Ronald Knox was born fifty years too early. One of the few really brilliant English stylists of the 20th century, he died in 1957, shortly before Vatican Council II and the consequent need for excellent English translations of the Bible and liturgical texts.
In 1936, Father Knox had been asked by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to undertake a new translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, using contemporary language. Up to that time, the only approved English translation was the Douay-Rheims version from 1610. Knox’s translation was released in 1950. Its brilliance was recognized immediately. For example, it became the favorite version of Bishop Fulton Sheen and novelist Evelyn Waugh.
But the timing could hardly have been worse. The Knox Bible flared across the Catholic world like a comet in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the handwriting was on the wall. With the renewal of Vatican II, the Church began asking for translations directly from the original Hebrew and Greek, and Knox’s translation based on the Latin Vulgate quickly receded into the shadows. Its popularity survived long enough to awaken members of my generation, including myself, to the beauties of Scripture. It is still an excellent Bible for personal use, but now Bibles used in Catholic study must have been translated directly from the original languages. This is not because of doctrinal issues – both the Vulgate and Knox are completely orthodox — but because since the translation of the Vulgate there have been 1600 years of textual discovery and analysis.
An idea of Knox’s gift can be gauged by comparison with other modern translations. Consider, for example, the doxology in Ephesians 3:20-21, beautiful in any translation. One verse is not a survey, but it is indicative:
Here is a familiar contemporary rendition:
“He whose power is at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”
Here is Knox:
“He whose power is at work in us is powerful enough, and more than powerful enough, to carry out his purpose beyond all our hopes and dreams.”