Celebrating the lasting impact of the King James Bible

On May 2, this year, the King James Bible will be 400-years old.  I’m 35.  The KJV is the first Bible I ever read as a boy.  The first Bible I ever memorized from.  And it doesn’t matter how many newer Bibles I’ve tried to memorize from, a residue of the KJV Bible shows up.  Yes, it has had that lasting impact on me as well.

Perhaps this is also why I took note of the following from John Hobbins (which was made here):

It’s important to me that we understand that the Bible is a weird book that teaches things at great odds with the way we believe and the way we do things. A quaint translation like RSV or ESV helps in making that understood. The conclusion many people draw from reading a translation that sounds familiar is that the text is on their side. An unintended consequence, but still: translation FAIL.

I also have ecclesiological reasons for sticking to a translation in the King James tradition. For example, when I preach on the Beatitudes, it’s important to me that the diction is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Even though literally no one knows who “the poor in spirit” are unless it is explained to them.

Sometimes I wonder why a Bible translation like the English Standard Version (ESV) has left certain texts from the King James Bible virtually unchanged (Psalm 23; Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer; Matt. 16:13-18; 22:21, and so on).  But I’ve since gotten it.

It’s that lasting impact.

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21 Responses to Celebrating the lasting impact of the King James Bible

  1. TC – I’m not sure when you adopted your current blog tagline, but the whole Bible/culture dynamic has been in my thoughts lately vis-a-vis translation and I’ve also been wondering if, as a remnant set apart, the Church should have a text that reminds us that we’re not mainstream.

  2. T.C. R says:

    EE,

    I’ve had that tagline for quite sometime now. But when you say “text” are you referring to a particular Bible translation?

    • (Sorry – haven’t been paying attention to taglines, much – it just caught my eye today.) And, yes, text=translation. Does mainstream English create too much comfortableness with what the text says? Or is it just an issue that the text never gets read…

      • For me “Text” means the Text of the Scripture, itself. At least I think of the original Text! (My mental)

        TC: My heart & mind has been all over the KJV since I was about 8 years old. But as I have said, I read the old Catholic Douay-Rheims also in those days. Somehow it was there that I learned to love the Word of God! (Both the KJV & the D-R)

      • T.C. R says:

        We’re talking translation approaches here. As you know, we’re not in agreement. Just look at the translation spectrum.

        Your first question seems to be echoing John Hobbins idea of “quaintness,” thus going somewhat against mainstream English.

        Now your second question is a more complex one.

      • @TC – yes, John got me thinking down that line – as he often does. I’m still not settled in the translation spectrum. While I’ve never spent significant time with the KJV, I do enjoy just reading it from time to time. As I also do with the NEB/REB…

  3. T.C. R says:

    Fr. Robert,

    Of course, a respect for the KJV doesn’t mean I’ll use it or reference it, which I hardly do. 😉

  4. T.C. R says:

    |@TC – yes, John got me thinking down that line – as he often does. I’m still not settled in the translation spectrum. While I’ve never spent significant time with the KJV, I do enjoy just reading it from time to time. As I also do with the NEB/REB…|

    EE,

    Yes, Hobbins had me thinking with that one too. But I don’t know if I agree, though. Now if we’re talking preserving ambiguities in the text with a few footnotes, then I’ll go for something like that. This is where a text like the NIV is considered too interpretive.

  5. exegete77 says:

    When I started seminary many, many moons ago, one professor said it didn’t matter which Bible we took on hospital visits, as long as we had a copy of Psalm 23 in the KJV and the traditional Lord’s Prayer to use. I typically used NAS or NIV (depending on what the congregation was using), but I would quote the KJV of those sections.

    Even now, if I make a shut-in call or near death visit, I follow that guideline, and it has served me well. This is true regardless of the age of the person visited.

    • T.C. R says:

      Rich,

      I know what you mean. Recently I led a congregation in the reading of Psalm 23 but from the ESV. But I could sense that the knew it from the KJV. The feel was amazing, as I was reading lips and so on.

  6. Scott W says:

    The impact of the Authorized KJV on our literature and culture has been immense, and it will continue to have a place in the consciousness of America and the English-speaking world. Having said that, however, to link the language of the version with a sense of preserving the “otherness” of the Bible is a double-edged sword. The beauty of the language can mesmerize as to hinder understand the meaning of the Bible just as much as those who say that the “doggerel” of much contemporary translation takes away from the dignity and literary value of the Scriptures. For the former there exists a (wrong-headed) temptation which can tend to equate literary preference with theological value, in reality a type of subtle idolatry.

    • Theophrastus says:

      Scott — the literary argument against most modern translations is that they fail to preserve literary features of the original including rhythm, alliteration, word play, etc.

      The argument has been made by a number of literary critics, but I would recommend reading Robert Alter in his introduction to his translation of Genesis or the introduction to his Five Books of Moses (Norton). Other discussions include:

      Robert Alter’s chapter “The glories and glitches of the King James Bible” in The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge University Press).

