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The English Bible According to Msgr. Ronald Knox

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 17, 2012

Baronius Press has just brought out an attractive edition of the Knox Bible—the English translation of the Bible done single-handedly by the famous Catholic apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox between 1936 and 1945. This is a gilt-edged, leather-bound edition with two colored ribbons; its verse numbers are in the margins for greater readability. The Knox Bible will make a fine gift for any Bible collector, and because it is a very English rendering of the Sacred text, this is a Bible that is likely to be read again and again by all who call that language their mother tongue.

The translation itself is a remarkable achievement. As early as the second half of the 19th century, many English bishops and English readers had become very interested in a new Catholic translation of the Latin Vulgate which could remedy the deficiencies of the highly Latinate Douai and Challoner versions. What would such a translation look like, and how much more readable would it be, if it were rendered not as a word-by-word copy of St. Jerome’s text—often failing to capture the sense of the idioms used—but as a literate Englishman would write the same thing? Early on it was hoped that the great Newman himself would undertake the work, but he never got to it. The Bishops of England and Wales assigned the task to Knox in 1936.

To produce the desired result, Knox stuck primarily (as already indicated) to translating the Vulgate—the Church’s official text—but he also looked beyond it to the original Hebrew and Greek, making the occasional emendations necessary to recover the original sense if it seemed to be obscured or lost through Jerome’s own mistakes or copyist errors. The translation appeared just after World War II and was very well received. It was the first English text authorized for liturgical use.

For better or worse, however, interest in the Knox version was soon overshadowed by the growing international effort, both Catholic and Protestant, to employ teams of translators in the production of a variety of new Bibles based primarily on the original languages. Thus in the second half of the twentieth century, a significant number of new translations emerged, including some officially sponsored by various episcopal conferences. One thinks, for example, of the Revised Standard Version, the New American Bible, the New English Bible, and the Jerusalem Bible—and all their subsequent revisions and editions—which soon stole the limelight from Knox’s solitary effort. Even Rome revised the Vulgate, producing an improved standard Latin text, the New Vulgate.

But what is so fascinating about Knox’s version—and the great reason for welcoming it back into circulation—is the serious effort to translate not word for word or even verse for verse but, in the main, “paragraph by paragraph”, expressing the text the way a reverent Englishman would say the same thing, using the idioms, forms and cadences of his own language, choosing vocabulary and expressions in the prime of their usage, but eschewing slang. Often this gives the text a lively pointedness which is lost in more literal translations of idioms which we no longer grasp. In other cases, we find a reduction in certain kinds of repetition, which were highly valued rhetorically in Hebrew but become dull and listless in English. A particular problem was how to handle the constant parallelism of the Hebrew psalms and Wisdom books, in which the same thing is almost always said twice in slightly different words in successive verses. Knox truncates much of this, and eliminates the versified poetic form in favor of well-turned English prose.

Now it is possible to agree or disagree with this particular approach to translation, this specific rendering of Sacred Scripture into good English. Interestingly, Knox argues that even the Authorized Edition (the King James) was not really translated into good English, but has been taken as such largely by dint of its constant repetition. In any case, the question arises: To what degree was the inspired Word deliberately tied to certain linguistic forms, even if we do not delight in or initially understand these same forms in our own time and culture? Knox would have argued that, whatever the case, more had been lost by taking the other tack, by handling the earlier texts in a wooden, word-by-word translation which actually sacrificed a good deal of meaning since some of the forms and most of the idioms had lost their force outside of the original culture.

For the record, I have no horse in this race. Sometimes I agree with Knox; sometimes I disagree; and often I am unqualified to render an intelligible judgment.

But this leads me to the pièce de résistance (a French idiom which, pre-Knox, we might have translated uselessly as “a piece of resistance”): Knox not only would have argued this way or that about various problems of translation, but he actually did argue in favor of his theories in a delightful 64-page booklet entitled On Englishing the Bible. And this very work, separately bound in paperback, is enclosed and delivered by Baronius Press with every order for the Knox Bible itself.

Granted that purchasing the Knox Bible will set you back $59.95, I will still argue that the included edition of On Englishing the Bible is alone worth the price of admission. Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was a brilliant Oxford convert from the Anglican establishment, received into the Church in 1917 and ordained two years later. In addition to being a wonderfully lucid teacher of the Faith (e.g., The Mass in Slow Motion and The Creed in Slow Motion), he was both an engaging humorist and a fine satirist. Before converting to Catholicism, he roundly mocked the indifferentism of the Anglican ecumenical movement in Reunion All Round, arguing (after the manner of Jonathan Swift) that the Church of England should be enlarged to include proponents of every creed, including Islam and atheism.

Knox also raised money for his chaplaincy at Oxford by writing detective stories. In fact, he was one of the founders of the Detection Club, along with G. K. Chesterton and, yes, Agatha Christie.

A man of deep orthodoxy, remarkable learning, linguistic facility, and abundant wit, Knox always wrote both intelligently and warmly. His exposition of the enormous challenges involved in translating Scripture, and of the reasons for his own decisions, is both supremely instructive and highly entertaining—at least to anyone who delights in language and literature. I devoured On Englishing the Bible as soon as I received it, and the insight I gained into Knox’s problems and purposes have made the Knox Bible itself far more interesting.

Moreover, Msgr. Knox was right: The English is good. Try as one might to see Knox himself in the translation, the text flows so easily that one is soon caught up in the sacred message itself, with surprisingly little to stand in the way.

And that, I think, is a sufficient testimony to the Knox Bible’s worth.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Gil125 - Dec. 18, 2012 12:54 PM ET USA

    j.jensen5893 and I may be long-lost twins. Before I finished reading the main post I was preparing to respond that the Knox Bible was the second one I bought after converting in 1953 and that I still like it better than any but (sorry) the King James. I also hope it will soon become available on Kindle. I'll go right to Amazon and click appropriately.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Dec. 17, 2012 8:53 PM ET USA

    Fr Knox's Bible is my English Bible of preference. I have several (old) copies. I wish someone would come out with it in Kindle format.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Dec. 17, 2012 7:56 PM ET USA

    I have read many of Fr. Knox's books. In my mind, he is the Fulton Sheen of literature; what Sheen did for television, Knox did many years before for books. There can be no greater pleasure in life even for an atheist than to sit down with one of Ronald Knox's books. He was a superb writer with a keen sense of humor. What a loss his conversion was for the Anglicans; what a gain for Catholicism! I look forward to having his rendition of the Bible in my hands.

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