FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 04/05/2011

The Book King James Inspired: 400 Years Later

 April 6, 2011                                                    Volume 4 Issue 6
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Graeme Bird

Talk about staying power. It’s the book that has never gone out of print, one that remains on the best-seller list of all time. And as millions of people the world over prepare to celebrate the Easter season, they’ll be reading or hearing the story of Jesus from that same book: the King James Bible (KJB), a profoundly influential translation that turns 400 this year.

There have already been events marking this milestone, including exhibitions in locations as far apart as Nashville, Tennessee, and my own birthplace of Dunedin, New Zealand. On November 26, 2010, the book’s publisher even began a 400-day celebration of the original publication of the KJB, which is scheduled to end on December 31, 2011.

Not surprisingly, there has also been a recent spate of books dealing with aspects of the KJB. One—entitled Begat (Oxford, 2010) by English linguist David Crystal—enumerates and analyzes all expressions found in the KJB of 1611 that have survived and influenced the modern English language. Examples include “to everything there is a season,” “beat their swords into plowshares,” “a thorn in the flesh,” “rod of iron,” and “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Crystal, with his dry wit, includes cases (many he says he discovered on the Internet) where these old sayings have been given a modern twist, such as “ruling with a rod of irony,” or a comment on a new design of toilet: “the spirit is willing but the flush is weak."

Why does a 400-year-old translation of the Bible continue to be so influential? One writer claims that “the precision of translation . . . and majesty of style, have enabled that monumental version of the Word of God to become the mainspring of the religion, language, and legal foundations of our civilization.” Indeed the directness of the translation (with a deliberate avoidance of paraphrase) and the beauty of the English style, somehow combine to produce a literary masterpiece, regardless of what one believes of its message.

The process of attaining such stylistic perfection is described in another book, God’s Secretaries (Harper Perennial, 2005). Author Adam Nicolson recounts how a draft of a biblical passage would be read aloud to the members of the translation committee, so that each could hear it and judge whether it achieved a sufficiently high standard of aural excellence.

That quality still resonates with today’s readers and listeners. Consider, for instance, how majestic and unforgettable is the verse, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want,” a majesty just not captured by the more modern, “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (New International Version).

Or compare the traditional “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” in which the slightly archaic KJB language lends an aura of reverence and devotion, with the more contemporary (or even colloquial) Contemporary English Version: “Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name.”

In fact the beauty, power, reverence, and “authority” of the KJB (also known as the “Authorized Version” or AV), has occasionally led some groups to claim that it alone possesses divine inspiration (the so-called “King James Only” position); a less extreme version of this belief led to the “New King James Version,” first published in 1979.

Nicolson also discusses how King James, for the ostensible purpose of fostering religious toleration amongst quarrelsome religious parties, gathered a group of scholars and churchmen together with instructions not to make a new translation but to “make a good one better,” a reference to the fact that they were to follow as closely as possible the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. There were approximately fifty translators or “revisers”—at least three of whom had started their study of biblical languages by the age of six. Thus the KJB is one of those rare examples of highly trained academics producing something that appeals to the public at large!

Admittedly, there is criticism of the KJB: it generally revolves around the fact that the English language has changed significantly in the past 400 years, resulting in many words and expressions that either have become obsolete or else whose meanings have changed dramatically. Examples of the latter include the word “prevent,” which used to mean “come before” (as its etymology would indicate), “seethe” meaning “boil,” and “naughty” meaning “worthless” or “wicked.” And when we read in Genesis 26:8 that King Abimelech saw Isaac “sporting with Rebekah his wife,” we assume they weren’t playing ping-pong.

But in spite of such perceived drawbacks, there is something about the power and style of this translation that even 400 years later still draws people to its words and story. It was a book, after all, that inspired more than one king.

Dr. Graeme Bird is associate professor of linguistics and classics at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He and his family live in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.


Graeme Bird