It's not the King James Bible but the Father James Bible
Brickbats and bouquets for monumental single translation
When Jesuit scholar Nicholas King came to the Beatitudes in Matthew Chapter 5, he made a controversial choice in his translation from the Greek, rendering the word “makarismos” not as “blessed” or “happy” but as “congratulations.”
Unlike Bibles that are translated by committees, the King version of the Bible, completed in 2013, contains several controversial renderings.
During a break in teaching at the Broken Bay Bible conference in Sydney last week, Father Nick told Eternity how his fresh insight into the Beatitudes came about.
“I was still working in South Africa at that time and I took a group from South Africa to the Holy Land on a kind of pilgrimage and we were there for the church of the Beatitudes at the top end of the Sea of Galilee,” says Father Nick, who for the past 12 years has taught New Testament and Greek at Oxford University.
“The guide said ‘now, Father Nick, would you please read the Beatitudes for us’ and I didn’t have my English Bible and I just had the Greek, so I looked up in Matthew Chapter 5 and just translated straight off and, without thinking about it, I went ‘Congratulations to the destitute in spirit for theirs in the kingdom of heaven’ and so on.
“This is as though the teacher was congratulating the boys who planted cannabis behind the bicycle shed.” – Nick James
“They were a bit puzzled by that and said, ‘we like that but why did you do it?’ And I had to stop and think, and I realised why I’d done it. The Greek word for happy is ‘makariou’ and the Greek word for congratulations is ‘makarismos’ – it comes from the same root – and I had just made that leap.”
On reflection, Father Nick feels the word works well because the Beatitudes are a congratulation of all the wrong sorts of people.
“If you go to a school prize-giving, the head teacher congratulates all the girls who’ve done terribly well in all their work, but this is as though the teacher was congratulating the boys who planted cannabis behind the bicycle shed. It’s a very shocking set of congratulations.”
“She thought the whole translation was horrible, particularly the word munch.” – Nick James
Another controversy flared over his translation of the word “eating” in John 6.
“Halfway through [the chapter], the word for eating – as in eating the flesh of the Son of Man – changes to a much cruder word. The Greek word in the first half is ‘estia,’ which is the normal word for eating; the second half is ‘trogo,’ which is more like what animals do, to crunch or munch, so when I got to that I translated it as ‘munch.’
“I had to go on to a radio broadcast back in England with a lady who didn’t like it at all. She thought the whole translation was horrible, particularly the word munch, and she said – she was from Northern Ireland – and she said, ‘do you realise that the word ‘munch’ has sexual connotations?’ [he says this is a harsh Northern Irish accent.] I had to say I didn’t,” he added in his mild upper-class English accent.
“The person who was interviewing with me was nearly in hysterics with laughter at this point.”
“‘I think I’ve just finished translating the Bible.’ It’s not the kind of thing that happens to people, really.” – Nicholas James
The best-selling versions of the Bible tend to be by committees, who check each other’s work and thus avoid making mistakes. Versions by single translators often contain controversial renderings, which can be enlightening. Endearingly, Father Nick admits he made some mistakes – which have been corrected in subsequent issues – but the advantage was he could “make Paul sound like Paul.”
“I aim for readability and I really wanted to emphasise the freshness of the New Testament because all 27 documents of the New Testament do have a kind of freshness about them. And I wanted them all to sound like themselves.”
Father Nick, who was born in 1947 in Bath and wanted to be a wealthy barrister until he decided to join the Jesuits, says he didn’t think he would live to finish his Bible, which is subtitled “A Fresh Translation” and published by Kevin Mayhew.
“It took me about 14 years. I came down to supper one evening in Campion Hall in Oxford, where I live, and said to the master [head teacher], who was sitting next to me at the table, ‘I think I’ve just finished translating the Bible.’ It’s not the kind of thing that happens to people, really.”
Father Nick’s career as a translator began almost by accident. He had just returned from working in South Africa in 2001 and found himself with an academic break.
“I was due to go to America to give a couple of summer schools on Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel, so I did what I always wanted to do, and I sat down and translated those two gospels for myself,” he recalled.
“I did that without chapter and verse because those are medieval inventions – and there I had a translation, and what do you do with a translation when you’ve got it?”
The answer to that came when one of his students at a summer school in the north of England spoke to her husband, who had published several of Father Nick’s books.
“So I sulked a bit about that but eventually I thought, ‘well, why not?’” – Nick James
“The next thing I knew he was on the phone saying, ‘will you translate the whole Bible?’ I said ‘no, there’s no possibility of that!’ He was quite persistent, so eventually he battered me down and I said, ‘I will do this and only this – I will attempt to translate the New Testament.’ And I thought I would never get that done, so it would be fine.
“Well, I did and he published it. He did it very well, it’s beautifully done – it reflects no credit on me. But you know on the back cover of books they write lies about the author – how wonderful they are; the last lie he wrote was the last sentence and it was the worst lie of all because he knew it wasn’t true. He said: ‘he’s currently working on a translation of the Old Testament.’ So I sulked a bit about that but eventually I thought, ‘well, why not?’”
He was dreading translating the Book of Job because it is so difficult in Hebrew, but he found that translating it from the Greek was not nearly as hard.
Unlike most Old Testament translations, which are taken from the Hebrew, Father Nick’s version is based on the Greek Bible, known as the Septuagint.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why do you do a translation of a translation?’ The answer is the Greek translation is actually the Bible of the New Testament – that’s what they’re quoting when they quote what we call the Old Testament.”
Surprisingly, he says, the manuscripts of the Greek Bible are 700 years older than those of the Hebrew Bible – 11th century versus 4th century – “so they often preserve what is undoubtedly the original reading.”
Father Nick had several surprises in the course of translating the Bible. He was dreading translating the Book of Job because it is so difficult in Hebrew, but he found that translating it from the Greek was not nearly as hard.
“God is always there just below the surface and talking to you.” – Nick James
“I think what happened is that the translator, when he came to a difficult Hebrew word, tossed a coin and thought, ‘well, I’ll put that down,’ because it actually reads quite easily in Greek where it doesn’t in Hebrew,” he says.
However, the big thing he discovered was “that below the surface of the text – and this is what the Bible different – God is always there just below the surface and talking to you. And in that sense, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it in a translation or in the original language.
“I’ve learned a lot. But it’s the same God who’s talking and it’s the story of God and the people of God both in what we call the Old Testament and in what we call the New Testament – it’s the same voice there.”
The reason there are so many variations in syntax and punctuation in different Bible translations, he explains, is because in the old manuscript of the 5th century “there are no paragraph distinctions, it’s all written in capital letters, there’s no full stops, there’s no punctuation so any punctuation you get in your Bible, whichever version it is, is the editor’s guess.
“So they’re starting to make chapter divisions at the early part of the Middle Ages – I think the 10th century – but it’s only with the invention of printing in the late 15th century/early 16th century, that they need verses because printers need to be absolutely sure they haven’t missed anything out.”
While Father Nick still prefers to read his Bible in Greek, he generously suggests it doesn’t really matter which version of the Bible you read.
“I always tell my students you must have two version of the Bible and have them open in front of you so that you can see the differences, you can see the richness.”