More Bible Stuff

smith1webWith “Color-Coded Bibles” and “Leggo My Jesus” posts, I thought I’d finished writing about the proliferation of bible versions. After the American Patriots’ Bible and the Leggo (Brick) Bible, what more interesting could be said? So far the Adam-was-white bible version has not been published. They may still be writing verses to boost their claim. (Now that Steve Bannon is advising the Trump team, it may appear sooner than we’d like.)

But lo! In the New Books section of Meekins Library, this appeared: The Murderous History of Bible Translations !  The revealing subtitle given by author Harry Freedman is “Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning.”

Of course I went straight to the index to look up Leggos, but found only “Logos”: not the same thing.

I did find a fascinating chapter on Julia Smith, born 1792, the first woman to translate the bible from original texts (no, not that kind of texts). She did the translations, not for publication or public use, but because she was interested. She somehow got hold of a Hebrew Old Testament, a feat in itself at the time. I won’t attempt to summarize the life of Julia and her sisters; just know that they are foremothers of all independent, thoughtful women. Julia made her last public appearance addressing the Connecticut State Suffrage Association at age ninety-one.

I highly suggest this book, if only for the chapter on Julia Smith. Here is one quote: “….one newspaper, which had not even seen her translation, declared it simply proved that some women will deign to do things for which they are not suited.”

A good motto for all of us.

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Auditions for the Voice of God

In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look  as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.

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Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.

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During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.

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Mark Roberts of Beliefnet.com says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]

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Fine, but what did it sound like?

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Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.

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Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.

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For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.

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For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.

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Which would you take more seriously:

Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or

Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?

What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?

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Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.

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Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.

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For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.

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Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.