The Sharpe Translations

by V. Alex Bills

(The Bible Collector – Oct/Dec 1983)

“Samuel Sharpe, Egyptologist and Translator of the Bible” reads the title of the biography by P. W. Clayden (London. 1883). The life story of a preacher, or of a professor? No! It is the biography of a banker who never went to college or university a day in his life.

Born March 8, 1799, he early went to work at the age of 15 working in a bank. For 47 years he devoted himself successfully to banking. But even as a hard working business man, he became interested in the thrilling discoveries being made in Egypt during his time, and soon became a recognized Egyptologist, he published several books on the subject. His searching mind soon made him unhappy with the established Church, and in 1821 he joined the Unitarian Church. Twenty years before his death on July 28, 1881, Sharpe retired from business and devoted himself to Biblical studies, especially Bible translation work

Before this, however, while still in business, the first edition of his New Testament, Translated from the Text of J.J. Griesbach, was published in London by J. Green in 1840. After his retirement in 1861, he devoted full time to Biblical study, and was able to complete his The Hebrew Scriptures, Translated by Samuel Sharpe, being a Revision of the Authorised English Old Testament, London, J. Russell Smith, in 3 volumes in 1865. This is called by the Library of Congress union catalog of Bible entries as a second edition. The index to the union list does not contain a first edition. It also lists editions of 1871 and 1876.

Never completely satisfied, he continued to work over his text, and there were many alterations in the eight editions of the New Testament and the four editions of the Old Testament that culminated in The Holy Bible, Translated by Samuel Sharpe, being a Revision of the Authorised English Version, London and Edinburgh, 1881. The preface of this final edition was dated March 8. 1880, which was his eighty-first birthday.

Sharpe published a translation of Micah in 1876 (J. Hall & Son, Cambridge), and The Book of Isaiah Arranged Chronologically in a Revised Translation…with Historical Notes, London, J.R. Smith, 1877 (this according to Simonton’s file, and according to him in the British Museum catalogue.

This was the period when there was much contention for a general revision of the Bible, and many were trying their hand. Mr. Sharpe was one of a group of four Unitarian scholars, from which one was to be selected to work with the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist scholars invited to join the established Angelican Church in the work of revision which appeared in 1881-85. However, he did not join this project.

The article about Sharpe in the famous Dictionary of National Biography pays tribute to his work, saying, “he is successful beyond others in the difficulty of removing the archaisms without impairing the venerable English Bible.”

Cotton mentions the fact that “There is not a single note, original reading, nor reference, throughout the entire volume.” He should have noticed the Preface where Sharpe says, “…the aim of the Translator has been to shew in the Text, by greater exactness, those peculiarities which others have been content to point out in Notes and Commentaries.”

The fact that his version sounds so much like the KJV is explained by the preface also: “He has seldom ventured upon any great change of words, except when his own judgment was supported by that of the scholars who have gone before him in Biblical studies.” Real improvements include, besides the change of archaic words, the arrangement of the text into paragraphs, without any page or chapter headings. Verses and chapters are marked with small numerals. Speeches are indicated, and capital letters are sometimes used to indicate different subjects as with the various offerings in Leviticus. Long lists of names are arranged in tabular form. Modern forms are used for the proper names, as well as their Hebrew meaning in brackets.

He proceeded the Revisers of 1881, and the American Standard of 1901, in translating II Timothy 3:15, “All writing inspired by God is also profitable…” by using the word “writing”, it does not sound so bad as the Revisers’ use of “Scripture,” making it seem that some such is not inspired. But the Revised Standard Version of 1946 comes back to “All scripture is inspired by God.” But since most are concerned with what Paul means, more than the exact words used here, maybe Ken Taylor has the best solution in his Living Letters (1962), “The whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God.”

Being Unitarian, of course he translates Isaiah 7:14 “young woman” and Mathew 1:23 “the maiden.” He takes advantage of the absence of an article in the original of Hebrews 1:2 to substitute “a Son” for the AV “the Son.” However, he does not touch the great work “propitiate” in I John 2:2, and in Romans 3:25, where the New English Bible has taken too many liberties.

Sharpe has been too much neglected and forgotten. His name does not occur in the indexes of the Cambridge History of the Bible, Willett’s The Bible Through the Centuries, or The English Bible from KJV to NIV, by Jack P. Lewis. Only his Micah appears in Herbert’s index, and nothing in Hills’. The index to the LC National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints lists only his Micah, The O.T. of 1865, the Holy Bible of 1881, 1892 and 1894, and the New Testament of 1840.