This time of year, many Protestant churches that customarily incline toward more modern translations (and interpretations) of the Bible go back to the Authorized Version (King James) or Revised Standard Version for the gospel and Old Testament readings, because of the language. The slightly archaic words seem to fit what a lot of people think of as Christmas. While newer translations can be more easily understandable, the beauty of language can get lost.
So, I’ve been working through the Geneva Bible translation of some of the Advent and Christmas story. Much is familiar, in large part because the King James that I grew up with took a decent amount of material from the Geneva, and copied the older language style. However, some of the Geneva reminds me of the Saxon edition, the Heliand.
For example, this is the angels visiting the shepherds, in the Geneva. It starts the way the KJV does (because the KJV borrowed a not-small percentage of the Geneva). “And there were in the same country sheepherds, abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night because of their flocks. An lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glorie of the Lord shone about them, and they were sore afraide.Then the Angel said unto them, Be not afraide; for beholde, I bring you tidings of great joye that shallbe to all the people:” (Luke 2: 8-9) “And straight way there was with the Angel a multitude of heavenlie soldiers, praying God, and saying, Glorie be to God in the high heavens, and peace in earth, and towards men good will.” (v. 13-14)
Blink blink. Right. I know that “hosts” carries the meaning of “military force” as well as “bunch of angels”, but that caught my attention. If that’s what appeared to the shepherds, angels in battle array, then I can see why “Fear Not” was the first thing the lead angel had to say.
Now, the Heliand. This is from a prose translation of the Middle Saxon original, done by G. Ronald Murphy S. J. The Heliand is not a strict translation of the Gospels per se, but an approved retelling done for the pagan Saxon kings and nobles of what is now Germany and Poland in the 800s-900s or so. The author had to keep in mind some cultural differences between the author of Luke and a Saxon war lord. First, Christ descends to Midgard and is born in Bethlehemburg, a hill-fort.
So . . . Horse guards are out watching the horse herds. ” . . . they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards out in the field. Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. . . . Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the shining meadows of heaven, saying many words of praise for the Lord of Peoples. They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds towards the meadows of heaven.” (The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel, p. 16-17.)
You can see why I blinked a little, and might have giggled a bit.
[Why horse guards? Because only slaves took care of the sheep among the Saxons. The war-lord’s horses were guarded by nobles and sons of nobles. This news is about a royal son, yes? So of course the announcement would come to the nobles first. Not to mere . . . slaves.]