Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Unless some real Event lay behind them

My father's favorite New Testament version was J.B. Phillips's The New Testament in Modern English (1958) combining the previously published Letters to Young Churches with Phillips's translation of the Gospels. This, from Matthew 8, gives a fair sense of how the translation reads:
On the evening of that day, he said to them,
"Let us cross over to the other side of the lake."
So they sent the crowd home and took him with them in the little boat in which he had been sitting, accompanied by other small craft. Then came a violent squall of wind which drove the waves aboard the boat until it was almost swamped. Jesus was in the stern asleep on the cushion. They awoke him with the words,
"Master, don't you care that we're drowning?"
And he woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the waves,
"Hush now! Be still!"
The wind dropped and everything was very still.
"Why are you so frightened? What has happened to your faith?" he asked them.
But sheer awe swept over them, and they kept saying to one another,
"Who ever can he be?—even the wind and the waves do what he tells them!"
I bought my own copy a few years ago but was today pleased to discover that Amazon has it for Kindle.

In 1967 Macmillan published Phillips's Ring of Truth: A Translator's Testimony. These two quotations are from his chapters about translating the Gospels:
Suppose that you have spent many hundred hours in putting these four widely differing accounts of some of the sayings and doings of the man Jesus into today's English. Do you find yourself so confused that you conclude that there was no such person at all? I take leave to doubt it. It is, in my experience, the people who have never troubled seriously to study the four Gospels who are loudest in their protests that there was no such person. I felt, and feel, without any shadow of doubt that close contact with the text of the Gospels builds up in the heart and mind a character of awe-inspiring stature and quality. I have read, in Greek and Latin, scores of myths, but I did not find the slightest flavour of myth here. There is no hysteria, no careful working for effect, and no attempt at collusion. These are not embroidered tales: the material is cut to the bone. One sensed again and again that understatement which we have been taught to think is more "British" than Oriental. There is an almost childlike candour and simplicity, and the total effect is tremendous. No man could ever have invented such a character as Jesus. No man could have set down such artless and vulnerable accounts as these unless some real Event lay behind them. ....

But it would be a profound mistake to think that Jesus was merely an eloquent field preacher who had got on the wrong side of authority. His character was strange and unpredictable. He was meek in the way that only the strong can truly be, yet he called, demanded, and commanded without explanation or apology. What other man could call some fishermen to leave their skilled job or ask somebody else to give up the lucrative, even though despised, work of tax collecting and to follow him, and succeed? What other man could look straight at a ring of hostile faces and throw out the challenge "Which of you convinces me of sin?" and yet give no impression of arrogance or self-righteousness? ....