The King James Bible

King James I
King James I

On 25 November this year Britain’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced that every state school in England would receive a new copy of the King James Bible of 1611, to which he was to add a foreword, marking the 400th anniversary of this translation. The purpose of this was to “help every pupil access Britain’s cultural heritage”.

This may sound bizarre to American ears, but do not be fooled into thinking this has anything to do with the promotion of religion.

Although Britain’s National Secular Society decried this project as a waste of public money, as schools “were already awash with Bibles”, and urged the Education Minister to send out copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species instead, they needn’t have worried.

If one was to search for a way of inoculating young people against Christian faith, surely consigning them to study the sacred Scriptures in an archaic form, as “literature” instead of life-giving words, would work very well.  Parked in the school syllabus along Shakespeare and the other greats of the 17th century, where it can be dismissed as ‘boring’, locked into language and thought-forms four centuries old, the Bible will be deemed an irrelevance, its insights buried in Jacobean-speak. Beautiful maybe, but also obscure, the force and potency of its message blunted by vocabulary and figures of speech no longer in currency.

The process by which the King James Bible is reclassified as ‘literature’ is well advanced. It is significant that whenever the Scriptures are quoted in the media, or in contemporary literature or film, it will be the King James version that is almost invariably used. There is scant regard for what the Church actually uses today. Rather, post-Christian society prefers its own nostalgic fantasy of things as they used to be, a picture in which the Church is tolerated as guardian of an almost-forgotten heritage.

This approach has been in evidence over the last 12 months in the various events organised in the UK by secular bodies to mark the 400th anniversary. Here the Bible-as-literature has been celebrated, understandably enough, by a considerable number of people, at occasions in which the context of faith or worship plays no part.

What is harder to understand is the way in which many churches and religious organisations have used the King James Bible this year is a similar way, organising events at which the whole text of the Bible has been either read aloud continuously, or written out verse by verse, separated out from the context of public worship. It seems a strange way to treat Holy Scripture, albeit a version no longer in widespread use liturgically.

Have not all of us, both inside and outside the Church,  been missing the point?  1611 was a hugely significant year because it saw the launch of one of the most successful and widely loved translations of the ancient Biblical texts into the vernacular. It was not designed as a natural literary treasure (though it became one) but as a powerful means by which God’s people were to be edified and inspired, and the Church fired up with new vigour.

The aim of the translators then was to produce a version of the Bible that could be understood in the language of the day (just as Thomas Cranmer had striven to produce in 1549 an English Prayer Book in 1549 that could be understood by the people). Is it not perverse to celebrate the authors of such a bold and ground-breaking translation by dwelling on past glories and turning aside from the continuing process they set before us?

Surely we uphold and honour the work of the translation of sacred texts, not by getting fixated on one revered version now severely compromised in comprehensibility, but by continuing this unending task with renewed dedication, that in every generation, whether 1611 or 2011, as on the first Pentecost, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11).

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8 comments

  1. Richard I have worked on schools for 25 years and more what young people love is depth and seriousness,they recognise the authentic. They love the AV. This came as a surprise to me. They do not want the hip,the relevant, the current.

  2. Point taken. But let’s keep in mind that when the KJV came out in 1611, it was not the only English version out there, and it was not greeted with universal acclaim. Various political and economic factors contributed to its success. Thus, the secular themes of this celebration are not altogether beside the point.

  3. RP’s witness should be noted and taken to heart by quite a few persons who think that our youth will melt a way unless they are given only the trendy, in-today-and-out-tomorrow fads of English usage. How did it come to pass that some among us think so little of them?

    In my youth one of the things I looked forward to when going to mass was listening to and speaking the words of the BCP, and hearing the lessons read from the Authorised (commonly called ‘King James’) Version. I don’t recall ever having had trouble understanding the language of either book as I happily absorbed their content. Those who exclaim that they cannot understand these texts must surely be, so it seems to me, shamelessly deceitful and arrogantly facetious in their protestations; facetious because they cannot possibly not know or be able to infer the meaning of the somewhat dated language. They are astonishingly unappreciative of our heritage of liturgical texts.

    Nor am I one of those whose persuasion is that the only language that God understands is the KJV. (Far from it!) I read and enjoy many modern translations and paraphrases -but there is not one (not even Douai-Rheims) which has the power and grace of the Authorised Version. This regardless of the well-known fact that, in its day, it had not the ‘patina’ that it has by now aquired. (Truth be known: the Miles Coverdale psalter of the BCP is much more musical and graceful than that in the KJV, not to mention nearly all modern ones.

    It is, though, distressing that the AV, or KJV, is considered by some to be more a cultural artifact than a treasured liturgical text. One has the same sort of sorrow that one experiences when seeing a very old monstrance, crozier, or other sacred item on display in a museum – while the ones in use by the church today are artless, often ugly, mass-produced trivia.

  4. It’s interesting to note that the KJV was translated in a deliberately simple style, with limited (8000 word or so) vocabulary with very simply structured sentences.

    Maybe this is a factor in its longevity.

    Maybe this is something that Vox Clara could bear in mind as we settle into the arcane language and tortuous structure of the new translation of the Mass.

    1. By way of contrast, my little computer program tells me that the New Jerusalem Bible has a total vocabulary of 18,147 words.

      1. My own computer program says that the KJV has 13,781 words and that the NJB has 15,894; those word counts include plurals, conjugations, etc.

        Running a word-stemmer on these lists, the KJV has 10,052 unique word stems, and the NJB has 10,403 unique word stems.

  5. I think I see a serious case of ‘both-and’ happening here. Absolutely, we need an ongoing effort to translate the Scriptures into current, comprehensible language. No argument at all with that statement. At the same time, I can’t find any fault with celebrating/acknowledging/whatever the literary beauty of the King James Version. I occasionally read from a number of older translations, and some of them are utterly lovely in their language. It’s kind of hard to beat the KJV wording of Psalm 23 if you’re seeking poetic value, although it would be kind of hard to sing.

    But, for serious study, when I’m really trying to dig into a point and seek the deepest meaning and understanding I can get, I want a text in more current language, so that I don’t get tripped by older words that simply aren’t a real part of my usage. I need the words in some sense to get out of the way of the meaning. Even then, I find that one version doesn’t do the job for all possible selections.

    And someone else’s mileage may vary. Fortunately for us all, there are many ways to say the same thing, and lots of publishers willing to print books that say them.

  6. If one was to search for a way of inoculating young people against Christian faith, surely consigning them to study the sacred Scriptures in an archaic form, as “literature” instead of life-giving words, would work very well.

    I came to Christian faith (was previously a Unitarian) largely through being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer (in the 1662 version) and the KJV through a British History class in ninth grade. Impressed with their beauty (and never having attended a service) I sought to learn more about the culture and Church that had created them. Along the way I became Catholic rather than Episcopalian, because that’s what made sense to me given the history and content of the Scriptures.

    So no, exposing people to the Bible as literature (and history) is not the best way of innoculating them against faith.

    What is harder to understand is the way in which many churches and religious organisations have used the King James Bible this year is a similar way, organising events at which the whole text of the Bible has been either read aloud continuously, or written out verse by verse, separated out from the context of public worship. It seems a strange way to treat Holy Scripture, albeit a version no longer in widespread use liturgically.

    Why yes… that’s what traditionalists have been saying about the revised lectionary! 🙂

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