By R. M. Davis, October 2018
Their ways are so crooked, that whosoever walks therein, knows nothing of peace — Isaiah 59:8, Matthew Bible
Certain proverbs in the Matthew Bible stand out for their practical value. In this short series I want to look at some that distinguish the behaviors and attitudes of good and bad people – what they do, how they treat others, and what motivates them. This instruction assists us to judge the people we meet and to walk wisely in the world. The proverbs were meant to teach practical wisdom and prudence (Proverbs 1:2-3), and such teaching is part of it. Of course, we cannot impose meaning upon the text that is not there. But Myles Coverdale gleaned these helpful lessons from the proverbs and translated accordingly in his 1535 Bible. Then, two years later, John Rogers incorporated Coverdale’s proverbs in the 1537 Matthew Bible.
But Coverdale’s lessons were soon lost when the Matthew Bible came under red pens. Here is a look at what happened.
Since this is the first post of the series, I’ll give a little history here.
After the Matthew Bible was published in 1537, it was revised by Coverdale himself for the 1539 Great Bible. The chief purpose was to appease the Roman Catholics, who preferred the Latin Bible translated by St. Jerome. Coverdale restored many renderings of the Latin Bible. He also bowed to pressure to be more “literal.”
Then came the 1560 Geneva Bible. It was a wholesale re-write of Tyndale’s New Testament and the Old Testament of the Great Bible, by English Puritans living in Geneva. Their revision was characterized by a great leap to grammatical literalism. Also, sometimes they followed the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 2nd century BC, where Tyndale and Coverdale had followed the Hebrew text — or vice-versa.
The Bishops’ Bible and the KJV were further, incremental revisions of the Scriptures we first received from Tyndale and Coverdale. The KJV followed the Geneva Bible quite closely, though computer studies show that the KJV New Testament is still 83% straight Tyndale from the Matthew Bible.
Literalism, the Latin Bible, following the Septuagint, or a simple preference for the familiar “old wine” of traditional doctrine, are only some of the influences that might account for some of the revisions to the proverbs that we will see in this series.
My intention is not to try to prove the Matthew Bible right and others wrong (though I unabashedly love the Matthew Bible). Even if I had a PhD in Biblical Hebrew, it would be a vain effort. Too much is ambiguous, too much lost in the mists of time, too much a matter of interpretation. I may point out problems I see with clarity, semantics, and so forth, but I know there is always room for disagreement.
Where did Coverdale get his translations? Who or what were his sources for his 1535 Bible? From his preface:
To help me herein, I have had sundry translations, not only in Latin, but also of the German interpreters [translators], whom, because of their singular gifts and special diligence in the Bible, I have been the more glad to follow for the most part, according as I was required [requested].
The most important influences were the German translators, Martin Luther and the Zurich Reformers. As to the Latin, Coverdale had Jerome and Pagninus. Also, while he was working on his Old Testament in Antwerp, he regularly met and consulted with that master linguist, William Tyndale. Tyndale could not be mentioned, however, because he was a banned author in England. I understand also that the Reformers often consulted with Jewish Old Testament scholars.
Let us see now Proverb 11:23 in the MB, being Coverdale’s original translation. From it, we learn that just people desire and labour for peace and tranquility. However, ungodly people pursue “disquietness.” They may sow disquietness in a house, office, church, or society at large, but it struck me how relevant this is to what is happening nationally now in the USA, especially with opposition and media agitations to undermine duly elected authority.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines disquietness as “the quality or state of being disquiet; want of quiet; unrest; disturbance.” The OED sample quotations speak of disquietness in home or nation (“realm”). Do you see persons or groups who agitate for unrest, disturbance, insurrection? Who deliberately upset others? Understand: they are unjust, they are motivated by evil. Understand, and govern yourself accordingly. But only Coverdale gives that lesson here:
Wycliffe 1380 (From the Latin): The desire of just men is all good; (but the) abiding of wicked men is strong vengeance.
