The Four Gospels with introductions by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison

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The Four Gospels with introductions by by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison

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Category: Spirituality and Religion
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: Authorised Version (King James) text of the four Biblical Gospels, in paperback format, with modern - and varied - introductions.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847678355

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I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this book. I only skimmed through the description on Amazon, and understood that four modern writers were introducing the four Gospels. What I hadn't really taken in was that the introductions are brief - a few pages each - and that the bulk of the book consists of the Authorised Version (known as the King James Version in the USA) of the Gospels. The whole is published in a fairly trendy looking paperback format, with the idea of appealing to people who are not particularly religious, but who see the Bible as valuable ancient literature.

I've read the Gospels many times, in various translations, but not - as far as I know - in the Authorised Version (which henceforth I shall abbreviate to AV). I can appreciate that some people find beauty in the ancient language; indeed, I have some fond, albeit vague memories of school services using the AV translation of some passages. But I grew up with the less ancient Revised Standard Version, used the Good News Bible as a teenager, and as an adult use almost exclusively the New International Version. I prefer to read the Bible in everyday language, which was how it was originally written. I took Ancient Greek as an A-level, rather more years ago than I wish to remember, and was surprised to discover just how simple the original language of the New Testament was, compared to most Ancient Greek writers.

Still, I was interested to read the AV text again, wondering if, after all these years, I would find new inspiration in the old language. 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; yet the language of the AV translation is more like the language of Shakespeare than that of other first century authors. The passages were familiar to me, so I had no trouble understanding the archaic language; but much of the construction is clumsy to modern eyes, and 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. I enjoyed reading them, but did not find any revelations, nor was I moved. To someone familiar with the Gospels, they said nothing new. They asked questions about the accuracy of the stories and anecdotes, pointing out that - for instance - John's Gospel uses a significant amount of metaphor, and that each of the Gospel writers had a particular audience in mind, and adapted his writing to suit them. I accept that each of these introductions gives a personal viewpoint, which wasn't necessarily Christian, and the writing was good; but little was said that I found of any value.

At the same time, these four introductions assume a basic familiarity with the stories of Jesus; something that in today's postmodern multi-faith environment is no longer the case for a significant number of people. Anyone picking up this book without a background knowledge of the Bible would be none the wiser (quite apart from being confused by the AV language). So I'm a little at a loss to know who exactly this book is intended for. The few people I know of who are big fans of the AV are, after all, those who are highly unlikely to buy a paperback translation with introductions that cast doubt on the veracity of some of the text.

Still, the AV was a radical translation in its day, even if some of its accuracy is now contested. So this book may well appeal to those who remember it from their childhood but have not opened a Bible since, and who don't want to be bogged down with an entire New Testament. I suppose it should also appeal to those who are interested in the language of the 17th century, or who wish to study the Gospels as literature; although I would expect them to be more inclined to buy a full copy of the AV and a good commentary. Serious students of Shakespeare do not, after all, tend to pick up inexpensive paperbacks with casual introductions of just one or two plays.

Despite all my reservations I'm giving this four stars because the Bible in any format is worth reading, in my view. And it's a nicely produced paperback.

Thanks to the publishers for sending it.

If you did enjoy reading this, I'd suggest you invest in a modern edition of the New Testament (or perhaps the four Gospels). You might also be interested in The God I Don't Understand by Christopher J H Wright, which addresses general issues about God and faith from a more philosophical background.

Buy The Four Gospels with introductions by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Four Gospels with introductions by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Four Gospels with introductions by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Four Gospels with introductions by A N Wilson, Nick Cave, Richard Holloway and Blake Morrison at Amazon.com.

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