HC Deb 22 July 1856 vol 143 cc1221-6

MR. HEYWOOD rose to move an Address to the Crown, praying that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to give such directions as to Her might seem meet for the appointment of a Royal Commission, consisting of learned men well skilled in the original languages of the Holy Scriptures, and conversant with modern biblical scholarship, to consider of such amendments of the authorised version of the Bible as had been already proposed, and to receive suggestions from all persons who might be willing to offer them; to point out errors of translation, and such words and phrases as had either changed their meaning or become obsolete in the lapse of time; and to report the amendments which they might be prepared to recommend. The hon. Member having briefly mentioned the early translation of the Bible into the English language, referred to a singular fact mentioned in Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature, that although the authorised version of the Scriptures was published in 1611, yet it did not come into common use until after the Restoration; so that, previous to that period, it had been exclusively confined to the hands of the learned. After the Restoration, however, it had been frequently reprinted, and obtained a general circulation. About the year 1769, Dr. Blaney, a man of learning at Oxford, took great pains to revise the common version, and produced an edition of the Bible which had been received as of considerable authority, and it was not a little remarkable that this revised edition had been the standard authority ever since; so that, from 1769 down to 1856, the progressive discovery of scholars, commentators, and critics, which were found of such service in interpreting other books, had been disregarded by the University of Oxford in the case of the Bible. Mr. Parker, the bookseller of Oxford, who was one of the witnesses examined before a Committee which had been appointed by the House of Commons to inquire into the King's Printers' Patents, had stated that the University authorities of Oxford had given peremptory orders that the edition of Dr. Blaney should be strictly adhered to, and it had been adhered to to the present day. He (Mr. Heywood) therefore thought that there had been a great neglect on the part of the proper authorities in relation to this important subject, and he believed that we did not possess such an accurate translation of the Bible as was, beyond question, desirable, and such as he believed to be perfectly attainable by a proper revision of the text of the translation of 1611. This was a matter which came within the province of the Crown. In the reign of Henry VIII. it was taken up by several very eminent men, and Lord Cromwell, who was Secretary of State and the King's Vicegerent in ecclesiastical matters, recommended to the King that a new translation of the Scriptures, under his sanction, should be adopted. Subsequently the translation then sanctioned was revised by Archbishop Cranmer and other eminent persons, and the version of the Bible published under their direction soon became popular throughout the country. Then came the reign of Queen Mary, during which there was a bitter persecution of the Protestants, many of whom had to fly to Geneva and other places. At Geneva a fresh translation, or, to speak more correctly, a revision of the former translation, was undertaken and completed, and upon the revival of Protestantism, when Elizabeth came to the throne, the version revised at Geneva was introduced into this country. This translation, and he believed all subsequent translations, followed the edition of the Bible brought out at Geneva, which was founded upon the translation of Beza; and it was remarkable that when an erroneous translation of a particular passage was detected, it generally turned out that Beza was in fault. Beza was a violent Calvinist, and did not scruple to turn a text into a shape favourable to his own tenets. The consequence of the introduction of the Geneva edition was the preparation of a new edition compiled by the Bishops of this country; but the Bishops' Bible never obtained any large amount of popularity. At the beginning of the reign of James I., an application was made to the Crown to have the Bible again revised, and a commission was appointed for that purpose, in which the Puritan element, however, was unrepresented. A reference to the preface of any family Bible would show that the Commissioners did not attempt to make a new translation, but merely to revise the old one—their object being to carry as much public feeling as possible along with them in the execution of their task. A similar spirit ought perhaps to actuate any Commissioners selected at the present day to revise the existing translation. Unnecessary changes, which could only give offence to many persons, ought to be strictly avoided; but there were various passages in the existing translation of the Bible the wording of which might be remodelled with great advantage. There were portions of the Scriptures which it was painful to many clergymen of the Church of England to have to read to their congregations in the precise words of the authorised version; but, however faulty and repugnant to scholarship such passages might be, those clergymen had no alternative but to give them as they stood. This matter was felt to be so pressing among the learned, that Professor Selwyn, of Cambridge, had given notice in the House of Convocation of a motion for directing the attention of the clergy specially to it, and some time ago an example had been cited by the learned professor Scholefield, in which a great improvement might be effected merely by a change of punctuation. That might appear to be a very trifling change, but it would be found frequently to render a, passage more clear and intelligible. A recent article in the Edinburgh Review had pointed out the advantages of a division of the chapters of the Bible into paragraphs instead of verses. As an illustration of the errors of the present translation, he might mention the text of the celebrated sermon on "Religion in Common Things." preached before the Queen by the Rev. Mr. Caird. The text chosen on that occasion was, "Be not slothful in business,' and it was remarkable that the work "business" did not appear in the original Greek. The correct translation of the word in the Greek text would be "zeal;" and the passage read, "Be not backward in zeal. So there really was no connection between the subject of this excellent discourse and the true interpretation of the text on which it was ostensibly based. Other examples of careless translation might easily be cited. In the Acts of the Apostles, for instance, the phrase "Those matters which are written in the law and the prophets" was put into the mouth of St. Paul in lieu of the exact words, which were "Those matters which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets. The correct reading showed that St. Paul, who was a believer in tradition, held tradition in connection with the law, and took the prophets literally. The passage in the fifth chapter of the First Epistle of St. John relating to the three heavenly witnesses, on which an important doctrinal point turned, was not in the original Greek, but had been interpolated by some transcriber. This text was, however, often used in argument by the unlearned, and sometimes also by the learned but disengenuous. On one occasion it was quoted by a theological disputant, when his opponent asked him, "Did you not know that that verse is not in the original Greek?" His reply was rather singular; it was, "I did know it, but I was not aware that you did." The people of the United States were so impressed with the importance of having the correct sense of the sacred writers made public that they had formed a society to revise the existing translation of the Bible. This body, the American Bible Union, was an entirely voluntary society, instituted for the purpose of taking into consideration our edition of the Scriptures, with a view of making in it such alterations as might be found to be necessary. The society had very kindly sent him some of their publications, and it appeared that they had proceeded in their task solely upon the principal of making such changes in the common translation of the Bible in common use ns a literal version might require; and they printed them on the same page with the old translation in order to enable the reader to judge between the two. It might be asked, why not form a voluntary society to carry out the same object in this country, and thus avoid the necessity of applying to Parliament on the subject? His answer was, that the work could be most efficiently done under the supreme authority of the Crown, the labours of the Commissioners appointed by whom, if impartial and competent for their task, as no doubt they would be, would command the largest amount of public confidence. Opposition to such an undertaking might be apprehended from the Bible Society; but that body would have timely notice of the intended change, and could easily dispose of all its copies in the old version before the new one was ready for publication. Eminent divines belonging to all the leading denominations of Christians were convinced of the necessity of the alteration now proposed, and it was to be hoped that during the approaching recess hon. Members would consult with the clergy and ministers of their respective neighbourhoods on this important subject. The more public attention was called to the subject the more every reflecting mind must feel the urgency of the revision he suggested. He could not reasonably expect that immediate steps would be taken for giving effect to his views, but he believed that in no more fitting assembly than that of the representatives of the people, coming from all parts of the kingdom, could so grave and serious a question be launched for full and fair discussion. Trusting, therefore, that the object which he contemplated would gradually make its way in public favour, and be ultimately accomplished to the satisfaction of the country, he begged now to move the Address of which he had given notice.


