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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : ADDRESS I. EARLY HISTORY OF REVISION.

Addresses On The Revised Version Of Holy Scripture by C. J. Ellicott


As there now seem to be sufficient grounds for thinking that ere long the Revised Version of Holy Scripture will obtain a wider circulation and more general use than has hitherto been accorded to it, it seems desirable that the whole subject of the Revised Version, and its use in the public services of the Church, should at last be brought formally before the clergy and laity, not only of this province, but of the whole English Church.

Twenty years have passed away since the appearance of the Revised Version of the New Testament, and the presentation of it by the writer of these pages to the Convocation of Canterbury on May 17, 1881. Just four more years afterwards, viz. on April 30, 1885, the Revised Version of the Old Testament was laid before the same venerable body by the then Bishop of Winchester (Bp. Harold Browne), and, similarly to the Revised Version of the New Testament, was published simultaneously in this country and America. It was followed, after a somewhat long interval, by the Revised Version of the Apocrypha, which was laid before Convocation by the writer of these pages on February 12, 1896.

The revision of the Authorised Version has thus been in the hands of the English-speaking reader sixteen years, in the case of the Canonical Scriptures, and five years in the case of the Apocrypha -- periods of time that can hardly be considered insufficient for deciding generally, whether, and to what extent, the Revised Version should be used in the public services of the Church.

I have thus thought it well, especially after the unanimous resolution of the Upper House of the Convocation of Canterbury, three years ago {6}, and the very recent resolution of the House of Laymen, to place before you the question of the use of the Revised Version in the public services of the Church, as the ultimate subject of this charge. I repeat, as the ultimate subject, for no sound opinion on the public use of this version can possibly be formed unless some general knowledge be acquired, not only of the circumstances which paved the way for the revision of the time-honoured version of 1611, but also of the manner in which the revision was finally carried out. We cannot properly deal with a question so momentous as that of introducing a revised version of God's Holy Word into the services of the Church, without knowing, at least in outline, the whole history of the version which we are proposing to introduce. This history then I must now place before you from its very commencement, so far as memory and a nearly life-long connexion with the subject enable me to speak.

The true, though remote fountain-head of revision, and, more particularly, of the revision of the New Testament, must be regarded as the grammar written by a young academic teacher, George Benedict Winer, as far back as 1822, bearing the title of a Grammar of the Language of the New Testament. It was a vigorous protest against the arbitrary, and indeed monstrous licence of interpretation which prevailed in commentaries on Holy Scripture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It met with at first the fate of all assaults on prevailing unscientific procedures, but its value and its truth were soon recognized. The volume passed through several successively improved editions, until in 1855 the sixth edition was reached, and issued with a new and interesting preface by the then distinguished and veteran writer. This edition formed the basis of the admirable and admirably supplemented translation of my lamented and highly esteemed friend Dr. Moulton, which was published in 1870, passed through a second edition six years afterwards, and has, since that time, continued to be a standard grammar, in an English dress, of the Greek Testament down to this day.

The claim that I have put forward for this remarkable book as the fountain-head of revision can easily be justified when we call to memory how very patently the volume, in one or another of its earlier editions, formed the grammatical basis of the commentaries of De Wette and Meyer, and, here in England, of the commentary of Alford, and of critical and grammatical commentaries on some of St. Paul's Epistles with which my own name was connected. It was to Winer that we were all indebted for that greater accuracy of interpretation of the Greek Testament which was recognized and welcomed by readers of the New Testament at the time I mention, and produced effects which had a considerable share in the gradual bringing about of important movements that almost naturally followed.

What came home to a large and increasing number of earnest and truth-seeking readers of the New Testament was this -- that there were inaccuracies and errors in the current version of the Holy Scriptures, and especially of the New Testament, which plainly called for consideration and correction, and further brought home to very many of us that this could never be brought about except by an authoritative revision.

This general impression spread somewhat rapidly; and soon after the middle of the last century it began to take definite shape. The subject of the revision of the Authorised Version of the New Testament found a place in the religious and other periodicals of the day {10a}, and as the time went on was the subject of numerous pamphlets, and was alluded to even in Convocation {10b} and Parliament {10c}. As yet however there had been no indication of the sort of revision that was desired by its numerous advocates, and fears were not unnaturally entertained as to the form that a revision might ultimately take. It was feared by many that any authoritative revision might seriously impair the acceptance and influence of the existing and deeply reverenced version of Holy Scripture, and, to use language which expressed apprehensions that were prevailing at the time, might seriously endanger the cause of sound religion in our Church and in our nation.

