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Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick

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Benson Bobrick masterfully tells the story of how the Bible became readily available in the native tongue of millions of people in the English-speaking world and how thus engaging the minds of the laity broke the stranglehold of power held by the cartel of Church and State.

Many readers of the ancient Scriptures in English will recognize the names of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, and King James I, though comparatively few have an appreciation for the work that they, and thousands of others, have done to make the Bible available to them. Such readers would do well to give Bobrick's present work serious consideration to develop a deeper appreciation for the text that is now so easily found.

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired is also valuable background to the Bible for those whose interest is in understanding the English language better, and how much of the tongue's richness in expression comes from translation of the Scriptures from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Even as a strictly literary exercise, the Bible and comparisons among translation are well worth consideration. Indeed, if Doug Hofstadter can find so many insights from studying translations of a brief poem in his Le Ton beau de Marot, imagine how much mastery of one's language can be compounded from a work as comprehensive and profound as the Bible. I will go so far as to assert that no man can be called educated while ignorant of the Bible.

An important conclusion Bobrick offers readers is that translation of the Bible into English served as a foundation for the modern democracy. This is a conclusion worthy of some discussion. Supposing that any relationship between present systems of government and the Bible is limited to the Judeo-Christian belief system documented in the Bible and reflected in much of Western law would be a mistake. More central to Bobrick's point is that leaders could no longer claim Biblical support for their directives without having the ability to prove it from the Scriptures. In summary, authority reverted from men in offices back to the written word inspired of God.

As is evident from the Scriptures themselves, the inspired writings were the authority in the early days of Christianity. Luke, a believing first-century physician and close companion of Paul, wrote approvingly of those who searched the Scriptures for agreement with the word preached to them. (Acts 17:11) Nor was any particular privilege granted by virtue of office; no less a figure than the Apostle Peter was sternly and publicly reprimanded for acting contrary to Scripture. (Galatians 2:11-14) A priest or even bishop correcting the head of a Church, whether Catholic or Orthodox, in such a manner had been unthinkable for more than a thousand years by the time Wycliffe began his work.

By speaking only dead languages in their services and ensuring the inaccessibility of the Scriptures to the common people, religious leaders were able to put themselves in a position of power over others. Many people were inclined to show reverence and to work to please their Creator. Lacking the Scriptures for themselves, they became dependent upon those who claimed to represent God. Such leaders freely mixed in the world's politics, blessing, cursing, installing, and removing even kings. So it was throughout Christendom that people were led to perform every imaginable action and misdeed, supposing that they were acting as God required of them while in fact only satisfying the whims of their leaders.

In this position, the Church had become perverted, an instrument not to support the preaching of the Christ's message of hope for mankind but to enrich and empower the hierarchy at the expense of the common people. Certain men became so sure the legitimacy of their offices that they forgot its foundation, deviated from it, and became illegitimate. Little wonder, then, that “the first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a ‘heretic’ was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue,” as Bobrick writes at the opening of Wide as the Waters. And little wonder that the hierarchy for so long resisted allowing a translation of the Scriptures that would be comprehensible to the people.

Yet the translation did come, and it brought with it a clear understanding of authority, separate from power that comes from office. Bobrick skillfully makes this point. That this leads necessarily to democracy, however, is not something I'm prepared to embrace.

First of all, democracy, per se, was around long before there was an English Bible, or even Christian Scriptures (“New Testament”). The Athenians pretty well had this down a few hundred years before Christ walked the earth. (A discussion question at the end of the book raises this issue itself and looks for discussion of the validity of the conclusion in light of democracy's origin.)

Secondly (and more importantly in my opinion), the revolution in government started by the English Bible must include the American brand of the representative republic. The critical feature here is not a law of the making of the people, but a government of limited and enumerated powers, spelled out in law, available for the governed to read for themselves. The most visible difference between Christianity and the Judaism from which it sprang is a matter of law: a comprehensive and complex set of directives in the latter case versus a simple set of instructions that helped people to see Christ as a model and to demonstrate their faith through the use their own consciences in following that model. Arming the people to question those who claim to lead them, to see the standard for themselves, and to give them the room to act is the stuff of revolution. In the centuries since the Bible became available in English we have seen the fruits of that revolution—and they've been second only to the revolution in thought and behavior that Jesus Christ himself started two centuries ago.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-01-03 06:15 AM

... and it's sad...

Posted by donetrawk at 2006-01-03 11:41 AM
... that so many people who can read the Bible in their first language (be it English, Spanish, Russian, or whatever) generally choose to follow their accepted traditional beliefs without endeavoring to find out whether these beliefs actually conflict with what the Bible really says...
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