At four centuries old, the King James Bible is aging well
It’s a book that has left its mark on centuries of human history, one seen by scholars as the finest example of English prose.
Presidents swear on it. Preachers sometimes thump it. You may not have read it, but you’ve probably quoted it.
The King James Bible turns 400 years old this year.
“There’s a divine witness, something that spoke to me and said what you have in your hand is the word of God,” said Pastor Jorge Castro of Rialto Bible Baptist Church.
Castro’s congregation, like many throughout the United States, touts itself as a King James Bible-believing church.
Having preached out of the King James Bible for 15 years and studied modern translations, Castro believes the King James Bible is the most faithful translation of what God intended to communicate through the Scriptures.
“All of the modern translations, I’ve had my hands on,” Castro said. “The King James Bible stands on its own.”
The King James Bible was not the first printed English translation of the Scriptures.
Some academics say by its publication in 1611, there were 50 different printed English versions of parts or all of the Bible, beginning with Protestant reformer William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1526.
Tyndale’s work leaned on that of John Wycliffe, who produced in manuscript form the first English translation of the Bible, in the early 1380s.
In 1601, at a meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a proposal was made to publish a new translation of the Bible. That meeting was attended by King James VI of Scotland, who would become King James I of England in 1603.
In 1604, James called the Hampton Court Conference, held outside of London, and the decision was made to work on a new Bible translation that would satisfy both the Puritans and the Church of England’s bishops.
According to the British Library, James summoned about 50 scholars to work on the translation.
Among other guidelines, translators were told to omit theological study notes from the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 because James considered them seditious and dangerous.
They also were told to not translate the word `church’ as `congregation,’ in a nod to the Church of England and its bishop-rule, which was rejected by many Protestants there.
Upon the King James Bible’s completion, the preface read, in part, “out of many good ones” there would now be “one principal good one” used by everyone.
Scholars estimate it retained roughly 80 percent of Tyndale’s work.
“I do know that the KJV was based on two other major accomplishments in (English) translations, I usually tell students, who might think that the KJV was a miracle of God speaking his words directly in English to the Hebrew and Greek secretaries of King James’ era,” said Bill Huntley, professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands.
‘Finest in prose’
Gordon Campbell, professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester and author of “Bible: the Story of the King James Version 1611-2011,” is unequivocal in his praise for the King James Bible as a literary masterpiece.
“If Shakespeare has the finest poetry, the King James is the finest in the prose department,” he said.
Campbell has lectured all over the world about the King James Bible, including several conferences this year dedicated to the translation’s 400th birthday, considered by many scholars to fall on May 2.
He believes the staying power of the King James Bible is found in the simplicity of the words used, which he said makes it easy to memorize.
He also said the translators labored to produce a Bible that could be read aloud among the masses.
“The real point is, the Bible translators managed to capture the way English is actually spoken, and that, if you like, is what makes it so memorable,” Campbell said. “It aspires to capture speech, which it does admirably.”
Castro said the King James Bible connects with the simple man.
“I think because of the simplicity of it, that’s why it appeals to a vast majority of people and certainly why it appeals to me and my congregation,” he said.
Campbell said modern translations rely on older manuscripts and are considered to be more accurate but tend to cater to confessional doctrines and are more useful for private reading.
The King James Bible translators used monosyllabic words with an emphasis on poetic impact, he said, quoting from the Psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
“What the monosyllables do is turn it into a line with a pulse,” Campbell said. “It’s a perfect iambic pentameter. In fact, that’s what makes it easy to memorize. `Thy word have I hidden in my heart that I may not sin against thee.’ The words have a regular rhythm and a rising and falling into patterns and that’s why it’s so memorable.”
The ‘Wicked Bible’?
While the King James Bible is revered by many who view it as having been handed from God to the translators and protected over time – some of its adherents preach what is known as King James Only-ism, believing modern versions are heretical – the fact is, there have been numerous printing errors found in the text.
A 1612 version of Psalm 119:161 read: “Printers have persecuted me without cause.” It instead should have said `princes’ persecuted the Psalmist.
A 1631 version was called the “Wicked Bible” when printers left out the word “not” in Exodus 20:14, rendering the passage “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
Campbell said the King James Bible that folks buy today is the 1769 edition produced by Benjamin Blayney, an Oxford-educated Hebraist.
“Everybody has the 1769 version,” Campbell said. “It’s Benjamin Blayney’s text. That is not commonly known.”
The eye of a needle
The King James Bible has touched nearly every aspect of American culture, from social movements to the arts.
“An author probably couldn’t publish if he didn’t have the background of the King James version,” Huntley said of writers who delivered classic works.
He recalled William Faulkner’s “Absolom! Absolom!”, its title taken from the Bible story of King David and his rebellious son.
Examples of the King James Bible’s influence abound, whether it be in Martin Luther King’s paraphrase of it in his most famous speech: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Or lyrics from rock bands like U2 and their song “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World”: “He took an open top beetle through the eye of a needle.”
The lyric is a spin on a passage in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
“But in addition to that, buried in the language are hundreds of phrases from the King James Bible,” Campbell said.
Indeed, they are. Phrases like “how are the mighty fallen” and “thorn in the flesh” are found among phrases originating from the King James Bible or popularized by it.
“It’s in our culture,” Huntley said. “It influenced our culture as much as Britain, even more because there’s more of us.”
‘… but nobody reads it’
According to the August list of best-selling Bibles from the Christian Booksellers Association, the King James Bible ranks second behind the New International Version in dollar sales.
In terms of units sold, the King James Bible ranks third behind the New International Version, and the New Living Translation.
That’s a turn from the days when the King James Bible snuffed out its competitors as Bible societies churned out copies and missionaries delivered them around the world, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The King James Bible’s slip in popularity has been attributed to a variety of factors, including the secularization of society in general, and the updated language of modern versions.
Campbell said in the United Kingdom there is a new awareness of the King James Bible as a national treasure, but it’s mostly a secular interest.
Like in America, the Bible is still used during various public ceremonies in the United Kingdom, and people still ask for it to be read aloud at their funerals, he said.
He expects modern translations to rise and fall in popularity as scholarship and readability continues to improve.
“But the King James triumphs because it has become the classic ” Campbell said. “The worry is, it will be like Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History in Time.’ Everybody has a copy, but nobody reads it.”
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