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Sunday, 16 January 2011

Miles Smith – a “chosen vessel.”

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, in this centennial year, calls on the Christian English-speaking world to rediscover the KJV. Miles Smith would be so proud to know – could he fast forward 400 years – that the Bible he had so much to do with, more than any other KJV translator, would be celebrated so enthusiastically in 2011 with special events in the Commonwealth and beyond.

His academic career

Miles Smith was born In 1554 in Hereford, where he spent most of his entire life. He started his schooling in the Cathedral. He came from a well-to-do family. Miles is said to have soaked up learning like a sponge - an infant prodigy. By the time he was 14-15 years, he was ready for University and went to Corpus Christi and Brasenose College, Oxford. After twenty years of further study he became a ‘doctor divine’.

Smith was exceptionally industrious in applying himself constantly to the reading of ancient Greek and Latin authors. He ‘lusted after no worldly things so much as books’. McClure says: “He went through the Greek and Latin fathers, making his annotations on them all.” Donald Waite points out, “There were 100 Church Fathers that wrote extensively from 100 – 300 A. D. There were 200 or more that wrote from 300 – 600 A.D. He read through them all of them in Greek and Latin and made his own comments on each of them.”(1)

Such was Smith’s reputation that Anthony Wood said of him that ‘Chaldaic, Syriac and Arabic were as familiar to him as his own native tongue.’ “Hebrew he had at his fingers’ ends.”

He was also much versed in history and general literature, and was fitly characterized by a brother bishop as “a very walking library.”

At evensong one day in Hereford Cathedral, so the story goes (2), the Dean asked him to read the first Scripture lesson. He happened to have with him a little Hebrew Bible, so he delivered the allotted chapter by reading it fully and in plain unfaltering English! Such was his skill says John Tiller “that I suspect he thought of Scripture in Hebrew and Greek, and only subsequently in an English translation. He belonged to an age of great flowering in the study of ancient languages in the English universities.”

Hereford Cathedral library

The chancellor continues: “At his death he left to Hereford Cathedral Library several of his books, consisting of works in Hebrew, Chaldee and Arabic, and these contain a number of marginal notes in his own hand, mostly in Latin but including some in Hebrew. There are the copious cross-references in his Arabic lexicon of 1613, and the masses of marginal notes in his Arabic NT of 1616 and his Arabic Pentateuch of 1622 to demonstrate his assiduousness as a Biblical scholar. Furthermore his scholarship extended beyond the text of the Old Testament to the Targums and rabbinic commentaries.”

By now you may be asking: “Can we find this level of scholarship today?” I don't believe it's possible, as today's educational priorities are so different. You have to go back to the seventeenth to find it!!

Miles Smith was described in a report on the translation presented to the Dutch Synod of Dort (1618), as “a distinguished man - deeply occupied in the whole work from the beginning, who put the finishing touch to this version." Says Valerie N. Walke (Victoria, Australia) “He was chosen to write the Preface and the Dedication to King James I, which is still to be found in our Bibles. . . . Surely [he] was a man raised up by God and specially equipped for the great task which was to be given him. Just as the Apostle Paul was a chosen vessel so might we view Miles Smith who was endowed with such extraordinary scholastic ability and love for learning.”

The work of translation

Smith was one of the Oxford committee of seven who translated the Major and Minor prophets. He then became one of the 12 revisers who reworked all the drafts submitted to them. Then again, with Bilson (Bishop of Winchester), he was the final reviser of the entire Bible. C.P Hallihan says “he was one of two required . . . to examine the whole work for consistency and integrity.” He also prepared the page and chapter headings of the 1611 editions, and was asked to write the extensive preface to the Bible. “The style of the Preface is so different from that of the 1611 Bible that I . . . hope that you will agree . . that this is more the style of our beloved Bible, herein are the echoes of Tyndale, Coverdale and the Geneva Bible." To illustrate Hallihan quotes the section, "Our sins do threaten . . ." The preface shows such literary skill that we could infer from it the process of final revision - after it had been reworked by the Revision committee - may have been more than a simple tidying-up process. Perhaps Smith added his personal skill to enhance the literary quality of the final result. (3)

The Translators’ Preface

The Preface abounds with metaphor and imagery, and shows the writer is very well acquainted with ancient authors and especially those Christian writings going back more than a thousand years - those ‘fathers’ who quoted Scripture so abundantly when they wrote. The KJV translators’ intimate and detailed knowledge of these writings doubtless influenced their textual choices, when deciding between variant readings in Greek manuscripts. Miles Smith was well aware of many opposing critics, and was keen to justify their task, as well as the methods they used. Alister McGrath (4) analyses the Translator’s preface and summarises Miles Smith’s six principles, which explain the aims and objectives of the translators:

Alister McGrath

1. To provide the best possible distillation of the wisdom, grace, and beauty of existing translations, corrected where necessary against the original biblical documents in their original languages.” See The Purpose of the translators

2. To keep the Bible in the central place of Christian life and thought by a strategy which stresses “the importance of direct access to the Bible for Christian spiritual growth, personal integrity and doctrinal correctness. See The Praise of the Holy Scriptures

3. To be a means of spiritual nourishment. This is highlighted by a series of images. “Translating the Bible is the essential means by which the people of God could gain access to the spiritual nourishment found in the Bible.” See Translation necessary

4. To build on the substantial foundation laid by others, such as William Tyndale. See A Satisfaction to our brethren.

5. To alert readers to difficulties or uncertainties in translation, for example, in understanding certain rare Hebrew words. For this reason, the translators inserted marginal notes in which alternative translations were suggested. See Reasons moving us to set diversity of senses in the margin.

6. To avoid a wooden approach, which uses the same English word to translate a Greek or Hebrew word each time it occurs. They saw themselves as free to enhance the beauty of the text by using a variety of words. See Reasons . . not to stand . . upon an identity of phrasing.

A godly man

Concerning his fellow translators, Smith wrote: “There were many chosen who were greater in other men’s eyes than their own, and who sought the truth rather than their own praise.” In the great Bible translation, another says of him: he ‘began with the first of the laborers, and put the last hand to the work. Yet he was never known to speak of it as owing more to him than to the rest of the Translators.’

At Smith’s funeral, the preacher Thomas Prior, sub-dean of the Cathedral, recalled how he ‘heard him discourse sweetly of the certainty of salvation, and of perseverance in grace' - a "chosen vessel."

(1) Waite, DA 1992/2004 Defending the King James Bible, NJ: Bible For Today, p. 70.
(2) From the author of the biographical preface to the published sermons of Miles Smith (1632)
(3) Paine, Gustavus S. 1959. The Men Behind the King James Version, MI: Baker. p. 123
(4) McGrath, Alister, 2001. The story of the King James Bible, Lon: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 191 - 194

PS. This is 3/52. Previous Next Index

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