Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions is an interesting and accessible survey of various ancient and English translations of the Bible. Juxtaposed to well-known facts about translations are concrete examples of each version’s characteristics as well as lesser known aspects of the version’s history. These aspects, coupled with the author’s critical observations and mastery of the material, make for a delightful and informative read for specialized and non-specialized reader alike.
The book’s 200 pages are divided into two main divisions along with a preface, postscript, subject index, and scripture index. Part 1—“Ancient Versions”—describes “all ancient versions of which significant portions have survived today” (p. 10). It comprises a little less than one fourth of the book and is divided (almost equally) between Chapter 1: “Ancient Versions of the Old Testament Made for the Use of Jews” (a discussion of the Septuagint and the Targums), and Chapter 2: “Ancient Versions Intended Chiefly for Christians.” In this latter discussion, Metzger separates the texts under analysis into language groups (Syriac, Latin, Coptic and Arabic Versions) as well as specific texts (the Gothic Version, Armenian Version, Georgian Version, Ethiopic Version, Sogdian Version, Old Church Slavonic Version, and Nubian Version).
Part 2—“English Versions”—contains a discussion of a selection of English translations “chosen from the sixty more or less different English translations of the whole Bible and from the further eighty or so of the New Testament alone” (p. 10). This section constitutes a little less than three fourths of the rest of the book. This hefty treatment is not unexpected given Metzger’s insistence in his Preface that “What is not generally appreciated … is the great increase in the number of different translations that have been produced relatively recently … ” (p. 8). This he attempts to rectify in chapters 3–12 by tracing English translations from before the King James Bible (1611) to the New International Version (1978). This chronological survey is interrupted by Chapter 13 in which Metzger goes back and picks up 20th century Jewish translations. Chapters 14–16 are more genre than chronologically oriented covering revisions of revisions (Chapter 14), easy to read versions (Chapter 15), and English paraphrases (Chapter 16).
Metzger concludes with a short postscript which furnishes a rather general and simplistic treatment of why there are so many versions in existence (manuscript differences, word meanings, punctuation issues, and grammatical problems).
There are several areas of this treatment that are open to critique. Why, for example, when he uses the terms “Jewish” and “Christian” as structuring labels for Part 1 does he refer to the Septuagint and the Targums as ancient “Old Testaments?” Moreover, readers will wait until Chapter 13 to pick up this emphasis on translation within Jewish circles—a fact that lends a distinct Christian emphasis to Metzger’s entire treatment. This emphasis also raises the issue of the intended audience for this book—an issue that is never addressed in Metzger’s Preface.
There are other areas that readers might wish Metzger had covered. A chapter dealing with the advent of speciality Bibles at the end of the 20th c. would have been interesting and appropriate given Metzger’s move to more genre oriented discussions at the end of his treatment. Moreover, a discussion of the impact of computers and the Internet on biblical dissemination and translation is conspicuously absent. Such a treatment would have made a great concluding chapter as the author used his expertise to speculate on their far reaching effects on biblical translation and transmission in the 21st century. Surely the advent of the computer age is every bit as worthy of note as that of the printing press!
Nevertheless, these flaws of commission and omission do not ultimately detract from the significant contributions made by this book—especially for pastors and students for whom the wealth of biblical versions in existence remains a somewhat mystifying reality. Especially helpful are the comparison charts Metzger includes in his “Revision after Revision” and the examples he uses to punctuate his discussion of easy-to-read and paraphrased Bibles in Chapters 15–16.
All in all, Metzer’s writing style is both easy to read and to follow and will hold the attention of even the novice biblical student. Specialists too will find the arrangement of materials easy to use both personally and in the classroom.