seconded the Motion.


said, he believed from the observations of his hon. Friend that he did not mean to take the sense of the House upon the Motion. It was one which certainly related to a most important question; and he quite concurred in the opinion of his hon. Friend that the House ought not to take any step in the matter unless it was fully supported in that step by public opinion. But the feeling of the country was not, he felt persuaded, at present in accordance with the spirit of that Motion. He believed, on the contrary, that an impression prevailed very extensively that the adoption of the Motion would tend to unsettle the faith of the great body of the people, and to lessen the respect which they at present entertained for the inspired writings. The authorised version of the Bible contained no doubt some errors; there were probably to be found in it some slight inaccuracies in rendering the purport of the original, as well as some words which had changed their meaning since the translation had been made; but he believed that on the whole the people of this country were agreed in admiring the accuracy and fidelity of the translation, the beauty, the purity, and the simplicity of its language, and its general freedom from every error of an important character; and these qualities justly entitled it to the respect and reverence with which it had ever been regarded. His hon. Friend said it was a hard thing to compel clergymen to read in the Church services passages of the Scriptures which they believed not to be literal translations of the original and not properly to convey its meaning. But he (Sir G. Grey) felt convinced that there were very few, or rather no passages in the translation which were so inaccurately given that a clergyman could feel any scruple of conscience in being obliged to read them; and, indeed, clergymen were the last people who could make any such complaint, because it was their duty not only to read the Scriptures but also to explain them, and they had thus an ample opportunity of pointing out any errors they might have discovered in the translation. If the hon. Gentleman had intended to have pressed his Motion, he should have felt it his duty to have dealt with the subject more in detail, but as his hon. Friend did not intend to take the sense of the House, he would only say that he thought it inexpedient to do more than to allow learned men to make critical notes on the authorised version of the Bible; to which notes all scholars, who were capable of forming a judgment upon the subject, might easily have access.


said, he would not press his Motion.

Motion withdrawn.