Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Knox Bible (updated)

I am beginning that giant annual project today which leaves me a bit discombobulated and somewhat ... ok, a lot ... freaked out. All will be well and all shall be well and I know this is so. But the beginning is still a monumental task and so I am updating my review of The Knox Bible. See the update below.

The Knox BibleThe Knox Bible by Msgr Ronald A. Knox
It is unquestioned that for the past 300 years the Authorized Version has been the greatest single formative influence in English prose style. But that time is over …. When the Bible ceases, as it is ceasing, to be accepted as a sacred text, it will not long survive for its fine writing. It seems to me probable that in a hundred years' time the only Englishmen who know their Bibles will be Catholics. And they will know it in Msgr. Knox's version.-- Evelyn Waugh
I have been trying to get my hands on a Knox Bible for some time, ever since I learned of the existence of such a thing. An English translation done between 1936-1945 that strove to keep beauty while making all clear to the average Englishman ... translated directly from Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome, but while consulting the texts in Greek and Hebrew where needed. It sounded fascinating and possibly too good to be true.

Alas, Knox Bibles were nowhere to be found. Until now when Baronius Press has reprinted it in a nice serviceable edition ... sturdy-seeming but with lovely touches like ribbons, gilt-edging, marble end papers and more.

I have just begun to read but already have seen a couple of instances where the translation brought tears to my eyes when I read it aloud ... it struck a chord within.

As I sit daily and open this Bible up, I am struck by how readable it is.

Some of that is the format. Instead of having subheads telling us what we'll read, verse numbers at the beginning of sentences, and the formats we're used to ... it is in chapters and paragraphs. Just like a real book.

The verses are in tiny numbers on the outside margin. This sounds difficult, but as I've been checking this translation against others, I have found it is very workable.

Best of all, it leaves the reader free to just sit and ... read. As one would a regular book. I feel as if I can let the text hit me however it happens to for that moment, which surely is a good thing when we are trying to hear the Word in the words.

My biggest comparison with other translations was when I received it and sat down to look over the first couple of chapters of Genesis ... verse by verse ... compared with the New American Bible, the Revised Standard Version, the Douay-Rheims, and Robert Alter's superb translation. I didn't realize I had so many translations in the house until that moment. Which made me laugh. Bible geek - book geek ... it's pretty much the same thing at that point.

Reading them aloud, I read Knox's chapter 1, verse 2:
Earth was still an empty waste, and darkness hung over the deep; but already, over its waters, stirred the breath of God.
What is there in that to make me cry? I don't know but it touched my soul and I did. Something about that "stirred by the breath of God" was just so lovely and evocative.

You can imagine how I laughed, then, when reading my New American Bible:
and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind was sweeping over the waters
A mighty wind? Hmmm ...

Of all the Bibles, Robert Alter's "won" the Genesis if I can call it winning. But the Knox Bible was a close second and it was often more beautifully put.

It also made me smile, when I read Genesis, chapter 2, verse 1:
Thus heaven and earth and all the furniture of them were completed.
There was something both amusing and also "right" about thinking of the animals, fish, plants, and people as "furnishing" the earth. It settled in my mind in a way that the other translations failed to do (array, hosts, etc.).

I read Knox's "The Englishing of the Bible" which is a collection of essays he wrote explaining his translation choices. He wanted language that would be accessible, beautiful, and timeless. He kept "thee" and "thou" because, as he put it, there were times when the "thou" would mean God and times when that same "thou" might mean man ... he didn't want his choices between "thou" and "you" to influence the reader. He wanted to leave that for the moment and the Spirit to decide. I do find "thou" awkward sometimes, but it always makes me think about Knox's choice and I think that is a good reason for the older language in it.

This morning I looked at Psalm 19 (18 in Knox's numbering):
SEE how the skies proclaim God's glory, how the vault of heaven betrays his craftsmanship! Each day echoes its secret to the next, each night passes on to the next its revelation of knowledge; no word, no accent of theirs that does not make itself heard, till their utterance fills every land, till their message reaches the ends of the world.
There is a dynamic quality in the day echoing to the night, to the night passing on its revelation, that makes me think of nature itself as crying aloud, "Cannot you see God? We are showing Him to you." (So much less eloquent than the psalmist or Knox, of course.) But I can feel it in the birds singing outside my window, in the wind blowing the puffy cloud along.

I continue to compare the translations and there is no perfect one. I love the RSV. Sometimes Knox's old fashioned verbs slow me down or the meaning is not as clear as another Bible. But that is not often so far.

It speaks to me. As does much of this splendid translation. I will be reading it every day.

Other readers' reactions:
The Anchoress: The Knox Bible is a Treasure ... who has some great excerpts.
The Hermeneutic of Continuity ... sharing memories of taking Knox's translation to class.


  1. Another item on my envy (because I cannot afford to buy it) list.

  2. Me neither! If they hadn't sent me a review copy ... I wouldn't have even known a new one was out. :-)

  3. Shoot, I guess they lost my address.

  4. Happy news -- thank you! I'll pass this (and the URL to your happy site) along to friends.

    - Mack in Kirbyville

  5. I love it too, Julie! Also made me cry! http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2012/10/23/the-knox-bible-is-a-treasure/

  6. Julie, (this is Elizabeth) I read Psalm 19 this morning too, and loved it. Thanks for the link.

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  9. I too am trying to get a copy.