Hilary Day: Postwar Bible Translations — The New Testament translated by J B Phillips ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Phillips’ translation of the New Testament was started during the Second World War. He began with the Epistles which were published in 1947 under the title Letters to Young Churches. His translation of the Gospels followed in 1952; that of the Acts of the Apostles — The Young Church in Action — in 1955 and The Book of Revelation in 1957. He also translated four prophetic books from the Old Testament, published in 1963. He later set about a complete revision of his New Testament which was published in 1972. This is readily available in paperback with a picture of the Graham Sutherland Tapestry in Coventry Cathedral on the cover.[1]

Phillips relates the history of his task in the Introduction to the new edition. “I began the work of translation as long ago as 1941, and the work was undertaken primarily for the benefit of my Youth Club, and members ofmy congregation, in a much-bombed parish in SE London. I had almost no tools to work with apart from my own Greek Testament and no friends who could help me in this particular field. I felt then that since much of the New Testament was written to Christians in danger, it should be particularly appropriate for us who, for many months, lived in a different, but no less real, danger. I began with the Epistles since most of my Christian members had a least a nodding acquaintance with the Gospels, but regarded the Epistles as obscure and difficult and therefore largely unread. In those days of danger and emergency I was not over-concerned with minute accuracy, I wanted above all to convey the vitality and radiant faith as well as the courage of the early Church.”[2]

He laid out his philosophy of translation in the Tranlator's Preface to Letters to Young Churches.

  1. As far as possible the language used must be such as is commonly spoken, written and understood at the present time.

  2. When necessary the translator should feel free to expand or explain, while preserving the original meaning as nearly as can be ascertained.

  3. The Letters should read like letters, not theological treatises. Where the Greek is informal and colloquial, the English should be the same.

  4. The translation (or in some cases, the paraphrase) should ‘flow’ and be easy to read. Artificial ‘verses’ should be discarded, though cross-headings can be introduced to divide the letters into what seem to be their natural sections.

  5. Though every care must be taken to make the version accurate, the projected value of this version should lie in its ‘easy-to-read’ quality. For close meticulous study, existing modern versions should be consulted.[3]

Phillips worked exclusively from his Greek Testament making no recourse to AV with its ‘hallowed associations’, so he, like Tyndale, was producing a completely new translation. Phillips believed strongly that Paul did not know that his letters would be regarded as Holy Scripture and that the translator should not attempt to iron out perceptible and, to Phillips, naturally human, inconsistencies. This attitude allowed him a certain freshness of approach which is reflected in the style of the translation.

I give here as example Romans 8:18ff, with Tyndale and AVfor comparison.


D For I suppose that the afflictions of this life, are not worthy of the glory which shall be showed upon us. Also the fervent desire of the creatures abideth looking when the sons of God shall appear, because the creatures are subdued to vanity against their will: but for his will which subdueth them in hope. For the very creatures shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.


18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectaion of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. 20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. 21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Phillips (1957) Present Distress is Temporary and Negligible

VIII,18 In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see Reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God's purpose it has been so limited — yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!

By 1972 Phillips had replaced ‘God has planned for us’ with ‘God has in store for us’, and had removed the upper case from ‘reality’; I am happy to report that creation remains on tiptoe. (REB has: ‘The created universe is waiting with eager expectation’ — more sedate by less charming.)

It is well to remember that Phillips first produced his translation in a climate of opinion which necessitated the defensive line taken by C S Lewis in his Introduction to Letters to Young Churches. Lewis refers to those who ‘feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words (of the AV altered; it seems to them irreverent.’[4] Lewis draws the comparison with the sixteenth century when pious people objected to the Scriptures being translated from the “time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin ... and put into ‘language such as men to use’ — language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.”[5] Half a century after Lewis wrote this, similar sentiments continue to be voiced, but the original sense of outrage has diminished.

Mindful of the readers for whom his translation was intended, Phillips furnished brief abstracts at the beginning of each Epistle, giving its author, date, destination and theme. He divided the writings into sections with headings such as the one quoted above in Romans 8. In his 1972 revision he has also included the traditional verse numberings in the margin.

Phillips felt that there were three essential principles of translation: that it must not read like a translation at all; that the translator must not obtrude his own style and personality; and the translation should as much as possible produce the same effect on its readers as did the original. He is espousing that type of translation known as ‘dynamic equivalence’. Eugene Nida explains that “in such a translation one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language message with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship, that the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message.”[6] Nida cites Phillips' rendering of Romans 16:16 as a good example of dynamic equivalence. Tyndale's ‘Salute one another with an holy kiss’, adopted by AV, becomes in Phillips ‘Give each other a hearty hand-shake all round in Christian love.’ This sounds frightfully British but is perilously close to the ‘cultural adaptation’ which Nida censures elsewhere.[7] Whilst Phillips asserted that the translator is not a commentator, he has taken it upon himsef to adapt certain passages to suit the culture of his day, thereby introducing ideas which were alien to the culture of the original text, as for example, when he write in Luke 13:11 of “a woman who for eighteen years had been ill from some psychological cause.” (Tyndale and AV: And behold there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years.)

