The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible
edited by David Norton
Cambridge University Press, 2005
(1,904 pages, $79.45, hardcover)
reviewed by Robert Hart
Several years ago, when careful restoration was being done to clean up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, some people complained that it was being ruined. The work of restoration was, to them, a desecration. Never mind what Michelangelo actually painted, or what the artistic eye intended. They wanted the appearance to which they had grown accustomed.
In his introduction to The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, editor David Norton compares his work to that of restoring a painted masterpiece.
Though it is the most important book in the religious life and culture of the English-speaking world, the King James Bible or Authorised Version of 1611 has never been perfectly printed. . . . Unnecessary background noise gets in the way. To use another image, there is dust and dirt on the old master, the paint is darkened and cracked: we can still see that the picture is a great one, but not how great it is.
Norton, Reader in English at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and author of A History of the Bible as Literature, explains that the first edition of the Authorised Version was hurried in its production, and errors were introduced into the original publication. The first edition is “uniquely authoritative” due to direct supervision of some of the translators, “but it has its unavoidable share of mistakes.” These, he says, were mostly typographical or caused by the printer’s type, but there are also a few mistakes by the translators themselves.
The changes made in the several subsequent attempts to update or improve it have left us with something not in accord with the intention of the original translators, and “the textual development came to an almost complete stop in 1769, which thereafter became accepted as the standard.” Norton has edited his new, old Bible in such a way as to solve these problems. The spelling and punctuation are entirely modern, but the words themselves are the exact words of the translators.
In some places he has quite deliberately undone revisions. One example he cites is Hosea 6:5, restoring “I have hewed them by the prophets” to read, “I have showed [in 1611, spelled ‘shewed’] them by the prophets.”
To decide what the translators intended to say, he consulted the ancient Targum Jonathan that influenced them (a targum is a translation of the Old Testament from earlier Hebrew into the Aramaic commonly used by first-century Jews). In addition, he concluded that “shewed” also followed “the general sense of the note to this verse in the popular Geneva Bible.”
Another example he cites is 1 Timothy 2:9. The standard revisions render the verse: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.” St. Paul, writes Norton:
appears to want them not only to be modest and sober, but also ashamed. This is not what the translators meant. They used a word that might once have sounded the same as ‘shamefacedness’, ‘shamefastness’. This is not so easily read as ‘ashamed’: its authentic strangeness takes the reader to the right meaning, holding fast to modesty.
In that verse, as in most others, Norton uses the modern spelling (the original had “shamefastnesse”). But in a few cases he has restored the old spelling, when the “modern spelling can obscure meaning.”
[‘Instead’] in the English of the King James . . . is always given as two words, ‘in stead’, and often has a more concrete sense that fits with phrases such as ‘reigned in his stead’. When one reads in current texts that God took one of Adam’s ribs ‘and closed up the flesh instead thereof’ (Gen. 2:21), one might well be puzzled: instead of what? one might ask. The real meaning becomes clearer in the first edition’s ‘closed up the flesh in stead thereof’.
We see that Norton’s work of restoration is necessarily complicated on this matter of spelling. The idea is to make the work free of what he has called “unnecessary background noise” from archaic spelling, and yet be true to the original intention of the translators. What Norton has worked to restore is the meaning and flow of the language.
Of course, as a work of genuine restoration, this Bible contains “The Books called Apocrypha.” The original King James Bible contained all of the books that were used in the Lectionary of the Church of England, not only the 66 books in most modern editions. It had become customary in England, since long before the translators began working, to separate these books into a section between the Old and New Testaments, and so it is in this edition.
Should readers wish to compare Norton’s labors with the very first printing of the King James Bible, they need only obtain The Holy Bible 1611 Edition. If one has the patience, he can get through the olde spelling, where he can read about “al that Iesus began to doe and to teach, Vntil the day in which hee was taken vp,” from Actes I: i, ii.
The comparison does, however, indicate one thing about the historical context of 1611 that Norton cannot restore. The original contains in its various forwards such things as a table to find the date of Easter and a schedule of the appointed lessons, as well as the 30-day rotation of the Psalter for the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. That is, in that time, reading the Bible had more to do with the entire community of the Church.
What Norton can and does restore, however, is the literary power of this masterpiece, as well as the intention of the translators. The King James Bible is one of the great cornerstones of English literature. It has, in addition to beautiful sound, rhythm, which is one reason it sticks so well in the memory.
Having both of these King James Bibles available, a reader can see and judge just how well we have been able to understand it. They make it possible for the modern reader to grasp the meaning of the text, and the intention of the translators, with more clarity than has been possible for a very long time. Here one can bring forth from his treasures a thing that is, itself, both new and old.