Feast of J. B. Phillips (July 21)   3 comments

Above:  J. B. Phillips

Image in the Public Domain

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JOHN BERTRAM PHILLIPS (SEPTEMBER 16, 1906-JULY 21, 1982)

Anglican Priest, Theologian, and Bible Translator

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The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs.

–J. B. Phillips, in Your God is Too Small (1961), 7

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If we are to help in the development of Christian citizens for the future it is imperative that we teach the New Testament as containing spiritual essentials for modern living.

–J. B. Phillips, from the Preface to the Student Edition (1959) of The New Testament in Modern English (1958)

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John Bertram Phillips, born in Barnes, Surrey, England, on September 16, 1906, struggled with mental distress (including depression) throughout his life and left a legacy of faith that continues to influence people positively.  Our saint’s father instilled a sense of inadequacy in young J. B.; nothing J. B. did was good enough for the old man.  Our saint did much that was impressive; he, for example, graduated from Emmanuel College, London, with honors in English and Classics.  He was briefly a schoolmaster before becoming a priest in The Church of England in 1930.  Phillips served four parishes, but his enduring influence came via writing.

Phillips translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament.  He started in London, in 1941, translating some of the epistles while sitting in a bomb shelter.  Younger members of the parish found the Authorized (King James) Version unintelligible.  Phillips, having found the alternative translations inadequate for those young people, began to translate the New Testament (beginning with epistles) for members of the flock of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lee, London.  In that project he benefited from feedback from parishioners and friend C. S. Lewis.  Also essential to the work of translation was Vera (died in December 2005, aged 94 years), whom J. B. married in 1939.  She was, in his words, his “finest critic.”  Phillips published the New Testament in phases (1947-1957) then released the revised translation in The New Testament in Modern English (1958).  Four Prophets, containing Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah, and Micah, followed in 1963.  The second edition of The New Testament in Modern England debuted in 1972.

Phillips was (and remains) a target of much criticism by fundamentalists.  He did, after all, reject the theory of verbal inspiration of the Bible and denounce total depravity, for example.  Furthermore, his classic work, Your God is Too Small (1961), summarized various inadequate God concepts, ranging from Resident Policeman to Grand Old Man to Pale Galilean, beloved of many who disliked his theology anyway.

Milder criticisms from other quarters have focused on our saint’s tendency to paraphrase when translating.  Yet, as Phillips wrote, sometimes a literal translation did not convey the meaning of a story set in one culture to readers from a different culture.  For example, Phillips wrote, the familiar

Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3)

was literally, from the Greek,

Blessed are the beggars in spirit.

This carried one connotation in Roman-occupied Judea, where there was no sizable middle class, the gap between rich and poor was great, and beggars were therefore common.  Yet how would

Blessed are the beggars in spirit

sound to citizens of the post-World War II British welfare state?  Phillips translated that verse:

How happy are those who who know their need for God, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!

Phillips, who spent his final decades focusing on writing, was able to continue mainly because of Vera.  He wrote honestly of his struggles, went to counseling, and helped others, but sometimes depression still afflicted him.  With Vera’s help our saint kept writing.  After he died, aged 75 years, at Swanage, Dorset, England, on July 21, 1982, she helped to prepare his remaining works for publication.

Phillips has long been a positive influence in my spiritual development.  Your God is Too Small has continued to challenge me to lay aside childish God concepts, idols.  His translations have helped me in Bible studies, for he avoided familiar wording that masked meanings and captured the essence via paraphrases.  For example, Phillips wrote

makes a man common

in lieu of the familiar

defiles a man.

In so doing he conveyed the essence of ritual purity laws; defilement was ubiquitous, and purity set one apart from the masses of the great unwashed.

Modern English is a moving target, of course, so certain passages of the Phillips New Testament is probably unintelligible to many young people in the English-speaking world outside England in 2018.  Some English cultural references might confuse many readers from elsewhere.  For example, O reader, consider the meaning of “common” in the English context, with the commons and The Book of Common Prayer.  Yet this is not a problem education and reading cannot correct.  Besides, the Phillips New Testament, when compared to and contrasted with more recent modern English translations, is decidedly stately and eloquent–a positive description.

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Loving God of timeless truth, we thank you for your servant J. B. Phillips,

who, through his mental struggles, glorified you and made your word intelligible to many.

May we who profess to follow you glorify you in our contexts,

bring others to saving faith in you,

and deepen the faith of many who are already in the fold.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Nehemiah 7:73b-8:12

Psalm 16

1 Corinthians 13

Matthew 28:16-20

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 9, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT COLUMBA OF IONA, ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARY AND ABBOT

THE FEAST OF SAINT GIOVANNI MARIA BOCCARDO, FOUNDER OF THE POOR SISTERS OF SAINT CAJETAN/GAETANO; AND HIS BROTHER, SAINT LUIGI BOCCARDO, “APOSTLE OF MERCIFUL LOVE”

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOSÉ DE ANCHIETA, APOSTLE OF BRAZIL AND FATHER OF BRAZILIAN NATIONAL LITERATURE

THE FEAST OF THOMAS JOSEPH POTTER, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, POET, AND HYMN WRITER

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3 responses to “Feast of J. B. Phillips (July 21)

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