The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions

By Bruce M. Metzger
Grand Rapids, MI
Baker Academic. 2001. 200 pp. $14.99

Dr. Metzger, the Emeritus George L. Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and who has served on committees for three major Bible versions, has authored yet another important work. He is the past president of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas. He has made valuable contributions to textual criticism, philology, paleography, and Bible translation, and is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Metzger has done here what few books of this nature have done; namely, reviewed the ancient versions of the Old Testament made for use by Jews, including the Septuagint and Targums. And, more particularly, he has addressed the ancient versions that were intended chiefly for Christians, including the Syriac and Latin versions, through the Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic and Sogdian, to the Old Church Slavonic and Nubian versions. In each case he has tersely, yet clearly, provided the necessary details regarding each language’s contribution to the Bible’s accessibility to an ever-widening public.

In his treatment of the English versions, after noting the succession of English Bibles that appeared before the King James Version, he offers readers a fascinating and fact-filled review of four versions that appeared between the KJV and the Revised Version: Harwood’s NT, and the Charles Thomson, Noah Webster, and Julia Smith Bibles. While providing many details that I was not familiar with, I was struck by his omission, however, of a detail concerning the Thomson Bible that I found to be especially intriguing.

This detail is recorded in the Editor’s Preface of the S. F. Pell edition (1904) of Thomson’s translation. Pell found this anecdote in Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia where he not only learned that Thomson’s was the first translation of the Septuagint into English, but that the Greek text used by Thomson had been purchased by him “for a mere trifle” at an auction in Philadelphia. Before buying it, the only thing he knew about it was that the auctioneer had said, “it is in outlandish letters!” He later discovered he had purchased a defective copy of the book. However, two years later, upon passing by the same bookstore, discovered the remainder of the same book being sold for a few pence, and was able to buy it!

Metzger then proceeds to give critical attention to the British Revised (RV) and the American Standard Version (ASV), followed by reviews of some early modern-speech versions. He also covers some of the prominent committee-sponsored versions. Several chapters are devoted to the Jewish translations, Revision after Revision, Simplified versions, Easy-to-Read versions, and Paraphrases of the English Bible from Hammond’s (1653) to today’s The Message by Peterson.

I have been privileged to have a first edition of the Julia Smith Bible in my collection for many years, but never before reading Metzger’s discussion of this work was I aware of two recently-published books regarding Smith and her work.

Metzger’s footnotes are an invaluable resource to the person pursuing further information regarding many of these translations. The book has no bibliography, but it does have both a subject and a Scripture index. I cannot recommend this book too highly to those interested in just what its says. It will be my quick reference guide regarding the various versions from now on.

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