Friday, May 22, 2009

Dean Burgon, the beleaguered white knight of the Bible versions wars

I've been skimming through Dean J W Burgon's Revision Revised again. I still very much enjoy his rather swashbuckling style, which I know others don't like. To me his style reflects the psychological position of someone with superior understanding having to cope with people with far less understanding who are nevertheless set as experts over him.

[added later: Since it is now the politically correct position to dismiss W&H's work as obsolete and Burgon's work therefore irrelevant, having been eclipsed by later and better texts such as more discoveries of old manuscripts, more work at putting together better versions of the Critical Text, etc., it needs to be said up front that this is merely a smokescreen. It may not be recognized as a smokescreen of course, it is no doubt sincerely believed by some as an important truth, but it is a smokescreen nevertheless, because these changes do not touch the fundamental faults of W&H but perpetuate them under cover of merely minor differences. Slight modifications to W&H's work are made, producing new editions of the Critical Text considered a great improvement over W&H, while their major errors continue to be accepted, as the very term Critical Text indicates: first of all the corrupt Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, and secondly even their horrifically bad translation, bad Greek, bad English. No, it ALL goes back to Westcott and Hort, it is ALL traceable to their doorstep, and Burgon's critique applies just as much now as ever and should be read as denouncing the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Society's texts as carriers of the original W&H enormity, the same arguments applying.]

Burgon is genuinely astonished that Westcott and Hort and their committee of revisers are taken seriously at all. Their scholarship is so ridiculously deficient he can hardly believe his eyes. I suspect that this is what leads him to employ that strong sarcastic language, hoping, I think, that if he's very forceful in his denunciations this might wake some up to the seriousness of the situation, might persuade some to rethink their acceptance of the inferior Bible produced by the revising committee. This is how he comes across to me. Unfortunately this sort of tactic almost never works. Those who don't have his level of understanding dismiss him as "exaggerating" his case and "arguing like a lawyer more than a scholar" and are not led to rethink their own judgment at all.

I rather doubt any other tactic would have worked any better, however. He is simply in a thankless position if in fact his ability is so much greater than most of his opponents' which is what I suspect from his own attitude and tone. In that case his ability to judge both the Greek and the English of the 1881 revision is so far beyond that of those who produced it, and most of those today who are regarded as Greek scholars, it's like speaking a foreign language. But the revising committee had managed to gain much prestige in its ten years of producing what Burgon regards as their execrable mistreatment of both the Greek and the English, so that their judgment is accepted by sheer force of popular impression. Pehaps in the acceptance of W&H's work there was also some mixture of relief at the eclipse of the "hard" English of the KJV (no matter that this could have been accomplished with far less damage) and perhaps some infection with 19th century rationalist bias against the supernatural claims of the Bible, which W&H themselves exhibit in their private writings, and which we know subsequently overtook much of the Anglican church down to our day.

I don't know how many of today's students of the Bible versions are even exposed to Dean Burgon's writings at all, I suspect few if any. Some ridiculous things are said against him, slightingly dismissive remarks. To say he argues like a lawyer is true enough in a way, though I think of him as having a more of a literary critic's style than a lawyer's, but to say he doesn't do a scholar's work in refuting W&H is far from the truth. Most of his book is a laborious accounting and discussion of the errors he finds in their revision.

Revision Revised is a hard read unfortunately for someone who isn't prepared to make the comparisons Burgon so carefully brings to the reader's attention. Much of the book is a discussion of the differences between the readings in the texts that were used for the King James translation and those preferred by Westcott and Hort on which all the modern Bibles have been based. Only someone who knows Greek as well as he does could really appreciate it, but I can at least grasp WHAT he is saying even if I can't verify any of it for myself.

In one discussion for instance he objects that the revising committee lacked a grasp of idiomatic Hellenistic Greek so that they clumsily literally translate what was far better and more idiomatically translated by the King James translators. "Aeon" is a case in point. To translate it "age" instead of "world" or "ages of the ages" instead of "forever" is supposed by W&H to be more "accurate" whereas according to Burgon it merely demonstrates their ignorance of both languages. I trust Burgon. His passion for the right things seems indisputable to me. And nobody would make the very specific criticisms he does who didn't have the knowledge necessary; it simply wouldn't occur to him.

But his opponents won. All our present Bibles except the King James are treated as superior and "more accurate" for that very obtuse error among other things. But it would take a higher level of knowledge than most scholars of either language have these days to recognize this. In the days of the King James those who ended up on the translating committee were often men who had been raised from childhood reading Greek, and they certainly demonstrated a superior feeling for English as well. That just doesn't happen today.

He's dismissed as "exaggerating" how much W&H depended on Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, although to Burgon ANY dependence on either of them is indefensible. I've seen him denounced as a "conspiracy thinker," apparently lumping him together with some of today's more extreme King-James-only defenders, but he is far from any such thing. Anyone who would say that can't have read him

Burgon wrote other books, among them a lengthy defense of the authenticity of the last twelve verses of Mark. I suppose it's too scholarly for me though I'd like to read it. At 350 pages the level of detail he pursues in his defense has got to be beyond me, but perhaps as with Revision Revised I could appreciate his generalizations. I'm considering investing in it anyway because I like his thinking so much. I got Revision Revised from a second-hand outlet through but the book on the last twelve verses of Mark is a better deal through the Dean Burgon Society.

One continuing confusion in this dispute is the habit of those who defend the modern versions of lumping the KJV in with all of them as just another translation, obscuring the fact that it was done from a completely different set of Greek texts than Westcott and Hort used for their revision. W&H had no authorization for substituting the texts of their own preference for starters, but beyond that the texts they preferred were already considered by competent scholars to be corrupt in multiple ways. Burgon addresses the corruptions in Revision Revised as well as a separate book on the subject. This historical fact is strangely ignored in current discussions of the Bible text. The subject of the reliability of the Bible texts, for instance, will be discussed at great length without the slightest reference to this most crucial distinction between the King James Bible and its predecessors and the majority of current Bibles which are all based on some version or other of the corrupted texts preferred by Westcott and Hort.

Someone I discussed this with also said that the King-James-only people confuse Westcott and Hort's text with the Nestle-Aland text, and exaggerate how much of the N/A is based on Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. This just has to reflect some deficiency in how these things are taught, doesn't it? There is no confusion; any textual collection such as Nestle/Aland that makes use of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus AT ALL is following in the footsteps of Westcott/Hort. There are two equally serious complaints against W&H and one is that they used those corrupted manuscripts at all. The other is that their English translation is atrocious.