"A colloquial translation with a Southern accent"
Clarence Jordan arrived in Louisville in the fall of 1933 to enter the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a student. I arrived in Louisville in the summer of 1935 to begin in September of that year my work in the Seminary as an instructor in New Testament Interpretation, my chief assignment being the teaching of New Testament Greek.
In those days the Louisville Seminary was among the divinity schools that placed strong emphasis upon the original languages of the Bible—Hebrew and Greek. Both were required for the Master's degree, and this meant for the majority of the students three years of Greek and two of Hebrew. A. T. Robertson, with his "Big Grammar" and many other books, recognized as one of the leading New Testament scholars of the nation, died in 1934, but had left the stamp of his personality and scholarship upon the institution. His successor, W. Hersey Davis, was a master of exegesis and interpretation. Clarence Jordan had the benefit of the scholarship and influence of both these men. It was in this atmosphere he developed a passion to know and interpret the New Testament in the language in which it was written, the koine Greek. He determined to become a doctoral student with the Greek New Testament as his major. It was in this way that I came to know him best.
Two very important events happened to Clarence Jordan in 1936. He received his master's degree in theology. And he married Florence Kroeger. She became his true partner in all things. When the dark days came at Koinonia Farm in the fifties, her courage and faithfulness to his ideals were a source of constant inspiration and strength to him.
With her encouragement, Clarence undertook his graduate studies, and so came into ever-deepening contact with the Greek New Testament. Here he began to discover firm theological foundations for the human impulse that was already alive in him. At the same time, he kept that close contact with the problems of practical living which was characteristic of him throughout his life. Not content simply to study, he also became involved in Louisville's teeming inner city and began to see at first hand the fragile life of the poor, who had been driven off the land and who had found only despair in the city.
This involvement in the inner-city life of the black poor led to a teaching position in Simmons University, a black seminary, and later to the directorship of Fellowship Center, supported by the Long Run Baptist Association. Under Clarence's influence Fellowship Center became a focal point of meaningful activities for underprivileged black adults and children, and a center of fellowship between black and white Baptists. It also afforded an opportunity for Seminary students to become involved in practical social Christianity. Clarence must have discharged his responsibilities well, for he was asked to become the first "full-time" superintendent of missions of the Long Run Association. Somehow, amidst all the extracurricular activities he engaged in, Clarence managed to keep up his doctoral work at the Seminary and in 1939 received his doctor's degree in Greek New Testament.
It was during this same period that the idea of Koinonia began to germinate in Clarence's mind. The story in Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 of the communal life of the early disciples became a sort of magnet that drew his thoughts to the possibilities of this primitive expression of Christian love and sharing in modern life. He drew around him a small group of Seminary students and formed a fellowship that sought to imitate the primitive Christian community in the practice of "holding all things in common." This was the first practical projection of what was to develop in south Georgia as the nationally known Koinonia Farm. More and more as time drew on, Clarence was turning his eyes southward and was dreaming of the establishment in the Deep South of an experiment in practical Christian love that would demonstrate to the world that whites and blacks could live and work side by side in sharing a common enterprise. The details of this amazing story have been told many times, and need not be repeated here.
After Clarence left Louisville I did not have many personal contacts with him, but I was aware of the suspicion Koinonia Farm aroused in the surrounding community, a suspicion that grew into hate, abuse and violence. However, his rejection in the South resulted in openings for speaking engagements in other parts of the nation and gave Koinonia a nationwide hearing. Before he died in 1969 Clarence was invited to speak at Southern, his old seminary, and at Southeastern Baptist Seminary at Wake Forest, North Carolina. Things do change!
Looking back, it now seems almost inevitable that from this effort to live out the meaning of New Testament love in the cotton fields of south Georgia, Clarence should have begun a translation which would eventually give the world "the Cotton Patch Version" of the New Testament. By education and by dedication, he was uniquely qualified for the task. It started as he would make his own translation of a scriptural passage he wanted to use in preaching. Only gradually did he realize he had hit upon a style of translation that brought the Word to the reader with a new contemporary power. As time went by, he completed individual books of the New Testament which were widely circulated in pamphlet form. But eventually he had done enough to be able to publish The Cotton Patch Version of Paul's Epistles.
When I received from Clarence Jordan in February of 1968 an autographed copy of that book, I recognized that he had accomplished something unique in the history of Biblical interpretation. As he wrote in his Introduction, he had "made an attempt to translate not only the words but the events." He possessed the genius to be able to change the biblical setting from first-century Palestine to twentieth-century America, and to transport the biblical characters across the time-space barrier so that they not only spoke modem English, but talked about modern problems, feelings, frustrations, hopes and assurances. It was as though they worked beside the reader in the cotton patch or on the assembly line, so that the Word became modern flesh.
Above all else, the "cotton patch version" is a projection of the life and character of Clarence Jordan himself. He was a combination of the erudite scholar and the bold man of action. In the truest sense of the word he was a prophet -- one who spoke forth for God. In the expression of his convictions he was straightforward and sometimes his language was shocking to modem ears. This was true of his preaching -- which was direct, and Bible-centered, and sternly contemporary—as well as his translation of the New Testament into the "cotton patch version." For he spoke with the earthiness of Amos of Tekoa, the boldness of Jeremiah, but often with the tenderness of Hosea. There was something in Clarence of the asceticism and gentleness of Saint Francis of Assisi but he never deserted the contemporary scene and spoke and wrote with the dogged determination of Martin Luther.
Clarence did not claim that his "cotton patch" version always represented a literal rendition of the Greek text. He did not call his work a translation but a "version." This gave him the liberty he desired to give a distinctly contemporary color and flavor to the gospel story as recorded in the pages of the New Testament. The result has the effect of shocking some readers, amusing others, but winning the nod of approval of many.
Clarence Jordan died unexpectedly on October 29, 1969, at the age of fifty-seven. At the time of his death, there were some few parts of the New Testament which he had not yet translated. The task might never have been finished. Clarence himself doubted that it would be possible successfully to "cotton patch" the book of Revelation. The other portions which remained Undone were the Gospel of Mark and several chapters of the Gospel of John. With these exceptions, the entire New Testament is now available in the Cotton Patch Version.
The same daring contemporary language and applications will be found throughout. The only way for the reader to appreciate what Clarence Jordan has done is to read for himself the letters, Gospels and Acts as he has given them to us. Let the reader discover for himself the bold and stimulating efforts one of God s true prophets has made to make the New Testament come alive in a time when the world needs as never before the Living Word.
Edward A. Mcdowell, Jr.
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