The Fascinating Life of Charles Thomson

11 12 2008

I recently picked up the book “The Bible in Translation” by Bruce M. Metzger, and it is a very interesting read.  It covers a history of the translation of the Bible and while only half way through it, I have learned some very amazing things about the journey God’s words have taken to the versions we have today.

One of the translations mentioned is Charles Thomson’s Bible.  Charles Thomson has the distinction of creating and printing the first translation of the Bible into English in America.  While this may be in itself an interesting factoid, I found the story of his life quite fascinating.

Childhood & Schooling

Charles was a native of Ireland and boarded a boat for the New World with his father and siblings in 1739.  Within sight of their new home, Charles’ father died.  Since their mother had died back in Europe, Charles and his siblings were now orphans.  The ship’s captain seized the family assets and distributed the children to acquaintances in Delaware willing to raise them.  Unwilling to become a blacksmith’s endentured apprentice, Charles ran away.  He fell upon a kind family who were impressed with his desire to learn and study.  Thus began his scholarly pursuits of the classics.

After his education in Pennsylvania, he moved back to Delaware to open his own school.  Eventually he became a Greek and Latin tutor at Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Academy (later to become the University of Philadelphia).

Thomson also served as a liason for the Native Americans of Delaware seeking to protect them from predatory practices on the part of the settlers.  His reputation for honesty and credibility earned him a special moniker from the Indians: “The Man Who Speaks the Truth”.

The American Revolution

After some lackluster business endeavors, Charles threw himself headlong into politics at the crest of the American Revolution.  He was unanimously selected as the secretary of the Continental Congress and dutifully took notes and minutes as the United States of America were forged.  The first draft of the Declaration of Independance was penned and signed by Charles, and his last act as secretary was to ride from Pennsylvania to Mt. Vernon to notify George Washington of his election to the position of President and escort him to the inaugaration in New York.  Throughout his political career, Charles was regarded as possessing the utmost level of character, honesty, and faithfulness.

Translating

Following the Revolution, Charles retired to a family farm in Pennsylvania.  It was here that he contemplated two concerns he had regarding attacks on the Word of God by naysayers:

1. Perceived inconsistencies in the gospels
2. Perceived misquotes of the Old Testament in the New Testament

Thomson was aware that when NT writers quoted the OT, they were using the Septuagint, which would explain the difference in wordings.  Translations of the day (and now) used older Hebrew texts as their source, not the Greek of the Septuagint.  Thomson was hence shocked to find that no English translation of the Septuagint existed.

He then determined himself to translate the entire Bible, using the Septuagint as the source for the OT in an effort to emphasize its unity.  The result is held in high regard among scholars, but didn’t make a lot of traction with the current day Church.  In addition to it’s continuity, it is praised for connecting with the language of the people who would be reading it in the early 1800s.  Here is an excerpt of a famous passage:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall want nothing.  In a verdant pasture he hath fixed my abode.  He hath fed me by gently flowing water and restored my soul.  He hath led me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  For though I walk amidst the shades of death: I will fear no ills, because thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff have been my comfort.  Thou hast spread a table before me; in the presence of them who afflict me.  With oil thou has anointed my head; and thine exhilarating cup is the very best.  The mercy will surely follow me all the days of my life; and my dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord to length of days.” Psalm 23

Despite actually losing money on the publishing of his Bible, Thomson then began work on “A Synopsis of the Four Evangelists”.  This work aligned the entire text of the four gospels in parallel columns and, in his words, “removed the seeming inconsistencies with which they are charged and shown that instead of contradicting, they strengthen and confirm one another’s narrative.”

I am thankful for this brother’s dedication to defending the Word of God and making scripture accessible to any and all who wanted it.  While his work may be lost in the shadow of the King James era of supremacy, learning more about him has challenged me to be more thankful for the resources we American Christians have today.  I hope it has done the same for you.

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