The Knox Bible is a Treasure

My First Things column this week takes a look at the madness that is upon us in these final days of a deplorably long and seemingly never-ending electoral season, and then shares what I have been using to lift myself out of the funk and fug when the headlines, opinions and debates are all-too-heavy:

Still, there is a restlessness, and in recent weeks, when that feeling comes upon me, I have found an outlet in an unexpected source—Baronius Press’ newly released edition of Msgr. Ronald Knox’s translation of the Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Bible; The so-called Knox Bible . . . is not a study bible; it’s a reading bible, and Knox’s language pulls us into the scriptural stories and images we know so very well and then elevates us with its staggering beauty.

Opening the book at random, I encountered the Song of Songs:

What a wound thou hast made, my bride, my true love, what a wound thou hast made in this heart of mine! And all with one glance of an eye, all with one ringlet straying on thy neck!

There, in a few dozen words, I got a glimpse of the whole mystery of God’s design and his ineffable love for us. The Creator so beguiled with his Creation that he is willing to become vulnerable to it; willing to live and bleed and die for the sake of such a love. Knox’s translation crystallized the truth that we can too easily forget in our electoral anxieties, that yes, God’s hand has been involved—from the first nanosecond, in all of our human affairs—and it remains, even when society seems adrift, and when the princes of the world seem wholly inadequate to their offices.

You can read the rest here.

Baronius supplied me with a review copy of the Knox Bible and I have to say, I’m loving it. My son happened to be home when it arrived and he was immediately struck by its material beauty — the leather binding, the two markers and gilt-edged pages, but when he opened it up and saw the prose format, I had a hard time getting it from his hands.

This is a bible meant for hunkering-down-to-read and becoming lost within–a true escape into another place, from where you emerge refreshed and elevated from simple joy of reacquainting oneself with language structure that is slightly higher and more formal than the usual, but more readable and (perhaps) accessible than the Douay Rheims.

As I mentioned at First Things, my random opening took me to the Song of Songs and when I went to the beginning of that book, I was captivated. Accustomed to “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; more delightful is your love than wine…” (which is perfectly lovely) I confess I was still got a jolt from the immediacy of Knox’s lush romance:

A kiss from those lips! Wine cannot ravish the senses like that embrace, nor the fragrance of rare perfumes match it for delight. Thy very name spoken soothes the heart like flow of oil; what wonder the maids should love thee?

From there, I moved to the Book of Tobit (or, Tobias), Chapter 3:

So at last Tobias fell a-sighing, and he prayed still, but wept as he prayed. Lord, he said, thou hast right on thy side; no award of thine but is deserved, no act of thine but tells of mercy, of faithfulness and of justice. Yet bethink thee, Lord of my case; leave my sins unpunished, my guilt and the guilt of my parents forgotten. If we are doomed to loss, to banishment and to death, if though hast made us a by-word and a laughing-stock in all the countries to which thou has banished us, it is because we have defied they commandments…

Yeah, I read that, took a look at the state of the world, the church, the nation and decided to commit that to memory, for future use!

Then I moved to the psalms, which are such a big part of my life. And once again, I discovered that the Grail Translations are still my favorite, but it was interesting reading the psalms as prose-poems; here’s part of Psalm 19 (18):

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…

And then, of course, the beginning of John’s gospel:

At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God. He abode, at the beginning of time, with God. It was through him that all things came into being, and without him came nothing that has come to be. In him there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it.

It’s good to read different translations of scripture, particularly in prayer. A new translation — the use of a different word — and suddenly one has a fresh perspective for lectio divinaone gleans something all-new for pondering. In this little section, what jumped out at me and filled my prayer-journal was: without him came nothing that has come to be. . But Knox’s footnotes acknowledged another interpretation that gave me even more.

Since this is not a study bible, footnotes are minimal and are directly concerned with the translation and they’re quite conversational as Knox explains why he chose a particular word over another.

Baronius includes with this bible a brief booklet written by Knox, “On Englishing the Bible.” I’m only reading a little bit as I can, but it’s pretty charming and again, as conversational as you could wish.

Apparently I’m not the only one moved to tears by this translation

Also looking at the Knox Bible:
The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Anchoress Annual Christmas Gift Suggestions
The Worth and the Witness of Women Bloggers
Ana Marie Cox “Comes out” as a Christian
Anchoress Shows Up to Give Homily at Mass! Also, Fatso!
About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Elizabeth H.

