Thursday, December 29, 2016

Straining at a Gnat

Matthew 23:24 in the KJV (1611)
          The subject of this post is a phrase in Matthew 23:24 in the King James Version, and how it has been treated by commentators.  (Technically this is not a text-critical question, but it arises often in discussions about the differences among English Bibles.)

          In 1909, commentator Alfred Plummer wrote, “‘Strain at a gnat’ (AV.) was originally a misprint for ‘strain out a gnat’ (Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva, RV.), the object being to avoid drinking what was declared to be unclean.”  More recently Daniel Wallace, in an article titled (ironically) Fifteen Myths About Bible Translation, used the KJV’s phrase “Strain at a gnat” as an example of “Some of the typos and blatant errors of the 1611 KJV.”  Author James D. Price has asserted that in Matthew 23:24, “The word at must be a misprint for out.”  Even Bruce Metzger wrote that the KJV’s rendering there is “A printer’s error.”
          Some commentators in the 1800’s were also confident that the KJV’s rendering was a misprint:  Adam Clarke stated in 1826 that “It is likely to have been at first an error of the press.”  Albert Barnes, in 1835, not only affirmed that “It should have been, to strain OUT a gnat,” but even proceeded to state, “So it was undoubtedly rendered by the translators.  The common reading is a misprint, and should be corrected.”  George Campbell (in 1814 and 1837), John Peter Lange (in 1884, translated by Philip Shaff), Marvin Vincent (in 1887), and A. T. Robertson (in 1932) are also part of the collection of commentators who have flatly asserted that the KJV’s rendering is a misprint, going all the way back to John Wesley in 1791.  All this may have been elicited by a comment made by Robert Lowth, who mentioned the passage in 1764 in a book on English grammar, stating that “The impropriety of the Preposition has wholly destroyed the meaning of the phrase.”
          Yet Henry Alford, on page 158 of The First Three Gospels, (published in 1863) gently opposed what some earlier commentators had claimed about the rendering:  “The “strain at a gnat” in our present auth. Vers. for “strain out a gnat” of the earlier English vss., seems not to have been a mistake, as sometimes supposed, but a deliberate alteration, meaning, “strain [out the wine] at [the occurrence of] a gnat.””  This was also the conclusion of Charles Ellicott
          In 1638, when the second Cambridge folio edition of the King James Version was released – having been carefully prepared by a team of scholars that included Samuel Ward and John Bois, who had been part of the translation-committee that had initially produced the KJV in 1611 – the rendering in Matthew 23:24 was not changed.   Now, this is not some obscure detail in a book-summary or in an apocryphal book; we are considering a phrase in the words of Jesus; if it were a printing-error, it seems strange that 27 years of scrutiny by friend and foe did not detect it. 
          There is a sound explanation for its non-detection:  it is not a printing-error.  The expression is rare and rivaled but not erroneous. Several examples of the use of the phrase “strain at a gnat” or “strain at gnats” have been found in English writings produced before, during, and shortly after the production of the KJV.  Here they are.  (Little of this, by the way, is my own research; I have sifted through data acquired by others, especially the KJV-Onlyists Will Kinney and Steven Avery, and refined what I found.)
John Whitgift
          On March 26, 1574, John Whitgift preached a sermon which was published by Henry Bynneman, with the title, A Godlie Sermon Preched Before the Queenes Maiestie at Grenewich the 26. of March last past by Doctor Whitgift, Deane of Lincolne.  In the course of this sermon, Whitgift stated the following (retaining the old spelling):  “we may say vnto them as Christ sayd vnto the Pharisies: Ye hypocrites, ye stumble at a strawe and leape ouer a blocke: ye straine at a Gnat, & swallow vp a Camell.
          In addition, on page 523 of the third volume of Whitgift’s works, one can find a sentence that runs, “Whereas M. Doctor compareth us with the Pharisees, and saith we do all to be seen of men, and that we hold down our heads in the streets, and strain at a gnat swallowing down a camel; because they are in all men’s knowledge, I will leave it to them to judge of the truth of those things.”
          In the same volume, beginning on page 586, there is an imperfect record of a sermon preached by Whitgift at St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 17, 1583 (the same year he became Archbishop of Canterbury), and on page 595, we read this part of it:  “These be they of whom Christ speaketh:  “They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.””
          In 1587, Archbishop Whitgift was busily persecuting the Separatist leaders Henry Barrow and John Greenwood (who were both executed in 1593).  In a summarized description of the claims that were being made by Barrow and Greenwood against the Church of England, Whitgift included the following in his list of their “schismatic and seditious opinions” – “That all the Precise, which refuse the Ceremonies of the Church, and yet preach in the same Church, strain at a Gnat and swallow a Cammel, and are close Hypocrites, and walk in a left-handed Policy.”
          (It was this same Archbishop Whitgift, by the way, who crowned James I the king of England.  Whitgift attended the Hampton Court Conference, but died soon afterwards in 1604.)