There was thus a real danger, unless some forward step was quickly and prudently taken, that the excitement might gradually evaporate, and the movement for revision might die out, as has often been the case in regard of the Prayer Book, into the old and wonted acquiescence of the past.

It was just at this critical time that an honoured and influential churchman, who was then the popular and successful secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Rev. Ernest Hawkins, afterwards Canon of Westminster, came forward and persuaded a few of us, who had the happiness of being his friends, to combine and publish a version of one of the books of the New Testament which might practically demonstrate to friends and to opponents what sort of a revision seemed desirable under existing circumstances. After it had been completed we described it |as a tentamen, a careful endeavour, claiming no finality, inviting, rather than desiring to exclude, other attempts of the same kind, calling the attention of the Church to the many and anxious questions involved in rendering the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular language, and offering some help towards the settlement of those questions {12}.|

The portion of Scripture selected was the Gospel according to St. John. Those who undertook the revision were five in number: -- Dr. Barrow, the then Principal of St. Edmund's Hall, Oxford; Dr. Moberly, afterwards Bishop of Salisbury; Rev. Henry Alford, afterwards Dean of Canterbury; Rev. W. G. Humphry, Vicar of St. Martin's in the Fields; and lastly, the writer of this charge. Mr. Ernest Hawkins, busy as he was, acted to a great extent as our secretary, superintended arrangements, and encouraged and assisted us in every possible manner. Our place of meeting was the library of our hospitable colleague Mr. Humphry. We worked in the greatest possible harmony, and happily and hopefully concluded our Revision of the Authorised Version of the Gospel of St. John in the month of March, 1857.

Our labours were introduced by a wise and attractive preface, written mainly by Dr. Moberly, in the lucid, reverent, and dignified language that marked everything that came from the pen of the late Bishop of Salisbury.

The effect produced by this tentamen was indisputably great. The work itself was of course widely criticized, but for the most part favourably {13}. The principles laid down in the preface were generally considered reasonable, and the possibilities of an authoritative revision distinctly increased. The work in fact became a kind of object lesson.

It showed plainly that there were errors in the Authorised Version that needed correction. It further showed that their removal and the introduction of improvements in regard of accuracy did not involve, either in quantity or quality, the changes that were generally apprehended. And lastly, it showed in its results that scholars of different habits of thought could combine in the execution of such a work without friction or difficulty.

In regard of the Greek text but little change was introduced. The basis of our translation was the third edition of Stephens, from which we only departed when the amount of external evidence in favour of a different reading was plainly overwhelming. As we ourselves state in the preface, |our object was to revise a version, not to frame a text.| We should have obscured this one purpose if we had entered into textual criticism.

Such was the tentative version which prepared the way for authoritative revision.

More need not be said on this early effort. The version of the Gospel of St. John passed through three editions. The Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians appeared in 1858, and the first three of the remaining Epistles (Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians) in 1861. The third edition of the Revision of the Authorised Version of St. John was issued in 1863, with a preface in which the general estimate of the revision was discussed, and the probability indicated of some authoritative procedure in reference to the whole question. As our little band had now been reduced to four, and its general aim and object had been realized, we did not deem it necessary to proceed with a work which had certainly helped to remove most of the serious objections to authoritative revision. Our efforts were helped by many treatises on the subject which were then appearing from time to time, and, to a considerable extent, by the important work of Professor, afterwards Archbishop, Trench, entitled |On the Authorised Version of the New Testament in connexion with some recent proposals for its revision.| This appeared in 1858. After the close of our tentative revision in 1863, the active friends (as they may be termed) of the movement did but little except, from time to time, confer with one another on the now yearly improving prospects of authoritative revision. In 1869 Dean Alford published a small handy revised version of the whole of the Greek Testament, and, a short time afterwards, I published a small volume on the |Revision of the English Version,| in which I sought to show how large an amount of the fresh and vigorous translation of Tyndale was present in the Authorised Version, and how little of this would ever be likely to disappear in any authoritatively revised version of the future. Some estimate also was made of the amount of changes likely to be introduced in a sample portion of the Gospels. A few months later, a very valuable volume (|On a Fresh Revision of the New Testament|) was published by Professor, afterwards Bishop, Lightfoot, which appeared most seasonably, just as the long-looked-for hope of a revision of the Authorised Version of God's Holy Word was about to be realized.

All now was ready for a definite and authoritative commencement. Of this, and of the later history of Revision, a brief account will be given in the succeeding Address.

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