From King's English to Common English

April 25th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

In 2011 we observe the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The story of how and why King James authorized this version is beautifully told by Adam Nicolson in God's Secretaries (2003). The work began in 1604 when a small group of Puritans approached the king and pleaded for a common Bible that would unify England after a century of religious conflict that was punctuated by torture, beheadings, and the burning of dissidents.

Because James, son of the Catholic Queen Mary, had been raised in Scotland by a household governor who was Presbyterian, these particular Calvinists hoped that the Geneva Bible would become the preferred translation. However, the Geneva Bible in English, which was the first “study Bible,” contained numerous marginal notes and translation decisions that diminished the power of the bishops and the king. So the Anglican bishops outmaneuvered the Puritans and persuaded the King to back a revision of the Bishop’s Bible. The Puritans began fleeing persecution (including inquisitions led by the head of the King James translation committee) and boarded ships for a new world.

For two centuries in America the Geneva Bible competed with the King James Bible, but by the mid-1800s the Methodists were spreading west across the land on horseback with the King James Bible, planting thousands of churches that emerged out of massive revivals. They taught people how to read by using the King James Bible as a core textbook. By the twentieth century, they were building universities and hospitals, as well as starting thousands of Sunday schools. The King James Bible changed the landscape of faith and congregational life in America.

Four hundred years have passed since the King James Bible changed the way that we teach and preach about our faith. Each generation now witnesses the gathering of the best biblical scholars to render a fresh interpretation of the Scripture. For many persons, exploring a new version of the Bible can rekindle the faith in the hearts and minds of the people in worship or in a small group. The reader often experiences the Bible with the wonder and mystery that was present the first time she or he read the good book.

A typical revision process, which starts with an earlier version of the Bible (e.g. the NIV-TNIV family or the RSV, ESV, NRSV family) preserves approximately 96 to 98 percent of the prior edition. As a result of revising the revision, a “woodenness” in the language becomes more apparent over time. It gets harder to read and takes more explanation to understand. It requires a college degree to feel comfortable with the complex sentences that are loaded with dependent clauses. The phrasing does not sound natural.

The root cause of awkwardness is the use of idioms and images that typical people do not actually use in everyday communication. This also happens when the translator tries to produce a word order in English that is driven by the word order in Hebrew or Greek. Therefore, instead of reading English, we might be reading and proclaiming “Biblish,” which sounds like a foreign language to most persons. Perhaps this need for relevance in natural language is one factor that causes minds and bodies to wander.

To get a truly fresh and accurate rendering in the common English of our era, a new translation is being developed with the best available biblical scholars from among twenty-two denominations. They started from scratch with the reliable ancient texts. The result is the Common English Bible, which will be fully available in the late summer of 2011. Most people report that it is a smooth translation. A few find it jarring to read familiar passages through a fresh set of eyes. Check it out for yourself to see if it can help you put the Bible at the heart of your teaching and preaching.

comments powered by Disqus