I miss the whited sepulchers

Of course, ol’ St, Jerome would be unhappy that we’re not using his Latin version…

You know, I appreciate the efforts of various people to make Holy Scripture accessible to modern people. I do; it’s a noble motivation.

But sometimes it just leaves me flat, and I regret the poetry that has been lost.

Here is the opening of today’s Gospel reading, in the Catholic Church’s official New American Bible:

Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing….

I’m not trying to make any theological point, much less a political one. In fact, as I suggested above, I suppose the correct theological point is to make the Word more accessible.

But it does bother me a little to imagine future generations missing out on the old wording. It survived to be a secular cliche because it had a certain power to it. You call somebody a “whited sepulcher,” and most people with even a modicum of cultural education will get it.

So for fun, and to gratify the esthetic part of the soul, here’s the old King James version (you know, the Protestant version):

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity…

Meanwhile, I’ll sit here and worry about the editors of the next edition of the NAB deciding to ditch “Woe to you…” because it “sounds like Yoda or something…”

I mean, they already got rid of the “unto”…


7 thoughts on “I miss the whited sepulchers

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I don’t like it when they do this to Shakespeare, either…. Although I suppose it’s a good idea if, once this has been done to let schoolkids know what’s going on, they develop a deep interest in the original.

    But how often does that happen? No, I’m asking. Maybe it happens a lot…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, it’s different.

      Bible passages are about the meaning. Understanding what is being said is far more important than the esthetics.

      Shakespeare is more about the language. I mean, take the language away from, say, Romeo and Juliet, and what have you got? West Side Story, I guess.

      Not to dis Bernstein. But it isn’t the same as Shakespeare…

    2. Ken

      And maybe sometimes it takes a long time to happen.

      For example, I’ve been reading The Canterbury Tales — in a prose version that I got while in college, but never got around to until recently. I was exposed to the verse version (and even the Middle English version) decades ago, was intrigued, but the verse form (and archaic terms) made for difficult reading — and impeded a fuller understanding. The prose version clears up all the details, opening up better access to the original — which, obviously, is more musical.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Good points.

        For instance, I’m pretty sure at this point in my life that I’m never going to read The Iliad in the original Greek.

        But I’m quite ashamed I still haven’t read it in English. I have a copy (and I’m pretty sure I could download another for free onto my iPad), so no excuses. But I just haven’t quite motivated myself to do so. I didn’t even finish watching the televised version (only loosely based on the original) on Netflix. The first episode was very engaging, but then it started to drag…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          My problem with that TV series was probably my prejudice toward origin stories. The ones in which the hero learns the great secret about himself. The Matrix, in which Neo learns he is The One. Dune, in which Paul learns he is the Kwisatz Haderach. The Sword in the Stone, in which Wart learns he is the king. The first Harry Potter, when he learns he’s a wizard — an’ a thumpin’ good’un.”

          After that, the sequels are a drag. Except the other books in The Once and Future King are good. But come on, that’s The Matter of Britain, so it has to be good…

  2. Kathleen

    It reads almost as though Hemmingway had a go at it. It gets the point across but lacks (take your pick). Iniquity sounds so much more wicked than evildoing. Ditch “Woe to you” and nothing memorable is left.

    1. Ken

      I like old words as much as anybody. But “evildoing”/”evildoer” is as good a word as “iniquity.” It is not as Bible-weighted/fraught and goes straight to the direct effects that iniquity has in human society. In short, it exposes what iniquity may obscure.

      Likewise with “woe to you/thee” — which is forever captured by its biblical context. It suggests an external judge waiting to render an eventual verdict on the sinner (likely in an afterlife), where the focus should be on the wrongdoer and their actions directed toward their fellows.

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