“That Doesn't Sound Like ‘the Bible’”: Reflections on the King James Bible at its 400th Anniversary

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This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

In 1949, a young graduate starting his first pastorate in rural Virginia was pleased to bring along his heavily used Bible from seminary. It was the Revised Standard Version, which had been introduced in 1946, chock-full of the latest and best scholarship of the time. This pastor had learned Hebrew and Greek, was an excellent student, and so had some basis for thinking that this new translation was the very best. Even so, he had great respect for the large and well-used King James Bible at the front of the church.

He sensed as he read from his RSV in worship every Sunday a slight bit of uneasiness in the air, but no one said what it was. Not until his first funeral was a comment made—by the widow of the elder whom they had just buried. She thanked him for a superb service but added a small expression of regret that the Scripture readings did not sound like “the Bible.”

Of course, that widow, her congregation, and many others had listened to the cadences of the King James Bible. They used it in church school and memorized lines from it. They knew “the Bible” when they heard it.

Lost Contact

Today many of us have lost contact with the King James Bible. We have been distanced by the archaic language of “thee,” “ye,” and “thou”; the “-eth” on singular verbs; the peculiar spellings (in some printings “booke” for “book” or “Dauid” for “David”). Our distance in years from the King James Bible, our declining habits of Bible reading, and our listening to multiple translations of the sacred text in liturgy have left us homeless. The astonishing proliferation of new English translations since that young pastor entered his first appointment has only compounded the problem.

Some Christians have responded to this virtual smorgasbord of translations by adopting one of the new King James Bible translations (NKJV, KJ21, and others). Others have remained with one of the “descendants” of the King James Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version. However, the largest market share has gone to the New International Version, whose readers are now facing an updated version, just as the RSV followers had to adapt to the NRSV. As Robert Alter said in his book, Pen of Iron, “the King James Bible has ceased to be the almost universally used translation as readers have been encouraged to use more ‘accessible’ versions.”  Still, the King James Bible’s influence continues even in these new translations, since they follow the principles first put into practice by the King James Bible translators.

Collaboration

Bible translation prior to the King James Bible was done by individuals or small groups. Translation by committee, one of the King James Bible’s innovations, has been the norm ever since. King James, who was not the translator, established six “companies” of translators with a total of forty-seven men (no women); the records are so sparse that there is even some dispute regarding the exact list of translators. They began their assignments in 1604 and completed their work in 1611.

These companies of translators were given fifteen clear rules of engagement. Most important, and least remembered by us today, is the statement of purpose we read in the “The Translators to the Reader”:

Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning that we should need a new translation, nor yet to make a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.

Thus one of the fifteen rules states, “The ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, is to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.”

Copies of the Bishops’ Bible, which was ordered in 1570 to be placed in every cathedral and hence was widely used, were given to the revisers. Another of the rules states that five other translations could be used if they “agree better with the original text.” This and many other points from the history of the King James Bible point to the collaborative process that went into making this Bible a work for the church and for reading in liturgy. We need to remember that collaboration breeds differences of opinion, and consensus involves compromise. Four hundred years after the King James Bible we know that no translation can be perfect.

Contextual Considerations

Early in “The Translators to the Reader” is the frequently quoted line, “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light.” The assumption is that the Bible came to us in Hebrew and Greek and that we have no access to it today except via translation. This observation in the preface follows the question of asking how we can meditate on that which we cannot understand. Translation bears a tremendous burden.

The biblical text taken in its historical, religious, social, and literary context is one dimension that translators must understand. All that we know about the history of this translation affirms that every effort was made to translate with the most sound and up-to-date scholarly and textual information available.

The other side of the translation equation includes the complex historical, religious, social, and literary location of the translators. The motivation in part for a new translation in the seventeenth century was to respond to the religious battles going on between Puritans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. In the case of the King James Bible, contemporary ecclesiastical polities, congregational versus episcopal, influenced the translation decisions. For example, one of the rules states that “the old ecclesiastical words be kept.” Thus one finds “church” as the translation of ekklesia, not “congregation,” since the congregation diminished the importance of the established church in England and left the door ajar for other groups.

The translation equation consists of a variety of negotiations between the ancient context and the translator’s context. We complain about the archaic sound of the King James Bible’s language, but the 1611 readers complained justifiably as well, since the language was a bit archaic even for them. In spite of all this—and more important—what came to be valued about the King James Bible was the simplicity of the words (even a penchant for monosyllabic words) and above all the cadences that made the translation sound so good when read aloud. These cadences have been picked up by poets, novelists, political figures such as American presidents (Abraham Lincoln, to mention just one), and many others.

Twenty-First-Century Translations

We have a special opportunity for reflection on the significance of the King James Bible in this 400th year since its first publication. 

First, we should recognize that the widow who commented to the young pastor that her only regret was that the scripture reading did not really sound like the Bible may not be that different from you or me. We have our favorites, and that is not a fundamental flaw. It is inevitable, given all of the emotion associated with any sacred text. It is a flaw, however, if we become white-knuckled and feel that no other translation or even paraphrase of the Bible should be read and heard. Rather, let’s think about what we can learn from diverse translations and how they change or affect our assumptions.

Second, we should identify the factors that contribute to a sense of accessibility. Is accessibility the only factor that drives the usefulness of a translation? Accessibility is a multisided issue. To the widow, accessibility meant familiarity at a time of great loss. To another person, accessibility may have more to do with not fully understanding a word’s meaning, let alone the multiple nuances of a word. Hence perfect accessibility for any given communication is impossible to find.

Third, we should note that translation itself aids but also limits understanding. The incredible number of English translations has made it so that even in the English-speaking world we have little chance of a common hearing of the Bible. If every time we come to worship we hear a new translation, and there are enough to hear a new one every Sunday, we will lose any chance of hearing and distinguishing something recognizable.

Fourth, the King James Bible should remind us that translation is a powerful instrument. Two examples will suffice to make this clear. Desmond Tutu once remarked, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.” Of course, the missionaries brought a Bible in their vernacular and not in the vernacular of the people of the land.  On the other hand, Benson Bobrick writes that the Bible “fortified the spirit of the pioneers of New England … and through its impact on thought and culture eventually spread the world over.…The New England colonists were sustained by the Bible, and it shaped the American psyche.” In other words, the Bible—whether the King James Version or a newer translation—was and is “political dynamite.”

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