Not to be confused with the American Sunday School Union, the American Bible Union (ABU) offered a series of books in the 1850-1880 period, notably:
1857 - The Book of Job ; the Common English Version the Hebrew Text and the Revised Version of the American Bible Union, by Conant, (ABU, 1857)
1858 - The Gospel According to Mark translated from the Greek on the basis of the Common English Version. With Notes.
1860 - Notes on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, as the basis of a Revision of the Common English Version; and a Revised Version, with notes. (anon., apparently written by Horatio B. Hackett) (ABU, 1860).
1861 - Tne Meaning and Use of BAPTIZEIN philologically and historically investigated, by CONANT, T.J.(1861), 8vo.
1865 - The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ The Common English Version, Corrected By the Final Committee of the American Bible Union (1865, 2nd Revision, reprinted, 1873)
1868? - The Book of Genesis the Common Version Revised for the American Bible Union with Explanatory Notes, Conant (1868?)
1873 - Bible Primer, To Teach The Millions To Read God's Word. (Anon., ABU, 1873)
(A more complete list of these proto-Revised-Version attempts can be found here:
This earlier more conservative attempt at revision (pre RV 1881) shows more clearly what was originally intended by the Americans, and what sources were used.
Insight into the origin and intent of the American early revisers can be found scattered among the prefaces and introductions to these preliminary publications, as well in the the books independently published by these same authors.
For example, On page v. of the intro for the Gospel of Mark (1858), we get:
Critical Editions of the Greek Testament [consulted]:
1809 - Griesbach
1820 - Knapp
1830 - Fritzche GNT w. Comm.
1839[?] Bloomfield GNT w. Comm. [1839-1847]
1842 - Tittman, ed. Prof. Robinson NY
1846 - Lachmann [2nd critical ed]
1850 - Scholz (Bagster's)
1850 - Tischendorf [3rd ed.?]
1856 - Theile
As well as Five Editions of the TR:
1653 - Erasmus
1624 - Elzevir / 1707 - Mill (Bagster's)
1831 - Leusden (reprinted)
1831 - Prof. Wilson's ed.
???? - emendations from Robinson's Harmony of the Gospels.
IN that same edition, we are given the
General Rules for th Direction of Translators and Revisers employed by the ABU"
" 1. The exact meaning of the inspired text, as that text expressed it to those who understood the original Scriptures at the
time they were first written, must be translated by corresponding words and phrases, so far as they can be found, in the vernacular
tongue of those for whom the version is designed, with the least possible obscurity or indefiniteness.
" 2. Wherever there is a version in common use, it shall be made the basis of revision, and all unnecessary interference with
the established phraseology shall be avoided ; and only such alterations shall be made as the exact meaning of the inspired text
and the existing state of the language may require.
" 3. Translatious or revisions of the New Testament shall be made from the received Greek text, critically edited, with known
"SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO THE REVISERS OF THE ENGLISH NEW TESTAMENT.
"1. The Common English Version must be the basis of the revision: the Greek Text, Bagster & Sons' octavo edition ['TR' = Scholz]
" 2. Whenever an alteration from that version is made on any authority additional to that of the reviser, such authority must
be cited in the manuscript, either on the same page or in an appendix.
" 3. Every Greek word or phrase, in the translation of which the phraseology of the Common Version is changed, must be
carefully examined in every other place in which it occurs in the New Testament, and the views of the reviser be given as
to its proper translation in each place."
These rules seem to have allowed an unforeseen degree of freedom in regard to the original Greek, an ambiguity which other parts of the rules clearly intended to avoid (the potential for and real abuse of such well-intended rules in regard to the English Revised Version is well-documented).
But in spite of conservative sentiments and attempts to contain revision within reasonable limits, there was an ethos, a rather less precise and dangerously vague attitude among these early revisers, which left them and their work open to tragic errors in their handling of the NT text.
We can find revealing glimpses of some of this attitude in other publications, not directly under control of the ABU.
For instance, Horatio b. Hackett had already published:
1858 - A Commentary on the Original Text of the Acts of the Apostles H.B. Hackett (revised 1858),
On the one hand, Hackett encourages a healthy Protestant historical/critical approach. In regard to Acts, he says,
"No person can be prepared to read the Epistles of the NT with the greatest advantage until he has made himself familiar with the external history of the Apostle Paul, and with his character and spirit, as Luke has portrayed him in his narrative. Those portions...must be thoroughly mastered before any proper foundation is laid for exegetical study of the Epistles."Again, Hackett explains,
"It is the object of these notes to assist the reader in the acquisition of this knowledge and discipline; to enable him to form his own independent view of the meaning of the sacred writer..., and at the same time, furnish himself to some extent with those principles and materials of criticism which are common to all parts of the Bible. ...and to promote a habit of careful study and of self-reliance ...a result beyond any other which the writer has been anxious to accomplish. ...The grammatical references and explanations will enable the student to judge of the consistency of the interpretations given with the laws of Greek language. The authorities cited will show the state of critical opinion on all passages that are supposed to be uncertain or obscure."(- H.B. Hackett, Preface to Acts, Newton Theol. Inst., Oct 31, 1851)
So far, so good. But now let us turn to another book, perhaps where Hackett has expressed himself in a more unguarded fashion. In his Notes on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, (ABU, 1860), Hackett explains more clearly his idea of Bible translation:
"An exposition of the text, as a mental process at least, on the part of the interpreter (though the results may not be written out), must precede a translation. The Notes, therefore, here laid before the reader, have the same interest and value as a means of understanding the text of the Epistle, as if they were unaccompanied by a revision of the Common English Version.
