The murderous history of Bible translations Power, conflict and the quest for meaning

Harry Freedman

Book - 2016

The Bible has been translated far more than any other book. To our minds it is self-evident that believers can read their sacred literature in a language they understand. But the history of Bible translations is far more contentious than reason would suggest. Bible translations underlie an astonishing number of religious conflicts that have plagued the world. Harry Freedman describes brilliantly the passions and strong emotions that arise when deeply held religious convictions are threatened or... undermined. He tells of the struggle for authority and orthodoxy in a world where temporal power was always subjugated to the divine, a world in which the idea of a Bible for all was so important that many were willing to give up their time, security, and even their lives. --Publisher's description.

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Subjects
Published
New York : Bloomsbury [2016]
Edition
First U.S. edition
Language
English
Physical Description
248 pages ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 215-241) and index.
ISBN
9781632866011
1632866013
9781472921673
1472921674
Main Author
Harry Freedman (author)
  • Before the violence. The legacy of Alexandria ; A wandering Aramean ; Old words, new tongues ; The sublime Bible
  • The violence begins. Medieval conflict ; The murder of Tyndale ; Confound their strife ; King James's Bible
  • Enlightenment. A new role ; The early American Bible ; The quest for meaning ; Reworking the Bible ; The future for the translated Bible.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* For readers who take for granted the easy availability of the Bible in every library—in every hotel room!—Freedman's engrossing history of Biblical translations documents the high human cost of such availability. Freedman devotes particular attention to William Tyndale, the brilliant sixteenth-century polyglot strangled and then burned as a heretic by clerics outraged by his challenge to their control of Holy Writ in England. But readers encounter all too many other bold translators—including Jan Hus of Bohemia and Jacob van Liesveldt of Holland—who paid the same price for similar offenses. Merely reading from the Bible in vernacular Gallic sent the medieval beguine Marguerite Ponte to the stake. Such martyrdom underscores the tensions running throughout a narrative stretching from ancient fights between Jewish and Christian scholars wrangling over the Hebrew word almah, through Reformation-era disputes between Protestant and Catholic exegetes arguing over the Greek word ecclesia, to modern debates between progressives and conservatives split over masculine scriptural pronouns. Despite the rancor, Freedman recognizes that the best Bible translations—including the one Luther delivered in painstakingly wrought sixteenth-century German and the one James I commissioned in poetic seventeenth-century English—have forever enriched world literature. A fascinating look at the tangled backstory of the Western world's Good Book. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

Also author of The Talmud: A Biography (CH, Jan'15, 52-2481) and The Gospels' Veiled Agenda (2009), Freedman takes readers on a chronological (though not comprehensive) journey through the history of Bible translation, starting with the efforts that produced, for example, the third-century BCE Greek Septuagint and concluding with contemporary efforts in gender-neutral translation that produced, for example, the Queen James Bible (2012). He details translation efforts that produced the less-known Gothic Bible (fourth century CE) and the early Slavonic Bible (16th century), the informal translations of the medieval Beguines and Beghards (wandering mendicants), and the Yiddish New Testament. In the third part of the book, "Enlightenment," Freedman examines the move to produce Bible translations "fueled by a desire for greater readability." The variety of translations examined demonstrates, the author writes in the introduction, that "the translated Bible was intended to be radical, liberating, and inspirational. Yet in the hands of religious conservatism it became a negative force, a barrier to social evolution." Throughout this history, Freedman explores controversies and challenges to authority. Offering a well-researched popular alternative to earlier work on Bible translation (for example, Ernst Wurthwein's), Freedman distinguishes himself by demonstrating the concerns "about authenticity and human emotion" that produced these texts. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates; graduate students; general readers.--H. M. Szpek, Central Washington UniversityHeidi M. SzpekCentral Washington University Heidi M. Szpek Choice Reviews 54:08 April 2017 Copyright 2017 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In this brisk, exciting narrative, Freedman (The Talmud: A Biography) shares some of the most compelling, contentious, and even murderous stories surrounding the many translations of the best-selling book in history, the Bible. Starting with the Greek Septuagint and working all the way up to present-day debates over gender-inclusive language and dynamic equivalence translations, Freedman's account, while not comprehensive, fascinatingly covers a vast range of times, places, and circumstances. Although he details the backgrounds of dozens of translations; highlights include the creation of the King James version; the story of the first female Bible translator, Julia Smith; and the executions of priest Jan Hus and Bible translator William Tyndale. Several themes recur throughout such as the politics of religion, power, and authority, and the emotional impact of familiar religious language. In order to keep the narrative moving, at times Freedman lacks theological nuance, oversimplifying various aspects of Catholic and Reformation theology, for instance. However, as a popular rather than scholarly work, these occasional overgeneralizations are understandable given the book's fast pace and wide accessibility. VERDICT Recommended for general readers interested in the thrilling history of a text many take for granted.—Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY [Page 99]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Aramaic and Hebrew scholar Freedman (The Gospels' Veiled Agenda) vividly explains how and why scripture has been translated, beginning shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, and carrying through to the present day, including the recent Queen James Bible. The author is open about his populist aim—to tell "the story of the translated Bible," without being a lengthy comprehensive history that would appeal more to scholars—and he succeeds in achieving that goal. Freedman buttresses his contention that while most translations were undertaken to provide access to the masses, and thus be "radical, liberating, and inspirational," religious conservatives used translations for the opposite reason, as a "barrier to social evolution." Freedman also demonstrates the enduring power of word choices, for example, how Jerome's Vulgate presentation of Moses spawned anti-Semitic superstitions that all Jews had horns, and, even more significantly, how the Septuagint translating the Hebrew word almah as virgin instead of young woman bolstered Christian assertions that the Hebrew Bible foretold the birth of Jesus. For those interested in the complex history of Bible translation, this is a must-read. (Nov.) [Page ]. Copyright 2016 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Offers an examination of the often violent history of the numerous translations of the Bible, delving into religious conflicts that have at their base Bible translation and the struggle for authority and orthodoxy.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Harry Freedman, author of The Talmud: A Biography, recounts the fascinating and bloody history of the Bible.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Harry Freedman, author of The Talmud: A Biography, recounts the fascinating and bloody history of the Bible.In 1535, William Tyndale, the first man to produce an English version of the Bible in print, was captured and imprisoned in Belgium. A year later he was strangled and then burned at the stake. His co-translator was also burned. In that same year the translator of the first Dutch Bible was arrested and beheaded. These were not the first, nor were they the last instances of extreme violence against Bible translators. The Murderous History of Bible Translations tells the remarkable, and bloody, story of those who dared translate the word of God.The Bible has been translated far more than any other book. To our minds it is self-evident that believers can read their sacred literature in a language they understand. But the history of Bible translations is far more contentious than reason would suggest. Bible translations underlie an astonishing number of religious conflicts that have plagued the world.Harry Freedman describes brilliantly the passions and strong emotions that arise when deeply held religious convictions are threatened or undermined. He tells of the struggle for authority and orthodoxy in a world where temporal power was always subjugated to the divine, a world in which the idea of a Bible for all was so important that many were willing to give up their time, security, and even their lives.