Coverdale 1535 and the Matthew Bible: The just labour for peace and tranquility, but the ungodly for disquietness.
Great Bible 1540: The desire of the righteous is acceptable, but the hope of the ungodly is indignation.
Geneva Bible (1560 & 1599): The desire of the righteous is only good: but the hope of the wicked *is indignation.
(Geneva note: *They can look for nothing but God’s vengeance.)
KJV: The desire of the righteous is only good: but the expectation of the wicked is wrath.
NIV: The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath.
ESV: The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicked in wrath.
Wycliffe translated from the Latin Bible. In the Great Bible, we see a taste of its “old wine,” when Coverdale revised his own translation to follow the Latin Bible more closely. Coverdale’s “new wine” in 1535, his original translation, was the lesson that just people work for peace; they desire tranquility. Of course, they will not be perfect. But the thrust of their desire and deeds is for and toward this good. On the other hand, ungodly people want and work for disquietness. It is not just that they sometimes find themselves in the midst of an upset, get caught up in an argument, or are sorry because they said the wrong thing in a moment of anger. No. They intentionally labour to disturb. The idea is that very evil people will demonstrate a pattern of upsetting and disquieting, and this is deliberate.
However, it can be difficult to perceive and understand the purposeful nature of this evil. Perhaps most of us have difficulty recognizing it for what it is, even if the signs are manifest. Evil-doers are manipulative. They hide their purpose behind charm and falsehood. They divide and confuse with flattery and accusation, with fair words and foul. They posture, promise, and slander, mislead and deceive. In the case of personal abuse, a perpetrator shows one face to his victims and another to the world. In political insurrection, revolutionaries sow divisive rhetoric along with utopian lies. But this we must understand: despite the pious pretences, despite the show, where this pattern is, there is evil intent. And where evil has its way, there will be suffering.
This is a truly important teaching, but is rarely adequately addressed, so at the end of this article I give some resources that develop this and related topics.
There are many issues of translation that suggest themselves. I review several in a longer paper posted on Academia.edu, linked below, touching on such issues as loss of antithesis in some of the versions, why the KJV changed ‘hope’ to ‘expectation,’ etc. For this post, I just want to make a note on the verbs.
In Proverb 11:23, in the Hebrew text, there is no verb. In some contexts, Hebrew does not use linking verbs (‘is,’ ‘seem,’ etc.). If such is to be understood, it may be derived from word order. This was obviously suggested to the early translators who used ‘is.’ However, Coverdale in 1535, and the modern translators, understood a sense of movement or direction toward an end – albeit different ends – which they expressed by action verbs:
Coverdale (1535) and Matthew Bible: The just labour for peace and tranquility, but the ungodly for disquietness.
NIV: The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath.
In expressing the sense of working toward the desired object, Coverdale drew out a primary meaning of the English word ‘desire’:
Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Desire’: that feeling or emotion which is directed to the attainment or possession of some object from which pleasure or satisfaction is expected.
So then, from this proverb in the Matthew Bible we learn that just people find their pleasure and satisfaction in peace and tranquillity. They therefore desire it, and will labour for their desire. However, we need to understand that there are people who find their pleasure and satisfaction in disquietness, and direct themselves to that end.
(1) Quotations from modern Bibles are from BibleGateway. For Wycliffe’s Old Testament, I use Terry Noble’s modern spelling edition.
(2) The Puritans were themselves agitators. See The Puritan Rejection of the Tyndale/Matthew Bible
(3) Read The Story of the Matthew Bible for the fascinating history of this unknown Bible which formed the base of the KJV.
(4) If anyone is interested, I examined some translation issues in greater depth in this paper:
Pastor Jeff Crippen has developed a sermon series that examines evil in practice from a Christian perspective. His focus is abuse in the home or in the church, but he points out that evil operates essentially the same way everywhere. He uses a modern Bible that I don’t like, but the teaching is edifying: Link to Sermon series