Thursday, May 28, 2015

"We should not want the Bible to sound modern"

Stephen M. Flatow asks why, in my column “The Paradox of the Transmission of Sacred Texts” that appeared two weeks ago, I used the King James translation when citing verses from the Bible. ....

The reason I...prefer the King James Version (KJV) is that, despite its age, its archaic English, and its often outdated interpretations of passages that subsequent knowledge has thrown new light on, it continues to be the best English Bible translation in existence.

This is, of course, a matter of taste and opinion, but the taste and opinion are not just mine. Millions of English-speaking Bible readers share them.... These millions of readers would agree with Adam Nicolson, who states in his God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible that, more than any other English translation of Scripture, the KJV is driven by an “idea of majesty” whose “qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, [and] power.” What its admirers sense in it above all, writes Nicolson, is what they sense in the Hebrew Bible itself: “a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority” of the text. ....

...[It is] the product of a historical period in which the Bible’s divinely revealed character and literal truth, every word of which was assumed to matter supremely because it was God’s, were still taken for granted by most people, including the King James’s highly cultivated and sophisticated translators.

Indeed, the KJV’s archaic language, often cited as a point against it, strikes me as one more argument in its behalf. The language of the Hebrew Bible, after all, is archaic, too; it is precisely this that makes us feel when reading it that we are in contact with an age more wondrous and fervent than our own. The same holds true of the KJV. We should not want the Bible to sound modern. Of modernity we have more than enough; the Bible needs to be read against modernity’s grain. I’ll stick with the King James. [more]
My own preference is usually a compromise between the KJV and the modern translations and paraphrases — I read the RSV or, more usually, the ESV  — but the KJV works very well for worship if read by someone who can read well aloud and, of course, almost everyone uses the KJV versions of things like the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer.