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Sunday, 2 January 2011

Thomas Harrison - A remarkable translator!

This is the centennial year of the King James Version. Almost four hundred years ago, one of the most significant events in the history of the English-speaking peoples occurred. It was more important than the campaigns of Waterloo and Gallipoli, more far-reaching than Darwin’s Origin of Species, and more fraught with meaning than 9/11 and the threatened economic collapse.

Leading up to 1611, fifty-two men sat down in groups of 7 – 10, to translate an “authorised version” of the Bible. The result entirely changed the long-term landscape of the English-speaking peoples.

Deo volente(1), I will be examining the linguistic credentials of these 50+ translators, devoting one of these men to each week of the year 2011. What can we learn about him? How much scholarship did he really have? Do our contemporary scholars easily compete with his expertise? Shouldn’t we prefer to use an ‘up-to-date’ translation?

Take, for example, the argument about how to translate Psa. 12:6-7. What did God the Holy Spirit say through King David in Psa. 12: 6?

According to the KJV He said:

The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. 7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Compare this rendering with that of the NIV:

Psa. 12:6 And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times. 7 O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever.

In the NIV (as in all contemporary translations of these verses) verse 7 is applied to the people David is writing about, and not to the words which King David was speaking. Those who believe the Hebrew Old Testament is perfectly preserved in the traditional Massoretic Text - handed down through the centuries unto our own day – see these verses encapsulating just what God promised to do, that is, to preserve every word He has revealed to the end of time.

However, all contemporary versions have closed the case on the KJV translation of Psa. 12:6-7 - they conclude it is evidently wrong. Accordingly, it is not thought significant that the KJV here promises us a flawless Old Testament Hebrew Text to follow. Truth is, we don’t actually need the Dead Sea scrolls to determine the Text, nor the Greek Septuagint - though comparisons are helpful in confirming the original meaning. Thus, we don’t need to speculate where the meaning is difficult. In contrast to this, conjecture is now an accepted part of the translation process for many, if not most translators.

The two alternative renderings of Psa 12:7 have long been contended for in linguistic discussion. Here, the KJV rendering is seen as ‘the odd one out’ among Versions (though long time ago Darby, and the ASV 1901 did follow its lead). See the defence of the KJV rendering by Quek Suan Yew. This may or may not convince you. However, it explains why the KJV translators felt justified in translating verse 7 in the way they did.

Let’s look at one of the Hebrew Old Testament scholars in the Cambridge group of eight, which translated this Psalm (and all the Psalms): Thomas Harrison:

Thomas Harrison

Where did he learn his languages? At the age of 15 he went to the largest school in the country, Merchant Taylors' independent school in London. There his headmaster, Richard Mulcaster set out to “establish a rigorous curriculum which was to set the standard for education in Latin, Greek and Hebrew” in England.

We get a glimpse of the unique foundation for later learning embedded in the mind of a teenager, and we are surprised to learn the timetable excluded both mathematics and science!! There was too much language to be studied, for such supposedly less important subjects to encroach on the supreme task - to learn life’s lessons from the ancients, reading the very languages in which they wrote!

One of the school inspectors of Merchant Taylors' School describes how the school classroom operated:

The headmaster was required to open his [Latin] copy of Cicero at random and read out a passage to the Sixth form. The boys had to copy the passage from dictation and then translate it, first into English, then into Greek and then into Latin verse. After this, they had to write a passage of Latin and some verses on some topic chosen for the day. This was for the morning; in the afternoon the process was repeated in Greek, based on the Greek Testament, Aesop's Fables, "or some other very easie Greeke author". The standard in Greek was not as high as in Latin, but Hebrew was also taught.

So, the teenager Thomas Harrison was learning Greek and Latin in depth (with some Hebrew also), well before he got to University. One of his fellow pupils at Merchant Taylors' was Sir Lancelot Andrews, who became the overall Director of the KJV translation project. When at school together, Harrison was said to be second only to his fellow Andrewes in linguistic ability and learning. Yet Andrewes was later held to be one of the rarest linguists in Christendom, having learned fifteen languages (both modern European and ancient Oriental)!!(2) Harrison in his turn became “one of the chief examiners in the University of those who sought to be public professors of these languages.”

When someone applied to teach in one of the University Colleges of Cambridge, he had to prove his academic credentials before Harrison. Alex. McClure says of him, he had "exquisite skill in the Hebrew and Greek idioms.”“ It was this skill that makes him so trustworthy a guide in deciding how to translate Psa 12:6-7. It invites us to look beneath the surface for an idiomatic slant on its strange grammar? Why do our contemporaries ignore the amazing resource from yesteryear, and look the other way?

Harrison became Vice-Master of Trinity College, a College which supplied six of the translators of the KJV. These men ate, drank, breathed and slept LANGUAGES. Our Western educational system has bought into the delusion that newer is invariably better. The evolutionary development of the human mind supposedly guarantees we are ever upward, onward and better than those ‘bad old days’ four hundred years past. For many, this inevitably relegates the KJV to the margins of authority and credibility. But, we miss out on so much, if we ignore the real linguistic authority of the KJV – a unique landmark in English literature.

(1) Deo volente = God willing, in the will of God.
(2) Paine, Gustavus S. 1959. The Men Behind the King James Version, MI: Baker. Pp. 20, 60.

This is 1/52. Next translator Index

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