01/05/2010

The Four Gospels (Canongate edition)

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book when I was sent it for review by The Bookbag site. It's published in a modern paperback format, designed to appeal to people who see the Bible as valuable literature, whether or not they believe in its contents. It turns out that the bulk of the book consists of the Authorised Version (known as the King James Version in the USA) of the Gospels; each of the four Gospels has an introduction by a different writer.

While I've read the Gospels many times in other translations, my only forays into the Authorised Version (AV) were back in my school-days, during end-of-term services. While I can appreciate that some people find beauty in the ancient language, I prefer more up-to-date versions that - in my view - reflect better the simplicity of the Ancient Greek in which the New Testament was originally written.

I was interested to read the AV text, wondering if the old language would inspire me. But I didn't. I'm not a poet, nor a big fan of historical language out of context. The events described did not take place in the early 17th century, after all. I had no trouble understanding the archaic language since the passages are familiar to me, but much of the construction is clumsy to modern eyes; many of the words no longer in current usage.

I read the four introductions with considerable interest. I was not familiar with any of the writers (A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison) but the blurb on the back of the book stated that they had written 'revelatory essays' with 'piercing, moving....responses' to the life of Jesus. Sadly, I did not find this to be true. They asked questions, and pointed out a few things that modern readers might be unaware of... but there was nothing piercing or moving about any of them.

Indeed, I'm not entirely sure who would find them so - since despite pointing out a few basic facts about the writing of the Gospels, these introductions assumed a basic familiarity of the stories in advance. Anyone with even the barest minimum Bible knowlege would surely know already that (for instance) the books of Matthew and Luke are partly based on Mark's account, and that John is full of metaphor. Many people these days have no knowledge of the Bible at all, but if they were picking this up, quite apart from struggling with the AV language, they would need much simpler introductions.

Perhaps this volume might appeal to those who are interested in the language of the 17th century, or who wish to study
the Gospels as literature. But I would expect people in these categories to be more inclined to buy a full copy of the AV and a good commentary.

Still, it's a nicely produced paperback.

(My longer review of 'The Four Gospels' can be found on the Bookbag site)

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