Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 384 pages.
Benson Bobrick earned his doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and is the author of six previous books: Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution; East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia; Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible; and Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, and War. In 2002, he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
What does it take to create a translation of the Bible that will stand the test of time? What does it take to create a translation of the Bible that will be both beloved by the people and become the language of their Christian faith for a generation or more? Can we find such a translation? Such questions are part and parcel of the ongoing debate over Bible translations and translation philosophy in WELS circles.
In the midst of this debate, however, it’s worthwhile that we take some time to consider the history, the story behind Bible translations that have stood the test of time. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned about translating God’s Word for God’s people. As far as English translations are concerned, no translation background story is more intriguing and no place better to start than with the King James Version (KJV) of the English Bible.
Author Benson Bobrick offers a fascinating history of the translation of Holy Scripture into English and its role in the history of the English church culminating with the translation and publication of the KJV in 1611. The book is divided into only five chapters with five appendices at the end of the book. Each chapter focuses on a particular era in the history of England and the English church starting primarily with John Wycliffe in the 14th century and concluding with the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Bobrick ably weaves the story of the English translation of the Bible throughout his history. He spends ample time discussing the life and work of major translators like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale, all while keeping their stories within the greater context of the roller coaster ride that is the history of England and the English church.
Through the course of his history-telling, Bobrick shows time and again how the English language changed and expanded with each new translation. The modern reader fails to realize that certain, familiar turns of phrase used in our modern English translations, and even our modern English language, were originally coined in these early centuries of the English church. For example, William Tyndale alone introduced the following familiar phrases and terms into the English language through his own Bible translation: “Holy of holies,” “Song of songs,” “scapegoat,” “Passover,” “mercy seat,” “a man after his own heart,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “a stranger in a strange land,” and “apple of his eye.” It is even said that Tyndale introduced the word “beautiful” into the English language (119 – cf. other examples on pgs. 145-146, 191-193).
Of particular interest to this reviewer was the way that Bobrick demonstrated the development of the translation of the Bible into a form of English not unfamiliar to the modern reader. From the early translations of Wycliffe to the final revisions and translations of the KJV committees, the reader will see how the Lord’s hand worked through the ages to put his Word into the language of English speakers around the world.
Bobrick leaves no doubt where he stands on the King James Version. “When [the translation] was done, it surpassed all others in the majesty and music of its words. If Tyndale had managed to render the original Hebrew and Greek into the sound and sense of living English, those who followed him could do no better than amplify his strain. The King James translators were the last of that line, but some of their adjustments had the Midas touch” (239-240).
At times, his love for the KJV in particular and the English Bible in general goes over the top. In his final chapter, Bobrick curiously attempts to make the translation of the English Bible, specifically the KJV, not only the cause of the English Revolution, but the very source of the concept of the equality of man. Not surprisingly, the book ends on an awkward note for that very reason.
At the same time, Bobrick’s love for the English Bible enables him to offer some fascinating depth not only to the evolution of the English Bible, but especially to the creation of the King James Version. His in-depth description of the translation committees and their members is excellent, reminding the reader how important Biblical scholarship is when translating God’s Word (217-237). Bobrick also makes it clear that the KJV was not really a new translation, but a translation that “stood on the shoulders” of the work of earlier translators like Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale. He quotes Miles Smith, who wrote the preface to the King James Version. “We never thought to make a new translation, nor yet of a bad one to make a good one, but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one” (249). In light of recent translation discussions in WELS, Bobrick’s account of the creation of the King James, its creators, and the issues they faced sounds strangely familiar. For example, should the Bible sound archaic in translation (255)? Should it be translated literalistically with Hebrew or Greek words translated the same way every time as Hugh Broughton argued (255-257)?
This book has many positives, but there is one major drawback. Benson Bobrick is a historian of the first degree, but his theology is worthless. In the prologue, Bobrick makes it very clear that he leans towards a liberal, overtly ecumenical, classic historical-critical view of Holy Scripture. This reviewer couldn’t help, but notice the irony in his oft-expressed love for the English Bible, while holding a generally poor view of Holy Scripture. This low view of Scripture creeps into his history on occasion. For example, he makes no distinction between the canonical and apocryphal books, but regards them on an equal footing (184, 224). Elsewhere he describes portions of Scriptural narrative as “legendary” (225). At the end of his chapter on the era of King James, he offers a horrid defense of translating “young woman” instead of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, which in turn proves his lack of Biblical scholarship.
So what can a busy pastor take away from a historical text like this? Historically speaking, Wide as the Waters offers a fascinating and excellent introduction to history of English Bible translation, both its challenges and its blessings—a subject on the minds of many in WELS today. Ironically, such a high recommendation cannot be made for the theology of this book about the translation of the Bible. Nevertheless, if that caveat is kept in mind, the reader will find this book well worth the time and effort to read it.