This is “Religion in the News,” a program of non-sectarian comment on items of religious significance that have appeared in the press during the past week.
This has been National Bible Week. Begun in 1941 by the Layman’s National Committee, a non-sectarian organization, the purpose of this annual observance is to encourage people to read the Bible and other books which adhere to the “proposition that America was founded on Man’s consciousness of God.”
The Bible for years has consistently been the world’s best seller. There are 184 complete translations of it, and some 1,100 translation of parts of it. Almost anyone in any part of the world can find at least part of the Bible translated into his own language. If one interprets sales volume to indicate interest, then the Bible is preferred by mankind to any other single book.
There is, however, a remarkable lack of accurate information about how our Bible came to be the book that it is. Perhaps there is even a lack of curiosity on the part of many about this. And yet, one’s respect for the Bible cannot but increase with the increase of his understanding of how it came to be.
The word “Bible” comes from the Greek, and in that language it means “The Books.” Since the Middle Ages, our translation of it has been merely the singular, i.e., “the Book.” This book contains the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity. These comprise 73 books for Catholics and some Protestants, 66 books for other Protestants, and 39 for Jews. While these books were written by man different peoples at many different times in history, there is a singleness of purpose running throughout them: The revelation of God to man.
Originally, these writings were entirely in the Hebrew language, except some minor portions in Aramaic. As the Jewish people spread throughout the countries bordering on the Mediterranean, the Old Testament came to be translated into many other languages, chiefly the Greek.
Since the New Testament books were all written originally in Greek, the early church had a completely Greek Bible. So many translations and variations within the same translation occurred, however, that Pope Damascus requested the noted scholar Jerome to revise the Latin versions, and the result was the Vulgate edition, which was completed in 406 A.D. This edition is still the preferred version for many Roman Catholics, and it is widely used in their churches.
With the spread of Christianity during the Middle Ages and later, new versions appeared which, as a rule, were based primarily on the Vulgate edition. Many of these were made by people who were not careful scholars, and wide variations occurred.
It remained for Martin Luther, during the period of the Reformation, to bring forth a new translation, which he did of the New Testament in 1522, and he completed his version of the Old Testament 12 years later. As the Reformation spread, a new movement for more translations began, but Luther’s work remains the most poplar still among most of the German churches. The major significance of his work lies in the fact that he went back to original languages, thereby restoring much of the purity of the text. Moreover, he was master of the German language, and he created a version that was by both vocabulary and style popular and dignified, reproducing the beauty of the original poetic portions.
Following in the wake of Luther came many other translations too numerous even to enumerate them all here. But when the Reformation spread to England, it was largely the Greek text that was used at first. Several translations into English were made, that of Wycliffe in 1382 and Tyndale’s translation in 1525. Many modern English versions are based on the work of Tyndale. Significantly enough, there was so much hostility among the bishops to a new Bible, that of Tyndale, that he had to have it printed in Europe. Someone has remarked that his first edition was “legally bought, read by the people, and solemnly burnt by church authorities.”
As it had happened before in other places, it had now developed that in England there were so many versions, editions and translations, that a better account was needed. In the early 1600s, King James I established a commission of bishops to consult all these versions and to consolidate the best of them all into a single translation. Their work culminated in the issuance of authorization of the king, the so-called King James or Authorized Version of 1611. It is this version that has ad perhaps the longest and widest influence upon American Protestantism. Interestingly enough, it was this version that appeared just four years after the first settlement by the English in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
The King James Version was revised in 1881, and additional suggestions of the American committee of advisers were incorporated in 1901. Moreover, more than 50 translations or revisions into English of the Old Testament and more than 100 of the New Testament had been made after the King James version of 1948.
As had happened so many times before in the history of the Bible, many people had come to recognize the need for a version that would incorporate the best knowledge of scholars as to language and additional materials that had come to light in the time since the times of King James. Moreover, much of the phraseology in the earlier texts no longer had their original meaning in today’s language, because usage of words changes from generation to generation. The result has been the issuance of what has come to be known as the “Revised Standard Version of the Bible.”
This version began when in 1929 the International Council of Religious Education, representing 40 denominations in the United States and Canada, appointed a committee of scholars headed by the dean of the Yale University Divinity School to explore the need for a new version, and if such need were found, what kind of version was needed? After two years of study, this committee recommended a new version that would follow the King James Version except where scholarship indicated that that version was inaccurate in its translations. Incidentally, scholars had uncovered nearly 6,000 errors in translation in the New Testament alone.
The revisers began their work at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1937, checking each others’ work verse-by-verse in the light of the ancient texts, and where a point was in dispute, it was settled by a two-thirds vote, or the original wording stood. Various suggestions were received and considered by the committee. After nine years of work, the New Testament was published in 1946. One million copies were sold the first year. Six years later, the Old Testament revision was published.
