Luther Allan Weigle

Luther Allan Weigle, from the 1976 book The Glory Days: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle, compiled by Luther’s son, longtime St. John’s College President Richard Weigle. Used with permission of Friendship Press.

In St. John’s circles the name “Weigle” immediately evokes our own Richard Daniel Weigle, President of the College for thirty-one years and the man whose vision, energy, and dedication to our distinctive model of liberal arts education ultimately brought St. John’s College to Santa Fe. Dick Weigle, however, was not the only member of his family to leave a lasting mark upon the world of education and of great books. His father, Luther Allan Weigle, a prolific writer and professor of Philosophy who served for twenty-one years as Dean of Yale’s Divinity School, was a force in his own right, and an individual whose efforts on behalf of an influential translation of one particular work on our Program ought perhaps to be more widely known in our own community. 

Among the Meem Library’s primary mandates is to collect comprehensively English translations of all Program works. In the case of the Bible, a compendium of writings with roots in three distinct languages that was assembled in variously evolving forms over the course of more than a millennium, the perennial question so often raised at St. John’s of just which translation to read becomes especially complex, given the sprawling diversity of editions and options available on our Library’s shelves. Perhaps one distinguishing characteristic of our particular College is that here, in the course of both our Language Tutorials and our Seminars, we explicitly acknowledge that the questions arising around the issues of translation are themselves fundamental and deeply interesting and not merely incidental to the reading itself. With respect to the Bible, significant portions of which we read here in both our undergraduate and our liberal arts graduate programs, these questions become especially fraught, for the implications of translation can be momentous not only for seminar discussion but also for what finally stands as theological doctrine.

It was in this arena of Biblical translation that Luther Allan Weigle left his name most prominently in the annals of history. For nearly four decades Luther Weigle served as chair of a committee of scholars appointed by the National Council of Churches, which represented 44 different Protestant denominations, to draft a new translation of the Bible, a translation that in 1952 was published with much fanfare as the Revised Standard Version, a thorough revision of the American Standard Version of 1901 that was itself a revision of the King James Version first published in 1611. The rationale behind this new translation was clearly laid out by Weigle in his essay “The Revised Standard Version of the Bible”, as follows:

1. The King James Version was based upon a few late medieval manuscripts, and these, especially in the New Testament, contained the accumulated errors of many centuries of manuscript copying.

2. The previous seventy-five years has been an age of discoveries in the archaeology of the Near East and has afforded to scholars new knowledge of the history, geography, and cultures of Biblical lands and rich new resources for understanding the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms of the Biblical languages.

3. The seventeenth-century English of the King James Version is increasingly a barrier between it and the reader. The greatest problem is presented by the hundreds of English words that are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in the King James Version. These words were accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures in 1611 but had become misleading.

4. The general excellence of the King James Version as “the noblest monument of English prose” must not blind us to the fact that it contains a substantial number of errors in translation, some infelicities of expression, and some renderings that are ambiguous or obscure.

Upon its publication the Revised Standard Version was for the most part well-received, selling two-and-half million copies in its very first year. But it was also not without controversy, occasioning at least two actual book burnings (one in Ohio and one in North Carolina) by those who saw some of its translational choices as both “pro-Communist” and outrightly heretical. Much of this controversy centered on its rendering of Isaiah 7:14, which in the King James Version reads: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The Revised Standard Version translates the original Hebrew word almah more literally as “a young woman,” which changes this same verse to the following: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Since this particular passage of Isaiah has often been read as prophesying the virgin birth of Jesus, this translational choice immediately put a spotlight on the Standard Bible Committee and on Luther Weigle himself, who pointed out that this translational correction in Isaiah did not in any way alter the Greek of the New Testament, in which the word “παρθένος” remains translated as “virgin.” Weigle, himself a Christian, thus remained a staunch defender and advocate of the accuracy of the RSV for the remainder of his days.

For those interested in learning more about the challenges of Biblical translation generally and the Revised Standard Version project specifically, the 1999 documentary “The Bible Under Fire,” in which Luther Weigle figures prominently, makes for a fascinating watch:

1999 documentary featuring Luther Allan Weigle

Luther Weigle, who over his many decades of teaching, Divinity School deanship, and chairmanship of the Standard Bible Committee authored more than a dozen books and more than a hundred articles on all manner of topics theological, remained vigorous and productive until his passing in 1976 at the age of 95. That very same year his son Richard, then just a few years from his own retirement as longtime president of St. John’s College, compiled a small volume of his father’s core writings which was published by Friendship Press under the title The Glory Years: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle. This volume, two copies of which the Library owns, includes a detailed account and defense by Luther Weigle of the reasoning behind the Revised Standard Version and many of the specific translational choices the committee had ultimately made (the same account from which the above-quoted passage is drawn). In addition, it includes a poignant Foreword by Dick and two personal reminiscences by Dick’s two sisters, reflecting the three sibling’s deep pride in and affection for both of their parents.

The Meem Library collection also include several other titles with connections to Luther Weigle. Two of these, The Genesis Octapla: Eight English Versions of Genesis in the Tyndale-King James Tradition and The New Testament Octapla: Eight English Versions of the New Testament in the Tyndale-King James Tradition, were edited by Luther Weigle and include lengthy introductions by him, with one of our copies of the New Testament Octapla also signed by him. Each of these titles presents in parallel eight different historically significant English Biblical translations: the Tyndale (1530), Great Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1560), Bishop’s Bible (1568), Douay (1609), King James (1611), and Revised Version (1881), culminating with the Revised Standard Version (1952) to which Luther had devoted so much of his own life. This parallel format allows for clear facing-page comparisons of the RSV’s specific translational choices with seven other translations spanning more than four centuries, providing a feast for both the scholarly and the simply curious.

Also in the Library’s collection is a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary inscribed by Luther Weigle to his granddaughter (Dick Weigle’s daughter) Marta on November 25, 1969. This book came to the Meem Library following Marta’s passing in Santa Fe in 2018. Of particular interest is the original invoice from Blackwell’s, which remained tipped into the book; its date of May 24, 1955, suggests that this particular volume was likely Luther’s own personal copy for many years before he ultimately passed it along to his elder granddaughter as he neared his 90th year.

Marta, who attended the College in the Annapolis class of ’65 before going on to complete her undergraduate degree at Harvard, was later to find her own renown right here in New Mexico as both a professor of Anthropology and American Studies for forty years at the University of New Mexico and as a writer of numerous books on New Mexico history and folklore, along with several works on women and mythology. Richard’s younger daughter, Constance (“Connie”), was herself a member of the first graduating class at the Santa Fe campus, ultimately going on to attend the same Yale Divinity School at which her grandfather Luther had served as Dean for more than two decades.

Marta Weigle at the board in William Darkey’s Mathematics class
Constance (Connie) Weigle, SF68

Taken together, these several books connect three generations of one remarkable family of educators and scholars, a family whose name, like those of Barr and Buchanan, will be forever bound up with the name “St. John’s College” and with its Santa Fe campus.