    My mother and I have delighted in Knox’s translations–and his own sermons and writings–for years. All of his work is a treasure. It’s thrilling to see a new edition published. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  • Gail Finke

    Have you seen the “You Version” online? It’s Knox’s translation but without the thees and thous, I like it very much:

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    Perhaps, like the Song of Songs, crystallizing “the … mystery of God’s … ineffable love for us”, is something I understand St. Thomas More wrote while in prison (itself a paraphrase of a verse of one of the Epistles): “[God's] own Holy Spirit so sore desireth our weal, that, as men say, he groaneth for us in such wise as no tongue can tell.”

  • Adam

    You know, as I study the Bible, I’ve come to find that I hate, hate, hate reading it in English. (Unfortunately, English is the only language I know with any fluency.) I’m learning that there’s far too many passages that meant one thing at the time they were written, but have lost a lot of nuance when translated into our language, and thereby get really misunderstood when read in a vacuum.

    A classic example is the whole segment in the Gospels: “Hey, isn’t that Jesus’ mother and brothers?” Because the translator chose the word “brothers,” it gets taken literally by, well, Protestants, who take the word in its conventional English context. Nevermind that the Aramaic word that would have originally been used is a broad concept that covers genetic brothers, cousins, and anybody with a close relationship. But we ended up with “brothers” in English, so now everyone thinks we have scriptural proof that Mary had other kids.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m asking here is–does the Knox Bible use English in such a way that it restores the original intent? I see at a quick glance that he uses “maid” instead of “virgin” in in the Book of Isaiah; “the maid shall be with child, and will name him Emmanuel” seems to read more correctly, since Isaiah wasn’t specifically making a prophecy about Jesus Christ. (God may have intended a dual meaning when he inspired Isaiah, but Isaiah himself was talking about events current to his day.) Does the rest of the Knox Bible do this?

  • Laurel

    Wow, how beautiful!

  • Manny

    I just did a comparison of some of my favorite, most elegant passages in the bible, comparing Knox, NAB, and King James. I can’t vouch for translation accuracy. There are certainly lines I can single out from all three as exceeding the other two. But for my taste the NAB seems to be clearer and most elegant most often. Let me take the shortest of the passages I compared so this comment won’t be exceedingly long. Take John 1:1-5.

    At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God. 2 He abode, at the beginning of time, with God. 3 It was through him that all things came into being, and without him came nothing that has come to be. 4 In him there was life, and that life was the light of men.[a] 5 And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it.[b]

    1In the beginning* was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.a 2He was in the beginning with God. 3* All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.b What came to be 4through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;c 5* the light shines in the darkness,d and the darkness has not overcome it.

    King James:
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

    Let me say, I am not a big fan of the King James. Though there are passages that do reach poetry, on the whole I find the language stilted. I know it was intended to be that way as a reaching for a heavenly speech, but stilted is stilted for me. For instance line 3 there is unusually awkward. The Knox translation of these five lines are mundanely prosy. Here are lines that just roll with lyricism, and he takes all the lyricism out. Look at the NAB. It’s clear, concise, and lyrical. I know NAB gets criticized often, but other than perhaps the Ignatius Bible, I can’t seem to find any translation I prefer over it.

  • Manny

    As to that passage in Song of Songs quoted, Knox seems to be the outlier in translation. Compare the same three, SoS 1: 1-4:

    A kiss from those lips![a] Wine cannot ravish the senses like that embrace, 2 nor the fragrance of rare perfumes match it for delight. Thy very name spoken soothes the heart like flow of oil; what wonder the maids should love thee? 3 Draw me after thee where thou wilt; see, we hasten after thee, by the very fragrance of those perfumes allured! To his own bower the king has brought me; he is our pride and boast, on his embrace, more ravishing than wine, our thoughts shall linger. They love truly that know thy love.

    1The Song of Songs,* which is Solomon’s. 2W* a Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine,* 3better than the fragrance of your perfumes.* Your name is a flowing perfume— therefore young women love you. 4b Draw me after you! Let us run!* The king has brought me to his bed chambers. Let us exult and rejoice in you; let us celebrate your love: it is beyond wine! Rightly do they love you!

    King James:
    The song of songs, which is Solomon’s. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. 3 Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee. 4 Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

    Seems like Knox has added some details on the King’s personality that the other two don’t share. Or perhaps the other two have deleted it; I can’t speak to the original Hebrew. Again I prefer the NAB here. That simple “Let us run!” is not only more elegant, but it’s more rythmic. And then the “Let us exalt…” phrase that follows repeats the phrasing and the rhythm. Much more pleasing and elegant.