Monday, September 25, 2017

In praise of the Knox translation? Not so fast...

A recent article over at New Liturgical Movement  by Peter Kwasniewski provides a paean of praise for the Knox translation of the Bible.

In praise of the Knox translation?

Not all commentators on the post however were particularly convinced by Professor Kwasniewski's arguments, pointing out that in fact the Knox translation takes a lot of license at some points, thus representing some of the less desirable twentieth century approaches to translation.

I have to say that I sit somewhere in the middle on this debate: for some purposes and books of Scripture, I find the Knox a wonderful translation.  His translation of Psalm 118 for example, is certainly not at all literal.  But it is lovely just occasionally to read a version that attempts to convey the original Hebrew alphabetic approach to the stanzas.

All the same I do agree with those who suggest that the Knox translation needs to be treated with considerable care, since it doesn't always, in my view, pay due deference to the tradition of the Church on the interpretation of some key verses.

The case of Psalm 2:9

To illustrate this, consider the example of verse 9 of Psalm 2, a verse that will be familiar to many due to its use by Handel in the Messiah.

The Vulgate (and neo-Vulgate) version is:
Reges eos in virga férrea, * et tamquam vas fíguli confrínges eos.
The Douay-Rheims-Challoner renders it fairly literally as:
Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron, and shalt break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
The first phrase of the Knox version, however, is, in this case, quite different:
Thou shalt herd them like sheep with a crook of iron, break them in pieces like earthenware.
In many cases, significant differences between the Knox translation and the Douay-Rheims arise because the former follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text rather than the Septuagint.  That isn't the case here though: the King James Version, for example, is, in this case, very similar to the Douay-Rheims:
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel
The Hebrew Masoretic Text reflects a fairly strict parallelism between the two phrases: the key word in the first phrase is ra`a` (break, shatter); in the second  naphats (deash to pieces, scatter):
תְּרֹעֵם בְּשֵׁבֶט בַּרְזֶל כִּכְלִי יֹוצֵר תְּנַפְּצֵֽם׃

The Septuagint however seems to represent a different text tradition in this case, and is more ambiguous: the Latin reges (from rego, regere) generally means to rule or govern, Scripture sometimes uses the Greek equivalent (ποιμαίνω or poimainō ) to mean to shepherd or guide:
ποιμανεῖς αὐτοὺς ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ ὡς σκεῦος κεραμέως συντρίψεις αὐτούς
Knox's choice to follow that meaning here, however, almost certainly has its origin in St Jerome's translation from the Hebrew, which interprets the verse as shepherding rather than ruling:
Pasces eos in virga ferrea  ut vas figuli conteres eos 
Christ the good shepherd vs Christ the King

The problem with this approach though, it seems to me, is that it seems to emphasis Christ the priest over Christ the king in a verse that has traditionally been taken as referring to the latter.

I have to say that personally, the image of the potter breaking a flawed creation into pieces, and effectively starting again, doesn't strike me as terribly consonant with the shepherd image.  And it isn't the way the Father's have interpreted the verse, seeing it rather as talking about Christ's kingship. Cassiodorus, for example, suggests that the rod in question is not the shephard's crook but a symbol of kingly power:
Next the manner of his kingship is described...Rod signifies royal power by which the punishment of His correction is banished to sinners.  It is iron, not because God uses a metal rod for vengeance, but iron’s hardness is apt to describe the rigour of justice.  The rod is that of which the psalmist is to speak in Psalm 44: The rod of thy kingdom is a rod of uprightness.  He subsequently explains what he does with this rod; it is the rod which shatters to bring life, the stick which restrains the weak, the scepter which brings the dead to life.  As applied to humans, a rod (virga) is so called because it governs by its force (vi) and does not allow those who strain to break lose.  
Knox, however, having adopted the shepherd image for this verse, then has to carry it through in the three uses of the verse in the book of Revelation, where it it seems to me that the image fits even less well (in each case the left hand column is the Vulgate; middle the Douay-Rheims-Challoner, right hand side the Knox, sourced from

Revelation 2:
26 Et qui vicerit, et custodierit usque in finem opera mea, dabo illi potestatem super gentes,
26 And he that shall overcome, and keep my works unto the end, I will give him power over the nations.
26 Who wins the victory? Who will do my bidding to the last? I will give him authority over the nations;
27 et reget eas in virga ferrea, et tamquam vas figuli confringentur,
27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron, and as the vessel of a potter they shall be broken,
27 to herd them like sheep with a crook of iron, breaking them in pieces like earthenware;
28 sicut et ego accepi a Patre meo: et dabo illi stellam matutinam.
28 As I also have received of my Father: and I will give him the morning star.
28 the same authority which I myself hold from my Father. And the Star of morning shall be his.

Revelation 12:
Et peperit filium masculum, qui recturus erat omnes gentes in virga ferrea: et raptus est filius ejus ad Deum, et ad thronum ejus,
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.
She bore a son, the son who is to herd the nations like sheep with a crook of iron; and this child of hers was caught up to God, right up to his throne,

Revelation 19:

14 Et exercitus qui sunt in cælo, sequebantur eum in equis albis, vestiti byssino albo et mundo.
14 And the armies that are in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
14 the armies of heaven followed him, mounted on white horses, and clad in linen, white and clean.
15 Et de ore ejus procedit gladius ex utraque parte acutus, ut in ipso percutiat gentes. Et ipse reget eas in virga ferrea: et ipse calcat torcular vini furoris iræ Dei omnipotentis.
15 And out of his mouth proceedeth a sharp two edged sword; that with it he may strike the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God the Almighty.
15 From his mouth came a two-edged sword, ready to smite the nations; he will herd them like sheep with a crook of iron. He treads out for them the wine-press, whose wine is the avenging anger of almighty God.
16 Et habet in vestimento et in femore suo scriptum: Rex regum et Dominus dominantium.
16 And he hath on his garment, and on his thigh written: KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
16 And this title is written on his cloak, over his thigh, The King of kings, and the Lord of lords.

In praise of multiple translations

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is never rely on just one translation, but use several if at all possible, advice that Professor Kwasniewski in fact opens his post with, quoting from St Augustine.


  1. It should be kept in mind that Knox actually made two different translations of the psalms. When his version of the Old Testament was first published, it contained his translation of the psalms according to the Vulgate and, in an appendix, it also included his translation of the Pian psalter, which had only recently been revealed. Then, when his translation of the entire bible was republished in one volume, the publisher (or perhaps he) chose to replace Knox's translation of the Vulgate psalms with the Pian psalter. All editions of the Knox bible since then have been published in that way, including in the Baronius edition. So in fact Knox's translation follows the Hebrew text of the psalms because what you have there is in fact his translation of the Pian psalter.

    1. Interesting, thanks for that intriguing piece of information. How curious then that Baronius have stuck with the Pian version! Do you know if his version from the Vulgate is in print anywhere?

    2. Not to my knowledge, no, but I could be mistaken. According to this website ( ), 'The Psalms: A New Translation' was published in 1946, although I've never read it so I don't know which version that uses. Unfortunately then the only way to read his version of the Vulgate psalter, it seems, is by finding the second volume of his initial translation of the Old Testament, according to the edition that was published in two volumes in 1949.

    3. There is also (though out of print of course) the little red 'The book of psalms in Latin and English' (Burns Oates, 1947), in which the Pian Latin text is set in parallel with the Knox translation. A footnote to v. 9 says "herd them like sheep"; or, according to another reading, "shatter them."