Monday, November 15, 2010

"One more exact Translation of the holy Scriptures into the English tongue"

One unfortunate reason sometimes offered for not using the King James Version of the Bible is that it is unintelligible to the modern reader. That suggests that the "KJV only" folks are more literate than the rest of us - something I doubt. There are better reasons to use good recent translations - the most important being that they are likely to be based on earlier resources than were available to King James's scholars. But those unfamiliar with the KJV deprive themselves of one of the most important treasures of our literary heritage and that unfamiliarity contributes to our cultural illiteracy. From a review of two books about the Authorized Version, "Long Live the King" by Meghan Duke in First Things:
.... On the eve of its four-hundredth anniversary, Gordon Campbell, a professor of English Renaissance literature at Leicester University, gives us an “affectionate biography” of the KJV. Bible: The Story of the King James Version provides a brief but thorough history of how the KJV came to be, how it changed, and how it came to occupy a preeminent place in the hearts of English-speaking Christians.....

The KJV project was undertaken by six groups of scholars at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. It was, Campbell notes, the most ambitious collaborative translation of the Bible since the seventy elders gathered in Alexandria produced the Septuagint in the third century B.C. Campbell suggests that a collaborative project of a similar size might be unrepeatable today. As he observes, “The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators.” The translators of the Revised Standard Version might contest the point, but it’s perhaps better understood as Campbell’s effort to defend the KJV against those who would dismiss it as the work of the “benighted people of the seventeenth century.” ....

....[T]he King James Version was to become not only the most widely known but also the most beloved English translation of the Bible. Campbell offers several theories as to how this came to be. In the first place, the KJV was the Authorized Version. The title page informed readers that this Bible was “appointed to be read in churches.” While this did not mean that every church had to replace its Bishops’ Bible with a King James Bible, it did mean that, as churches needed to replace their Bibles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they replaced them with the KJV. It also helped that the most popular alternative to the KJV, the Geneva Bible, was suppressed in England; it went out of print in 1644.

The KJV was introduced to consolidate the already unifying consensus of the English Protestant church by providing a scriptural focal point. It largely succeeded. When dissenting groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists separated from the Church of England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they took the KJV with them. As a result, the KJV was, for a long time, the Bible read by nearly all English-speaking Protestants.

A more modern reason for the KJV’s popularity has been its aesthetic appeal. The “uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible...the convert hardly knows how he can forgo,” lamented Catholic convert Frederick William Faber in 1853. The appreciation of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the KJV’s aesthetic qualities is in many ways odd because the translators’ chief intention was not to produce beautiful prose but to render the original texts as accurately as possible. In fact Tyndale, whose translation heavily influenced the KJV, strove to make Scripture “speaketh after the most grossest manner.”

In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter takes up the ways in which the aesthetic qualities of the KJV were appreciated by and exerted an influence on the prose style of American novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than view this deference to the King James Version as a Romantic appreciation of simple, yeoman language to be embraced in spite of the Bible’s religious content, Alter suggests that these authors chose to contend with the language of the KJV in their own writing because of its “set of values” and particular way of “imagining man, God, and history.” To say “chose” is not quite right, however. As Alter points out, Americans from the time of the Pilgrims have been “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk.” If an author does not engage the language of the Bible, he fails to engage the fullness and depth of American life. .... [more, perhaps behind a subscription wall]
Long Live the King