          In 1572, Rudolph Gwalther wrote An hundred, threescore and fiftene Homelyes or Sermons, vppon the Actes of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke, in Latin, and this was translated into English by John Bridges in 1616.   The translated text included the following sentence:  “Suche lyke things as these Chryst vpbraydeth them with in the Gospel, where he sayth they strayne at a Gnat, and swalowe downe a Camell.”  
          Also, in 1577, an English translation of sermons preached by John Calvin was published, having been translated by Arthur Golding.  To Golding, the translator, we must credit the following lines (antiquated spelling and all) as a representation of Calvin’s French words on page 260:
          “The manner then of discouering, is not too backebyte one another, or too taunt and vpbrayd one another by this and that, and too play the hipocrytes, who will streyne at a gnat, and swallowe vp and Oxe or a Sheepe at a morsell: that is too say, which will make conscience in very small and lyght matters, and not see a number of great enormities, which they suffer too passe hard by their nozes, without beeing any whit offended at them.”
          Also, in 1583, a book was published which was written by Robert Greene, called Mamillia, A Mirrour or Looking Glasse for the Ladies of England, and in it he wrote a very long sentence on page 156, of which I present a portion, with and without the antiquated spelling:
          . . . yea they accufe women of wauering when as they themfelues are fuch weathercocks as euerie wind can turne their tippets, and euerie new face make them haue a new fancy, difpraifing others as guiltie of that crime wherewith they themfelues are moft infected, moft vniuftly ftraining at a gnat, and letting paffe an elephant . . . 
          That is:  . . . Yea; they accuse women of wavering when as they themselves are such weathercocks as every wind can turn their tippets, and every new face make them have a new fancy, dispraising others as guilty of that crime wherewith they themselves are most infected, most unjustly straining at a gnat, and letting pass an elephant . . .            
George Abbot
          This evidence is further augmented by a snippet from the works of George Abbot, who was one of the KJV’s translators – he was part of the Second Company, which focused on the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation – and who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633.  Abbot wrote the following in his Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonas, Lecture 12, published in 1613 but composed before 1600 (page 254): 
        “This is a fault too common among the sons of men, to dread that which is little, and to pass by that which is more; to make a straining at a gnat, and to swallow up a whole camel.”
          And, in 1610, Thomas Gainsforth composed The Vision and Discourse of Henry the Seuenth Concerning the Unitie of Great Brittaine, and therein he wrote these lines (I have updated the spelling):
          “Some factions are in love with novelties,
          And different minds their different fancies follow;
          They shun the mean, and seek extremities,
          They strain at Gnats, and Elephants do swallow.”
Gainsforth’s reference is especially interesting because he gives no indication that he is using Matthew 23:24; the contrast (here, and in Robert Greene’s book) is between gnats and elephants, rather than between a gnat and a camel.  
          And, lastly, Roger Fenton, in 1599, wrote An Answer to William Alabaster – His Motives, in which we find the following sentence on page 30:  “Let us then leaue to straine at gnattes, and ingenuously acknowledge thus much at the first:  that all differences doe not take away the nature of the true Church.”  (In this sentence, “Let us then leave” means “Grant us then permission.”) 
From page 254 of George Abbot's
Exposition on the Prophet Jonas
Obviously all of these examples of the use of “strain at a gnat” are not typographical errors or printing-mistakes.  The expression was in use in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.  Therefore, the verdict:  death to the fiction that a printer’s error caused the KJV’s rendering in Matthew 23:24.  Those who have promoted that theory (and especially those who have presented it as a fact) should stop doing so.   
          However, it is not as if there is anything wrong with the rendering “strain out” which is found in most English translations.  The Greek term διϋλίζοντες (diulizontes) – used only here in the New Testament – refers to the act of using a strainer or filter to remove impurities from liquid.  Whether one says, “You use a filter at the sight of a gnat in your drink,” or, “You use a filter to get a gnat out of your drink,” the Greek term is well-represented.  The rendering “strain out” has the advantage of ensuring that readers do not misinterpret “strain at a gnat” to refer to the physical effort of choking on a gnat, but this does not turn “strain at a gnat” into a misprint or a mistranslation.


Daniel Buck said...

What kind of work did it take to unearth all these citations?

Daniel Buck said...

By the way, I disagree with your translation of Roger Fenton. The whole sentence is "Let vs then leaue to straine at gnattes, and ingenuously acknowledge thus much at the first: that all differences doe not take away the nature of the true Church," which is not a request for permission, but an exhortation: "Let's quit straining at gnats."