Although anxious to produce an ‘easy-to-read’ language, relevant to his modern audience, he was aware of the differences in style between the original documents. He claimed that most of the New Testament books were written in the colloquial everyday language of their time, but he also felt that the style of his translation of the Old Testament prophetic books should reflect the ‘higher’ style of the original. The same was true of the book of Revelation.

In his Translator's Preface to the Book of Revelation, as he calls it, Phillips writes of the peculiarity of the Greek which ‘piles word upon word remorselessly, mixes cases and tenses without apparent scruple, and shows at times a complete disregard for normal syntax and grammar.’[8] He comes to the conclusion that the writer had written down his ecstatic experience ‘during the visions’ (his italics).[9] He believed, therefore, that he had no right to correct what the original writer had scrupled to modify and his only claim in his new translation was to remove some of the obscurities of archaic language. The result is quite different from the style of the Letters. Here is Revelation 1:12ff.


And I turned back to see the voice that spake to me. And when I was turned: I saw seven golden candlesticks, and in the midst of the candlesticks, one like unto the son of man clothed with a linen garment down to the ground, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head, and his hairs were white, as white wool, and as snow: and his eyes were as a flame of fire: and his feet like unto brass, as though they burnt in a furnace: and his voice as a sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars. And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword. And his face shone even as the sun in his strength.


12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; 13 and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a linen garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. 14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; 15 and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. 16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: And his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.

Phillips (1957)

I turned to see whose voice it was that was speaking to me, and when I had turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among these lampstands I saw someone like a Son of Man. He was dressed in a long robe with a golden girdle about His breast; His head and His hair were white as snow-white wool, His eyes blazed like fire, and His feet shone as the finest bronze glows in the furnace. His voice had the sound of a great waterfall, and I saw that in His right hand He held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of His mouth, and His face was ablaze like the sun at its height.

Apart from using lower case for ‘His’ in the 1972 revision, this remains the same.

I have used the word ‘revision’ but Phillips himself saw his 1972 edition as a new translation ‘from the latest and best Greek text published by the United Bible Societies in 1966 and recognised by scholars of all denominations as the best source available.’[10] One of the reasons he gives for having attempted the task of retranslation was that, somewhat to his own surprise, the ‘Phillips’ was being used as an authoritative version in Study Groups. His original writings had led him into paraphrase and sometimes into interpolating clarifying comments not in the original Greek. He had to curb his ‘youthful enthusiasms,’[11] so he felt compelled to delete (‘not without some pangs of regret’[12]) most of his conversationally-worded additions in the Letters of Paul, such as ‘as I am sure you realise’ or ‘you must know by now.’

It is perhaps surprising that in his revision he did not choose to alter his rendering of the opening verses of Matthew 8:26 (Tyndale, AV: why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?), where he employs a peculiarly Germanic construction nowhere used in these islands: ‘Why are you so frightened, you little-faiths?’

Readers may like to look at Phillips' (1972) rendering of the opening verses of Hebrews (Phillips entitles it Letters to Jewish Christians) which I quoted in my article on the NEB and REB.

God, who gave to our forefathers many different glimpses of the truth in the words of the prophets, has now, at the end of the present age, given us the truth in the Son. Through the Son God made the whole universe, and to the Son he has ordained that all creation shall ultimately belong. This Son, radiance of the glory of God, flawless expression of the nature of God, himself the upholding power of all that is, having effected in person the cleansing of men's sin, took his seat at the right hand of the majesty on high — thus proving himself, by the most glorious name that he had been given, far greater than all the angels of God.

This for me presents a more satisfactory and accessible reading of this difficult passage than even the improved REB's: Phillip's felicitous ‘glimpses of the truth’ conveys so much more than NEB's ‘fragmentary and varied fashion’ or REB's ‘many and varied ways.’

The reader is eagerly carried along by the breathless, urgent style of Phillips' translation of Mark's Gospel, which seems to reflect so well the tone of the evangelist's message, a message which must have spoken to Phillips' readers in the same way as Tyndale's fresh translation in the sixteenth century. It is hard to resist taking the parallel further: Tyndale and Phillips, both alone with their Greek Testaments; both in considerable, though different, danger; both in the face of fierce antagonism burning to transmit for the ploughboy and the Youth Club in bombed-out London the transforming message of hope for all contained in the words of Scripture.


  1. Fount Paperback, Fontana Books, 1972

  2. The New Testament in Modern English, Fontana 1972, p vii

  3. Letters to Young Churches, 1957, p xi

  4. op cit, p viii

  5. op cit, p viii

  6. Nida, Eugene A, Toward a Science of Translating Leiden, E J Brill, 1964, p 159

  7. Nida, Eugene A and Taber, Charles R, The Theory and Practice of Translating, Leiden, E J Brill, 1982, p 134

  8. Translator's Preface, Book of Revelation, 1957, p xii

  9. op cit, p viii

  10. Introduction to the New edition, 1972, p vii

  11. op cit, p viii

  12. op cit, p ix