That’s an Interesting Translation

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.]


13 thoughts on “That’s an Interesting Translation

  1. Hmmm . . . the horse guards heard the announcement first?

    Forgive my irreverence, but what about the manure factor?

    “Ding, dung, merrily on high!”


  2. On the “horse-guards vs shepherds”, while those shepherds weren’t slaves, they also weren’t terribly “respectable people”. Not the sort to get Good News delivered by Angels. 😆

    • Well… The flocks in Bethlehem were mostly for Temple use, and the shepherds were carrying out an important job by tending them. But it wasn’t a high-paying job, the conditions weren’t great, and all farm jobs meant that you had a hard time keeping the ritual laws and staying ritually clean like priests, which is what the Pharisees desired for all Israel to follow. They thought that once all of Israel were keeping the priest laws, they’d be a more priestly people, and therefore ready for the Messiah; and then the Messiah would come.

      So it was pokey, unfortunate-jobbed people like the shepherds, as well as evil transgressors or Jews who didn’t want to follow the Law, who were keeping the Messiah away and preventing Israel from being saved. If you asked some Pharisees, anyway.

      But the other side of that was that of course David had been called from the sheep to “shepherd my people,” and that kings all throughout the ancient Near East were pictured as shepherds and other kinds of herders and herd-guards. And David’s family was from Bethlehem.

      Also, the Hebrew word for shepherd literally means “feeder,” and of course there’s Eucharistic significance to a bunch of feeders/pastors hanging out at Beth Lechem, the House of Bread.

      So yeah, the translator of the Heliand was doing his best, but there are significant problems with the horse guard translation. Although I really like the bit where Jesus trading words with the Devil is made into an explicit magical riddle battle, with Scripture taking the place of riddles.

      • I think it wasn’t supposed to be “all” of Israel doing the laws that was a triggerpoint, but it was some kind of “most” or “the vast majority,” because the rabbis were realists in that way. But it still was taking the “universal call to holiness” in the wrong way, even though they meant well. Details of interpretation, or emphasis, was what the Pharisees got wrong.

        • Taken one way, the Pharisaic emphasis on preserving one’s ritual purity was a real life expression of faith in the coming Messianic redemption: “I am prepared NOW.” I have no doubt that there were those for whom it kept the spiritual purity of a boy in preCOVID days going to bed with his team’s jersey on the night before he was about to be taken to his first MLB game.

          Or that it also could also become a social/group reinforcement thing.

          “Hosts” is interesting. One principle of Biblical exegesis is to take guidance from the first appearance of a word. צ.ב.א. first appears in Genesis 2:1, “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their . . .” whatever the word means. Some commentaries read it as all creation, the planets, the stuff here on earth, and the spiritual beings of the heavens as well.

          But when it appears for the second time, in Genesis 21:22, it’s clear: Phicol, the “chief officer of his (Avimelekh’s) army.”

      • It took years before a priest eventually mentioned that part of why Jesus argued with the Pharisees so much is that they had good points, they were sort of right, buuuuuttttt……


        I love the “try to translate the sense of things” stuff. Especially when both are not my culture. 😀 It leads to stuff like wondering if the horse-guards was a white elephant type job, an “honor” most would prefer to avoid!

  3. Then come the lay investiture question with the Ottonian kings, where of course a mere bishop must have fealty to th king, more than a noble! Shows it right here in this book. Translation is a problem.

    Fortunately it wasn’t a soil textbook, or it’d be “Loess in Translation.” (I distracted her, Peter. Now, run!)

  4. The bit on armies caught my eye. Somehow, 6 different translations made their way onto my bookshelves. Looking at Luke 2:13

    King James: : “multitude of the heavenly host”
    New King James, ditto
    Revised Standard Version (1952 edition, I’ve heard of a newer one, but I’ve had this one since confirmation classes), again ditto

    The Living Bible: “vast host of others– the armies of heaven”
    New Living Translation: (2007 release) same as TLB
    Today’s English Version: “great army of heaven’s angels”

    Be it ever so worn, I grab the RSV. So in the first three, army is implied but easy to miss. The others, quite plain.

    I’m going to borrow John Hoge’s copy of the NASA picture from Dec 24, 1968:

    Merry Christmas to all!

  5. Back when I was a young pup, I had the honor of reading that part of the Christmas story for Christmas Eve services. In our church, the RSV was the “Official” version. However, for Christmas and Easter services we used the KJV. Modern english prose, just doesn’t convey the spiritual wonder of those events. Thanks for brining back some good memories

  6. Actually had a Baptist preacher who was an ex-Army chaplain call that out specifically many Christmas’ ago… 🙂 And the Saxon translation is…just wrong… The announcement was FOR the common people everywhere.

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