Royalty is having a field day with a royal wedding hitting the headlines and Queen Elizabeth II preparing to celebrate, in 2012, the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. When that occurs she will top the reign of George III and come in after Victoria as the second-longest serving monarch.
One royal event that may well slip under the radar is the 400th anniversary of the King James, or Authorised Version, of the Bible. Compared to royal weddings and the Queen’s 2012 celebrations, the decision of the Hampden Court Conference to publish the King James Version of the Bible in May 1611 will not attract the hype associated with current royal events.
Yet, arguably, the decision of James I to authorise the translation that bears his name has had a much greater impact. There are numerous books outlining the far-reaching effects of that decision.
In the Beginning by Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University; The King James Bible by David Norton, Associate Professor of English at Victoria University, Wellington; and Bible – The story of the King James Version by Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Leicester University, England, are samples of what is available.
Add to those a book that’s been sitting on my shelves for about 50 years, Our Roving Bible – Tracking its Influence through English and American Life by Lawrence Nelson, who was Director of Languages and Literature at the University of Redlands, California, and you have more than enough reading to inform you on the hugely important part the King James Bible has played in English life, language and culture.
In one way or another, most of us will have access to a copy. You can buy a reproduction of the original in the finest of materials, the publishers assure us, for about $1500, or download the KJV text on your phone or computer.
Remarkably, there are still those who claim the KJV is the definitive Word of God. “The KJV Only” society is adamant no other translation is worthy to be called The Bible.
Trust the Baptists to be in the forefront of such a movement! The pastor of a Bible Baptist Church in the States has no hesitation declaring: “Using anything but the KJV is like shaving with a banana!”
In equally bellicose but slightly more sophisticated language others of like mind tell us: “The KJV is still available to the Church of today. A plethora of modern perversions of the Scriptures have sprouted like so many fields of tares. People of corrupt minds have developed and sold many of these scurrilous publications they call Bibles.”
Even James I and the translators who brought the Authorised Version into being did not escape such broadsides. In their preface from The Translators to the Readers they explain the principles on which they worked and describe how they copped criticism from “Romanists and Puritans,” who charged them with “newfangledness.”
They defended themselves against such charges. “Was there ever anything projected that savoured in any way of newness but did not endure many a storm of opposition.” Even King James himself commented, “I know full well that whoever attempts anything for the public, especially in regard to Religion and the translating of the Bible, sets himself up to be gored by every sharp tongue.” Despite the vitriol, James assured his readers, “My Royal heart is not discouraged or dismayed.”
The irenic response of the translators justifying their translation is worth noting.
“How can we think about that which we don’t understand? Translation opens up a window to let in the light; breaks the shell so that we can eat the kernel; pulls aside the curtain so we can see into the most Holy Place; removes the cover of the well so that we get to the water.”
This year’s 400th anniversary of the KJV reminds us how much of our language is adorned with memorable words and phrases from those 16th and 17th century translators – Wycliffe, Coverdale, Tyndale and the KJV panel – words and phrases most don’t realise have their origin in this ancient translation and the translations that fed into it. Phrases such as “the writing on the wall,” “a fly in the ointment,” “a drop in the bucket,” “a thorn in the flesh,” “the powers that be,” “to give up the ghost” –and words such as beautiful, peacemaker, long-suffering, broken-hearted, stumbling block, scapegoat, filthy lucre, loving kindness, tender mercy, noonday and kind-hearted, to name a few.
Interestingly, the process of translation did not end with the 1611 translators. David Norton in The King James Bible explains how over ensuing years multiple layers of translation followed the original, remodelling the text, its spelling and punctuation, while retaining enough of the original until it became the monument of English prose it is today.
Perhaps the last word on such remodelling of the Bible is best left with Alister McGrath.
“The King James translators were perfectly aware of their need to provide a faithful and accurate translation of the Bible for their day and age. That day and age are now many centuries behind us. The paradox is that those who insist we retain the KJV as the only version betray the intentions of those who conceived and translated it – namely to translate the Bible into living English. The true heirs of the King James translators are those who continue their task today, not those who declare it to have been concluded in 1611.”
– Tom Cadman