      Everett Fox’s introduction to his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken).

      Gerald Hammond’s “English Translations of the Bible” in The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press).

      Gerald Hammond, The Making of the English Bible (Philosophical Library).

      Although I have not seen it yet, I am also cautiously optimistic about the new Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible (KJV) forthcoming later this year (ISBN 039397507X and 0393927458). Perhaps you are familiar with the Norton Critical Edition series — it is a standard series of annotated volumes used in literature classes. The editors working on these volumes are top-notch, and the blurbs are impressive at least:

      Robert Alter: “The Norton Critical Edition of The English Bible, King James Version, appearing on the four hundredth anniversary of the great translation, is a real gift to the English-reading world, making this classical version freshly accessible. The introductions to the different biblical books are apt and often illuminating; the generous annotation clarifies archaic terms, corrects translation errors, and provides insight into the texts; and the appended critical and historical materials give readers a wealth of relevant contexts for both Old and New Testament.”

      Harold Bloom: “Herbert Marks demonstrates in this work that he is now the foremost literary exegete of the King James Bible and of the Hebrew Bible that it translates.”

      (I should mention that additional materials and notes that the Norton Critical Edition of the Writings of St. Paul make it the best secular one-volume guide to the subject, although it uses the TNIV translation of the Epistles and Acts and Elliott’s translations of the apocryphal works related to Paul.)

    • Scott,

      That’s rather funny, when many Orthodox use the KJV/NKJV, etc. at least in the English. And favor the whole Byzantine tradition! 😉

      • ScottW says:

        Fr. Robert-
        It’s not ironic because some of the same dynamics are at play in many segments of Orthodoxy, which values the English of the KJV for its liturgical texts.

        It’s another thing altogether when it comes to the place of the text of the Bible which is a valid theological issue. The LXX was the Bible of the early Church and Orthodoxy simply has not changed (pace St. Jerome), and the Ecclesiastical text of NT is “Byzantine,” but the fact of the matter is that because of the paucity of English translations of Scripture for Orthodox, they’ve tended to use what’s on offer, from RSV to NKJV (which does have the LXX somewhat but which also has its detractors who don’t favor the Protestant Evangelical products.

      • Scott,

        Certainly the Orthodox do have their own many ethnic aspects, but not always keen btw in doing textual or translation work. This tells me at least, that they are not that interested in the literal Text that much, as are Protestants and Evangelicals. And some groups in Judaism. It is also interesting to me that the RCC uses NRSV and has even given it the Imprimatur. So I am not sure about your idea of paucity of English translations? Perhaps the dearth or sacrcity is in the Orthodox desire for and use of Scripture? At least in the general sense of reading and the laity. But note also Brenton’s Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Which is also English or British, and done way back in the 19th century (Samuel Baster & Sons, Ltd., London, 1851). I have my copy which is a Hendrickson.

  7. Kevin S. says:

    TC, like you, it’s dear to my heart because it was the first translation I memorized from. I still have my very first and third KJV bibles (2nd GNT). I never read it today because it’s unintelligible, but the funny thing is that I will probably always keep it until the day I die. I saw a Cambridge KJV on the bookstore this week and thought to myself “no” I don’t think I will get it–even if it is its 400th anniversary.

    Theo, I’m not sure if there’s any other modern English translation that comes close to the KJV’s literary features. Perhaps there’s an opportunity here for a new translation that’ll have its features.

    • Theophrastus says:

      Kevin — with the help of an annotated edition, you could easily understand the KJV Bible. The Norton edition I mentioned above is such an edition; but there are others (often apologetic editions) that clarify archaic words and phrases.

      Many people believe that Alter’s ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible is a highly literary version. I think that Richard Lattimore was a high point in translating the New Testament; although many people prefer Willis Barnstone’s new translation as a literary translation.

      However, all of the translations I mention here are individual efforts that seem unlikely to capture a wide audience.

  8. T.C. R says:

    |The beauty of the language can mesmerize as to hinder understand the meaning of the Bible just as much as those who say that the “doggerel” of much contemporary translation takes away from the dignity and literary value of the Scriptures. For the former there exists a (wrong-headed) temptation which can tend to equate literary preference with theological value, in reality a type of subtle idolatry.|

    Scott W,

    As the saying goes, “respect the past, enjoy the present, while looking to the future.”

    Kevin,

    That’s good! 🙂

  9. Joel H. says:

    I think the primary contribution today of the KJV today is that it’s familiar. And while I recognize the value in that, I don’t think we should confuse familiarity with accuracy. The KJV has often given us a translation that is both well-known and wrong.

    I also don’t agree that “the Bible is a weird book.” I think that that perceived weirdness is one of the unintended results of the KJV.

    I have some more thoughts here: “The King James Version (KJV): The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation.”

    Joel

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