Christopher Hitchens on the authorized version: Translation, Nation and Power

It’s the 400 anniversary of the finalization of the translation of the Bible into the English language this year (As a friend pointed out I am talking about the first official translation, rather than unofficial translations, namely the KJV). And you might be surprised to hear that one of its most outspoken defenders of its heritage and contribution to the English language is noone other than the Hitch. But in his article for Vanity Fair on the good book, he makes some very interesting observations about a peculiar and particular choice in translation which is worth exploring, in light of questions of authority, power and loyalty to tribe.

Other than arguing that the book “represents a triumph for rebellion and dissent” he claims that the translators’ understood their work to be an  exercise in nation-building:

Understanding that their task was a patriotic and “nation-building” one (and impressed by the nascent idea of English Manifest Destiny, whereby the English people had replaced the Hebrews as God’s chosen), whenever they could translate any ancient word for “people” or “tribe” as “nation,” they elected to do so. The term appears 454 times in this confident form of “the King’s English.”

If this assertion is indeed the case (I would say its overt nature needs to be taken with a pinch of salt) and if it is true that the King James Version, along with Shakespeare’s English, has shaped the national psyche (an argument made by Hitch there and elsewhere by others), and moreover that the Bible shaped the theology of the established church in England, what then are the implications for our view of church/state relations now?

The question for me is one which goes back to some unease I had with how Wayne Grudem, of systematic theological fame, embraced the idea of “the nation” as an appropriate equivalent to how God viewed (and may still view) his relationship to Israel in the Old Testament.

More concisely what I am asking is this: Has the translators emphasis on the word “nation” rather than “tribe” or “people,” left a latent loyalty to the idea of Manifest Destiny of “the nation” rather than, what I would argue is the proper Christian loyalty, which is to the Groom and Bride of Christ?

This has all sorts of implications but it does point us back to the importance of understanding that both the reader of a text as well as the author (and in this case the translator of the text) bring baggage to their understanding of what the text is saying and how it is intended to be used. This is the crux of post-modern literary criticism. It often threatens people, particularly if they put their faith in an overly direct and simplistic (rather than simple) literal understanding of a given text and do so not trusting God to help themselves and others understand it.

However, as with most things are about perspective and the theory of knowledge, it is important to know that there are unknowns, and our “unknown knowns” (our unknown assumptions, or blindsided to extend Rumsfeld’s phraseology), it is important to know that we need help. For Christians, that help must come from the guidance of the Holy Spirit, manifest in the faithfulness of God to the church.

I would hope that we would then humbly seek truth where it can be found but firmly acknowledge that we need the Spirit to guide us into a relationship with truth. Perhaps this is the most true when we enter the realm of coercive power (politics and the state) and the nation. I say this as a reminder to myself more than anybody else.

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