Great Style

This is the second and last of my blogs celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible. Being a missionary whose support come from people and churches, I probably should be careful about blogging about a sensitive topic. But I am going to jump in any way.

The language and style of the King James Translation is quite amazing. Even those who have no sympathy for its teachings recognize its contribution to the English language. For them, this anniversary is a great literary event. If you are a proponent of the King James Version, you don’t have to convince me of its literary value. That is more than an observation of what people others say. I still use it myself along with other translations.

I do, however, have a problem with some of the arguments in favor of the KJV because of its literary value. I listened to a quite thorough defense of using only the King James Bible. When speaking to its literary value the speaker said that he had to wonder about the taste of those who use other translations. That sentence got a number of affirmative reactions from the audience

Since when has good taste in literature become a requirement of or result of faith in Christ? What place can bad or good taste in literature have in salvation by grace alone?

While the incident is related above is not indicative of all who use and value the King James Bible. But it does help highlight a huge question about the KJV’s literary value and what relationship that has, if any, to faith. Is high literary value important for faith? Is it necessary to have “good taste” in English literature to find faith and grow as a disciple? Is having great style a necessary quality of a translation? You may have guessed that I don’t think so.

In I Corinthians chapters 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul contrasts God’s wisdom and man’s. Consider these verses.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1:26-28 ESV)

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. (2:1-2 ESV)

The King James Bible is most definitely not:

  • foolish in the world
  • weak in the world
  • low and despised in the world

The attention given to it by scholars of all faiths and non-faith shows that it is esteemed.

The Apostle also notes that there were few “wise” among the Corinthian believers. So they probably did not have an appreciation for high literature. In this regard the Corinthians were like the apostles who were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13 ESV).

I think that those who believe that high literary value is a necessary, or even universally helpful, part of a Bible translation have a big theological problem. They cannot make a biblical argument in its favor, although they can make plenty of human arguments. In fact, the biblical arguments seem to line up against it

Christianity is growing fast. It has expanded way beyond English and beyond the West. Many of these “new” Christians are poor, marginalized and under-educated through no fault of their own. After an exceptional period of power and education, it seems that God us again taking his church to where not many of its members will not be wise, powerful or noble by this world’s standards. Are we to tell them that they need to read and appreciate only translations of high literary value?

So, if you find the language of the King James Bible inspiring and helpful, by all means read it. But please, don’t imply to others that this makes you better or that they are somehow missing out. Instead, humble yourself to recognize that God more often chooses the unsophisticated person and their unsophisticated language to bring glory to himself and advance his kingdom.

KJV

Since its publication in 1611, the King James Version of the Bible has sold over 1 billion copies, making it by far and away the biggest best-seller in human history. It is certainly the most influential translation in English of all time and remains influential today. It has been published in more editions, with more different bindings and in more formats, including software and smartphone editions, than any other translation.

I work in Bible translation and have since 1976. I am a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, which has been involved in Bible translation into more language than any other organization. So, I have to comment on the 400th anniversary of the King James Translation, in spite of the dangers and the fact that so many others have already commented.

The 400th anniversary is so important that even those who do not believe the Bible are celebrating it.

  • The Washington Times and other newspapers have been publishing articles about it, even newspapers in other languages. There are YouTube videos.
  • A Philadelphia church is hosting an exhibition of King James Bibles, including one first edition. Some of our nation’s founders probably read from some of them. Other cities and museums are having special exhibitions.

I could go on. So, if you have missed all the hoopla, I thought that you should know that it is a BIG deal.

In addition to those believers who still read it and those who defend it as the best translation ever, it is regarded by those in the literary community who note how it has shaped the English language, even producing cute little animated videos to put across that point.

Scholars, even non-believers, point to the King James Bible as the one which inspired Wilberforce to oppose slavery and American Blacks to develop the civil rights movement. If you think its language old and irrelevant, you may be right about the “old”, but its impact is much more than merely “relevant” in our society today. More than one scholar points to the translation of the Bible into English, and specifically the King James, as the starting point of modern democracy. If God chose to put the most important of all information – the information about himself, the purpose of life and eternal salvation – into ordinary language for every person to respond to as they see fit, then what right can a king have to closet information, or made decisions on behalf of his subjects with disclosing the matter to them?

The fact is, the translation of the Bible into English, most notably the one by Tyndale and then the King James sparked not only a revival of faith and purity, it created one of the greatest political revolutions ever, even if it took centuries to come to full fruition. The King James Bible, even though authorized by the King, has been called “the Bible of the [American] Revolution“. It turns out, Bible translation was not just a religious activity, but a revolutionary social and political activity. (And now you know that’s why I do what I do.)

Now that I have extolled the King James translation, here are a few pieces of information about the translation which are not very well known – just for your curiosity.

  • Until the late 1800s the King James, had 80 books. The King James you have on your shelf only has 66. What? Well, “The Apocrypha” was part of the King James Bible until it was removed 130 years ago. Not only did the original 1611 King James Translation contain the Apocrypha, King James who authorized it threatened anyone who dared to print the Bible without the Apocrypha with heavy fines and a year in jail.
  • The King James translation was not an immediate hit. A year after it came out, Dr. Hugh Broughton said of it: “I Require It To Be Burned”. The Geneva Bible was more popular than the King James for decades after 1611 even though King James banned it in 1616.
  • The King James was probably not the first Bible taken to America. That honor belongs to the Geneva Bible which was used by most Puritans and Pilgrims. They were very wary of a translation authorized by the King.
  • The Continental Congress refused to use the King James Bible or authorize its use. They found a printer who published a Bible with exactly the same content as the King James, which they considered an authorized American version. Who says that politicians have only recently taken to acts of window-dressing that have no substance?

Read my next post, Great Style, to get the rest of the story.