But the other portion of the work has also its separate claims on the attention of the Biblical student. An addition of this nature has become, within a few years, a common feature in the best exegetical works published in this country, and in
England. The fact sets forth an important truth. It is felt more and more that critical attempts to explain the meaning of the Scriptures should, as the proper test of their definiteness and precision, terminate in an endeavor to express the sense as nearly as possible in our own language ; and furthermore, that they must assume this form, in order to render such studies available in any great degree to the bulk of English readers.
The topic last suggested here deserves a word further. This matter of the history of the current translation of the Bible, and a comparison of its renderings, with those of the preceding translations,* out of which the Common Version has arisen, are opening to us a range of study, comparatively new and attractive certainly to those who enter upon it. Some of the best scholars of the day are giving their attention to it. The student of English literature will reap profit as well as gratification from it.
The different epochs of our language are well marked in the style of the different versions. We learn, thence, that the English race, even since the dawn of Protestantism, and during some of the most effective periods of the national development, have not been dependent upon any single translation of the Bible, but have received their knowledge of the gospel through various channels. It is no disservice to be taught that the power of Christianity resides in its doctrines and ideas, and not in any set of words or phrases which it may outgrow with the advance of Biblical science, and the mutations of language, and must then, or should, discard for other forms. It is seen from such recurrence to the past, to be the wisdom of the church, to which have been committed the Oracles of God, to open promptly every source of religious knowledge to the many as well as the few. The names of Wiclif, Tyndale, Frith, Coverdale, are witnesses how slowly this truth has made its way in the world, in regard to the use and treatment of translations of the Sacred word into the vernacular tongue of a people. The history of the English Bible has been, from first to last, a singular history of conflicts between an excessive conservatism on the one hand, and the promptings of a more expansive religious spirit on the other, and a history, at the same time, of victories on the side of truth and progress. It is well that the public mind is turning itself back to inquiries which are so interesting and adapted to reassert and enforce principles of vital importance.
There is much misapprehension still, I imagine, respecting the precise nature of the enterprise, in the interest of which this volume has been prepared. The object is not to supersede, but revise the current Version of the English Scriptures. A new translation of the original text, and a revision of the translation of that text, are very diflferent things; and yet, different as they are, are confounded by many persons who would not be unfriendly to what is attempted, if they would keep in mind this important distinction. It is not proposed to discard the present Version; to cast away its manifold advantages ; to introduce rash and doubtful innovations ; to substitute a cumbrous Latinized style for the simple, nervous, idiomatic English, which brings the familiar Version so home to the hearts of the people ; but simply to do upon the work of our translators what they did upon that of their predecessors; to survey it afresh in the light of the knowledge which has been gained during the more than two centuries since they passed away ; to make such changes, and such only, as the general verdict of the best scholarship of the age has pronounced to be due to truth and fidelity ; to make these changes in a style of delicate harmony with the present language of the English Bible ; to confirm its accuracy, where it is correct, against false or unsupported interpretations, as well as to amend it where it is confessedly incorrect ; and thus, in a word, carry forward from our position, if we might, the labors of the revisers (for such they were) of James' age, as they carried forward the labors of the generations before them.The important idea here is the concept of "dynamic" or idiomatic translation, although it is not yet articulated with any sensible scientific restraint. The view promotes the idea of multiple forms of verbal expression, i.e., with all translations being somehow equal or equally inspired.
On some other occasion I may have an opportunity to speak of the Greek text on which the revision is founded, and some other kindred topics. I have endeavored to unfold the contents of the Epistle with candor and impartiality, and would hope that those who may examitie the work will judge of it in the same spirit. ...
* It can not have escaped notice that the various English readings have began to form an important new material in our works of Biblical criticism. Professor Alexander of the Princeton Theological Seminary, whose recent death is a calamity to the cause of sacred learning, has enriched greatly his New Testament Commentaries by his copious illustrations of this character. "
Certainly accuracy and precision in translation indeed requires idiomatic forms, and may also require language updating as language evolves. But the dangerous effect of free expression, namely corrosion of meaning and the authority of the written, inspired word of God, has simply not yet occurred to American Protestants (c. 1860s).
The natural evolution of the unrestrained idea, is that if God's word can have many forms, and if some forms seem contradictory, or remove, or add to other forms, these forms can be and must be error-prone, if not error-ridden. Its a short step from here to assigning an equally low priority and accuracy to ANY form of the word of God, with the attendant consequences, namely that people will pick and choose what they perceive to be "the word of God", inevitably selecting what is convenient and appealing, while rejecting what is inconvenient or unappealing. Which is precisely the state of confusion over modern 'versions' that we have now.