in order to prove God's existence, Hitchens has been sitting by the fire reading the Good Book in the King's English.
It should come as no surprise.