Saturday, 9 October 2010

Jonathan Sacks and the Bible

Jonathan Sacks is that rare thing: a man who seems to transcend religious divides and who speaks with a wisdom to which all will listen. He writes with a poetry and clarity to which I can only aspire.

This morning’s article in the Times is no exception, and is well worth reading. Unfortunately, the online version is available only to subscribers so I will summarise and quote here. Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, anticipates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011. ‘It is a supreme monument of the English language’ which more than any other book shaped the birth of the modern. He writes of the post-Reformation age into which this authorised version was born, also the golden age of English literature with Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Johnson having just written their masterpieces. ‘There was no better time or place for the Bible to be reborn as the key text of a new age.’ Sacks goes on to remind that the KJV is ‘only a translation, the word of God at one remove. You need to listen to the original Hebrew (and Greek, the Christian theologian might add) to understand its texture and tonality, nuances and inflections. But the King James remains English literature at its most stately and serene.’

There is a suggestion in the article, that in our post-modern society, people have largely lost touch with the text of the Bible. ‘At the height of one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, Martin Luther King moved seamlessly into a two-verse quotation from the King James translation of Isaiah 40: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” It was a moment of history-changing power, and it would have been impossible had his audience not known the Bible.’

As Sacks hints, I’m not sure that such a speech would work today. Are people familiar enough with the Bible to appreciate the reference? Do people who hear Luther King’s speech today even realise that he draws from its pages? A few years ago, a new Christian convert said to me of the Bible, ‘This is dynamite!’ Certainly, the Bible contains powerful stuff, which I would say, has the ability to transform lives. Surely, part of our evangelistic effort must be aimed at making the Bible more widely known, and encouraging that it be more widely read?

Sacks concludes, ‘The texts a culture teaches its children shape their landscape of literacy, their horizons of aspiration. People who can quote the Bible walk tall. They carry with them a treasure no one can take away from them. They sing with tongues of poets, walk with the wisdom of Solomon, find solace in the soul music of the Psalms, and hope in the blazing visions of the prophets. In an age of blogs and tweets, the King James translation remains the Beethoven of the soul, the imperishable music of spiritual grandeur.’

I might even return to the King James in my own reading!


  1. I love the sneaky little dig that points out that you really only get the full impact when you read it in Hebrew!

  2. If only I could! I'll stick with the Greek of the New Testament, I think, and the help of commentaries on the Old!