WHEN IN 1908 Churchill was asked if he liked politics and the sense of increasing power, he replied: "Of course I do "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn." (Authorised Version, Dent 25:4).
Moreover when a member of the House sought to mock him, he cannily retorted that the laughter of fools was like "the crackling of thorns under a pot" (A V Eccl 7:6).
The oratory of J F Kennedy on the other hand (in his inaugural address of 1960) betrays a similar source of inspiration: "Ask not what America will do for you ask what you can do for your country".
This inverted syntax is drawn from traditional Bible translation with a continuity stretching back to Challoner, Martin, Coverdale and Tyndale. The Bible today as a source of linguistic inspiration could become a thing of the past, for a new generation has grown up on the Jerusalem and New English Bibles whose translators have seemingly failed to maintain the same memorability of style.
In 1981 the new Jerusalem Bible Lectionary was published despite the efforts to produce a more selective and literary version (combining texts from Knox and the RSV) The previous editions of the Lectionary, published in 1969, including both RSV and Jerusalem versions; the RSV as such dates back to 1946 and follows in the style of traditional Bible translation, retaining the diction of the AV but with greater clarity and directness, and a certain modernisation of language. Thus it is ideally suited to public reading.
The Jerusalem Bible on the other hand, in its English translation, dates from 1959 and was among the first such translations to discard so called traditional "Bible language". The footnotes are a vast improvement on previous versions, but in the text there is little attempt at stylistic elegance, indeed the dignity of language could be said to have been sacrificed, for this edition (so we are informed) was not intended for public reading — but private study! Why then was this translation alone chosen for the Lectionary of 1981? Official comment at the time suggested that cost was the deciding factor, although it is difficult to see how a selection of the best translations of Jerusalem and RSV would have been any more expensive than the present handsome three volume Jerusalem Lectionary.
The Jerusalem Bible is acknowleded as generally superior on the Pauline Epistles for its clarity, whereas the RSV Gospel narrative and the Johannine Epistles are clearer and better sounding.
The Jerusalem text is undoubtedly better for certain gatherings with its ease of understanding; however on more formal occasions there are a number of phrases which would jar on the ear of the most tolerant literati, for example: "Get out of here" (Mt 9:24), "Leave off" (Lk
22:51), "he . . picked up what he had been lying on " (Lt 5:25), "Lazarus here! Come out" (in 11:43). By contrast the RSV has "depart" (Mt 9:24), "No more of this" (Lk 22:51), "and took up that upon which he lay" (Lk 5:25), and "Lazarus come out" (Jn 11:43).
The Jerusalem Bible descends to the level of the nursery with "and his hand was better" (Mk 12:14) (cf RSV "it was restored") or "angels appeared and looked after him" (Mt 4:11) (cf RSV "angels came and ministered to him").
Perhaps one of the most memorable phrases in the AV "Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk 9:24) in the Jerusalem Bible is bludgeoned into "I do have faith. Help the little faith I have". There are still some phrases from AV, that despite new translations, will remain forever lodged in the memory such as Our Lord's command to his dead friend, "Lazarus, come forth" (In 11:43).
The AV to quote from Knox has "seeped into every runnel of our language", this to some extent is derived from the memorable character of its phrasing. It was a compound of previous translations and designed to be read aloud and as such has become an important linguistic influnce.
Its declamatory power is moreover enhanced by a conscious use of archaism, that is given a more dignified and functional place than in previous translations (with the exception of the DouayRheims version, before Challoner's editing).
The inverted syntax and periphrasis have since become part of the stock of dignified liturgical language. from which generations have drawn inspiration.
There is in this a recognised tradition of Bible language which is heir to Shakespeare and Spencer as well as Tyndale and Coverdale. Such language both dignified and memorable has shown its influence on the writings of Bacon, Milton, Traherne, Wesley, Bunyan, Blake, Carlyle, Newman, Hopkins and T S Eliot. This influence of traditional Bible language underlines its declamatory and linguistic impact over and above its religious content, and until now has ensured a cultural influence beyond the strictly catechetical purpose. Such a range of influence can only be reduced by a loss of traditional mnemonic character and rhetorical style.
A revision of the Jerusalem Bible is now taking place and should be available by the end of the year. As a translation it is rapidly becoming an official text, perhaps more through availability than preference. For private study it has deserved acclaim but for public reading it could be said to have deficiencies, particularly in the Gospel narrative, which is the most important part of any Lectionary, To quote Scripture is the preserve of all writers and public speakers, but unlike Shakespeare there is no standard text, and it is doubtful if the Jerusalem would be a first choice.
It remains to be seen if the revisors have considered the deficiencies sufficiently serious to warrant improvement, or recognized the need for quotable Scripture.