Subscribe now

The murderous history of Bible translations: power, conflict and quest for meaning

By Harry Freedman
September 2016 | Review by Wayne Pearce
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • ISBN: 978-1-4729-2167-3
  • Pages: 248
  • Price: 20.00
Buy this book »

Book Review

This books comprises 13 chapters, subdivided into three parts: ‘Before the violence’, ‘The violence begins’ and ‘Enlightenment’. The book is broadly chronological, beginning with ‘The legacy of Alexandria’ and ‘The legend of the Septuagint’, while concluding with thoughts on ‘The future of the translated Bible’.

The author, Harry Freedman, is a writer and academic with a PhD in Aramaic. His publications include The Gospels’ veiled agenda and The Talmud: a biography. Readers should note that he does not write from an evangelical perspective. His description of inspiration will hardly instil confidence in conservative Christians: ‘Over the course of many centuries, individuals under varying degrees of inspiration wrote accounts of revelations, histories, prophesies and myths. The Bible is a collection of some of these accounts’ (p.2).

That said, this book is historiography and a good read. It offers no new discoveries, but provides a fairly comprehensive and compelling take on the chequered and controversial history of Bible translations, from the third century BC to the present day.

Freedman explores and explains the religious, social, political and personal milieus and motivations that prompted particular people to risk their livelihoods (and sometimes lives) to produce vernacular versions of Scripture. He concedes that the ‘history of Bible translations has not always been murderous, but it has rarely been lacking in contention’ (p.1). This he amply articulates.

Among other developments, the early chapters address the importance of the Targums and Pershitta and the significance of Edessa in the establishment and expansion of Christianity eastwards. Attention is drawn to Jerome and his considerable achievement in the production of the Latin Vulgate. The response of Christians and Jews alike to the challenge of Islam in the 7th century onwards is similarly covered.

The middle and lengthiest section of the book focuses on such themes as anti-Semitism and on the violent opposition of the late medieval church and state authorities to unorthodox groups like the Cathars in southern France, as well as more orthodox ones like the Lollards in England and Hussites in Bohemia.

A chapter is dedicated to the significance of William Tyndale, who paid for his labours with his life. The political and religious developments that led to the production and promotion of the King James Version are addressed, before crossing the Atlantic to North America.

The final section considers not only how the discovery of early scriptural manuscripts stimulated a fresh desire and demand for new translations, but also how contextualisation and cultural change has acted as a catalyst for controversial and corrupted paraphrases like the Queen James Bible.

Overall, a good summary and synthesis. Written for a general audience, this book will appeal to all with an interest in church history and Bible translation.

Wayne Pearce

Stornoway

Book Reviews

Read our latest book reviews

Star RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar Rating
Why Should I Trust the Bible?

We should trust the Bible, says Timothy Paul Jones, because it is ‘grounded in the words of a man who died and rose again’ (p.111). Jones’s basic presupposition is this: ‘If we live in a world where it is possible…

See all book reviews
Star RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar Rating
Who Am I? Human Identity and the Gospel in a Confusing World
Thomas Fretwell

In today’s secular society, religion is often regarded as without rational or scientific basis, and therefore irrelevant to life in the modern world and all areas of public engagement. If that is our social context, then it is no wonder…

Star RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar Rating
The Pastor’s Life: Practical Wisdom from the Puritans
Matthew D Haste & Shane W Parker

This book highlights ‘some of the many lessons that today’s pastors can learn from the Puritans’ (p.151). As such it is aimed at pastors, but the lessons are really for anyone who is a Christian leader. The opening chapter provides…

Star RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar RatingStar Rating
5 Minutes in Church History: An Introduction to the Stories of God’s Faithfulness in the History of the Church
Stephen J Nichols

What a breath of fresh air this book is! Stephen Nichols has given us 40 vignettes from church history that are brief enough to be digested over a bowl of cereal. The book doesn’t aim to be a beginner’s guide…