Like all versions in the past, this new version has been received with varying degrees of acceptance or rejection. Some denominations have adopted it as preferable to earlier texts; others have banned the use of it by their members. And there has been threatened if not outright burning of the work of the committee. Apparently, new versions are viewed with skepticism by many who have a natural preference for the old, but after a generation of the new, little if any objection is raised, and after a few generations there is opposition to changing again what the newer adherents have become accustomed to. Dean Weigle sums up the view of the committee by saying, “We haven’t been changing the Bible. With the aid of the oldest manuscripts yet known and with new knowledge of Greek and Hebrew vocabularies, we have really been recovering it. In that sense, this new Bible is actually the oldest.”
Whatever version, translation, or edition one prefers, he doubtless can appreciate his own preference more, and certainly the influence of the Jewish Bible or Western Civilization more, if he understands something of how our Bible came to be. And it is in the hope of furthering that understanding that “Religion in the News” devotes so much time to the subject today.
By coincidence, our next item is concerned with national observance of another week, now in progress – United Nations Week. Today marks the ninth anniversary of the United Nations, and in observance of this, community programs throughout the nation will be held, or have already been, to demonstrate interest or faith in this international organization.
In recent months, the voices attacking the United Nations have grown more articulate and vociferous. Men high in public life have advocated that the United States withdraw from membership. These are curious and unrealistic doctrines in the light of our experience with two World Wars in a single generation. The United Nations is not a perfect organization, few of its advocates suggest that it is; but, and this is important, it is as nearly perfect as imperfect men in an imperfect world were willing to make it, and it is difficult to see the logic, or even the good common sense, of those who prefer nothing to an organization that has accomplished considerable, imperfect though it admittedly is. One of the things that makes less effective than it could be is that the nations of the world do not use it as fully as they could and should. Every day we hear talk of the Big Three or the Big Four, or the Big something else getting together and settling world problems. Certainly no one interested in peace would discourage any conference of any kind sincerely directed toward peace, but as General Carlos Romulo recently pointed out, the United Nations will be effective only so long and insofar as the member nations are willing to use its machinery to settle their problems.
Whether one likes or dislikes the United Nations, it is difficult to see how anyone could object to its goal, i.e., peace. As our governor pointed out in proclaiming this United Nations Week, “Sixty nations have joined together … to try to eliminate the causes of war that lie in economic, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds.” The governor-appointed chairman for the state has written mayors and other local officials asking them to participate in observance of United Nations Week. In doing so, he said, “I especially urge all religious faiths, schools, civic organizations, and patriotic groups to lend their help…. We must take a positive stand and demonstrate our own support of the United Nations if it is to achieve the goals of peace we all expect of it.”
Men of good will of all religious faiths subscribe to peace. It is up to all of us as individuals and collectively as nations to insist that peace take precedence over everything else in the minds and efforts of our government, for our very survival itself depends upon avoidance of war. We must see that politicians and statesmen, all of whom give lip service to United Nations ideals, make the organization work instead of spending their time pointing out wherein it is less than perfect.
A final item today is one in which all citizens have a stake and should be interested, for it goes to the heart of our civic and moral life, and certainly religious people should be concerned about both. We are in the midst of a political campaign in which the opponents on both sides are striving to win your and my support. That is as it should be, for our national life has flourished on a party system in which there are at least two opposing sides, presenting two or more choices to us when we enter the polls to cast our ballot. But in their eagerness to win, some candidates in both parties at federal, state and even local levels have descended to smear and counter-smear, to unsupported charges ranging all the way from petty deviation from elementary ethical principles to conspiracy to sell our country out to the communists. Some in their extreme fear of defeat have resurrected charges of wrongdoing that were made and disproved as long as twenty years ago. Suspicion has been leveled at people without any offer of evidence to support that suspicion. Insinuations, innuendoes have been flying thick and fast, to win your and my support by prejudicing us into thinking that calamity will result if we support their opponents.
It is high time that just and sincere men of all religions, indeed whether they have any religion at all, rise in our individual and collective protest against this outrageous and immoral practice. There is such a thing as simple, elementary decency and honesty in politics. Profound issues are at stake, yes; but to construe mere differences of opinion as treason and disloyalty is to ignore the very essence of our democratic system, namely that all possible solutions to public problems should be presented to the voters for their consideration, and certainly honest and sincere men will differ in their convictions. These differences are healthy, and to accuse an opponent of subversion because of such difference is itself subversive of the spirit or fair play in American life. It is time we got back to the good old American principle of fair play: to assume that a person is innocent until he is proved (not merely charged with being) guilty. Moral men of all religious faiths will recoil from underhanded, unsupported, unfair tactics, regardless of what party those who indulge in them come. It is the essence of the best civic and moral principles we do so, for our moral strength as a nation depends upon what you and I do individually in our capacities as citizens. It is a heavy responsibility, and one that we cannot evade, one we dare not evade.