The New Testament, the Ring of Truth, and the Difference with Mythological Legends

j.b.phillipsJ. B. Phillips (1906-1982) is perhaps best known today for his book, Your God Is Too Small. He was also a periphrastic Bible translator, working from the Greek text to put the New Testament into a breezy, British, mid-20th-century vernacular. In 1947 he published Letters to  Young Churches. In 1952, he added the Gospels, followed by the book of Acts in 1955 (The Young Church in Action). In 1958 he published the entire New Testament in Modern English, with revisions in 1961 and 1972.

In 1967 he wrote a memoir describing the experience, entitled Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony.

In it he describes his view of the text before he began his work:

I must, in common justice, confess here that for years I had viewed the Greek of the New Testament with a rather snobbish disdain. I had read the best of classical Greek both at school and Cambridge for over ten years. . . . Although I did my utmost to preserve an emotional detachment, I found again and again that the material under my hands was strangely alive; it spoke to my condition in the most uncanny way. I say “uncanny” for want of a better word, but it was a very strange experience to sense, not occasionally but almost continually, the living quality of those rather strangely assorted books. To me it is the more remarkable because I had no fundamentalist upbringing, and although as a priest of the Anglican Church I had a great respect for Holy Scripture, this very close contact of several years of translation produced an effect of “inspiration” which I have never experienced, even in the remotest degree, in any other work. (pp. 24-25)

There he describes how working directly with the Greek text changed him.

For me, the translator, this fifteenth chapter [of 1 Corinthian] seemed alive and vibrant, not with pious hope, but with inspired certainty.

Quite suddenly I realized that no man had ever written such words before. As I pressed on with the task of translation I came to feel utterly convinced of the truth of the resurrection. Something of literally life-and-death importance had happened in mortal history, and I was reading the actual words of people who had seen Christ after his resurrection and had seen men and women deeply changed by his living power.

Previously, although I had known something of the “comfort of the Scriptures” and had never thought them to be false, I must have been insulated from their reality simply because they were known as “scripture”. Now I was compelled to come to the closest possible terms with this writing and I was enormously impressed, and still am. On the one hand these letters were written over quite a period of years, but there is not the slightest discernible diminution of faith. And on the other hand it was borne in upon me with irresistable force that these letters could never have been written at all if there had been no Jesus Christ, no crucifixion and no resurrection. The more I thought about it, the more unthinkable it became that any of this new courageous, joyful life could have originated in any kind of concocted story or wishful thinking. There had been a stupendous event, and from that was flowing all this strength and utter conviction. (pp. 26-27)

Phillips also wrote about the differences between the Gospels and the myths he had read elsewhere:

It is, in my experience, the people who have never troubled seriously to study the four Gospels who are the loudest in their protests that there was no such person. I felt, and feel, without any shadow of doubt that close contact with the text of the Gospels builds up in the heart and mind a character of awe-inspiring stature and quality. I have read, in Greek and Latin, scores of myths but I did not find the slightest flavor of myth here. There is no hysteria, no careful working for effect and no attempt at collusion. These are not embroidered tales: the material is cut to the bone. One sensed again and again that understatement which we have been taught to think is more “British” than Oriental. There is an almost childlike candor and simplicity, and the total effect is tremendous. No man could ever have invented such a character as Jesus. No man could have set down such artless and vulnerable accounts as these unless some real event lay behind them. (pp. 57-58)

Phillips’s comment reminds me of something that C. S. Lewis wrote:

All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff. (C. S. Lewis, interview with J. W. Welch, BBC, July 19, 1943)