The King James Bible at 400: Having archaic and reading it, too
Posted: Monday, January 10, 2011 8:01 pm
By: Danny Tyree
By DANNY TYREE
Thomas Nelson Publishers, the American Bible Society, the British royal family and others are beginning a year-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the King James Version of the Bible (a.k.a. the KJV, a.k.a. the Authorized Version), and Christians and non-Christians alike would do well to revisit the landmark publication.
The KJV is recognized as one of the all-time literary greats of Western Civilization, with unparalleled soul-stirring language. Of course it sort of gets lost in the shuffle of today’s literary sensibilities. (“The KJV? Is that the one with Paula Deen, monster trucks or ‘60 sizzling sex tips’ on the cover?”)
Author David Crystal counted at least 257 phrases from the KJV that are still in common use. Our culture would be immeasurably poorer without idioms such as “handwriting on the wall,” “scapegoat,” “pearls before swine,” “the blind leading the blind,” and “beat their swords into plough shares.” Contrary to popular belief, the KJV is NOT the source of “shaken, not stirred,” “Every time a bell rings.,” “Oh, do behave!” or “bootie call.” (Although, if you read “The Song of Solomon” really closely.)
Until I began researching this column, I joined the majority of people in thinking that the stilted language of the KJV (with all its “thees” and “thous” and “begats”) was the way people actually spoke in the early 17th century. In fact, the speech was already out of date, but was retained from earlier translations to give the work more gravitas and majesty when read during worship service. This was judged to be cheaper than borrowing marketing ideas from 1950s horror films. (“Absolutely no one will be seated in a pew after the first 10 minutes! Archbishops with CPR training will be standing by!”)
In my own Sunday school teaching, I find that the KJV works quite well when supplemented with a Bible dictionary, a good commentary and other aids. Still, I understand that some people find the book to be INTIMIDATING. That is understandable, in an era when people are put off by the syntax and metaphors of challenging pieces such as “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work.”
Even if you’re a nonbeliever, the politics behind the creation of the KJV make a fascinating story. While trying to placate the Puritans AND remove any opposition to the theory of “the divine right of kings,” King James I nonetheless strove for accuracy. 47 scholars in six committees made painstaking efforts over six years, comparing earlier English versions of the Bible with ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, with only the occasional foray into pig Latin. (“Ixnay with the ornication-fay.”) Nowadays, translators follow a process more like this: “Abraham built an altar? Proof of man-made global warning! Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den? Tacit approval of U.N.-enforced population control. Next.”
The King James Bible Trust wants to make sure the KJV remains relevant, so the world will still be full of anticipation when the 500th anniversary arrives.
I hope this can be achieved with a certain amount of decorum, and not by injecting the Bible with text messages such as ROFWGT (“Rolling On the Floor Wailing and Gnashing Teeth”).
As for lepers announcing, “Toucheth not my junk,” well, the less said the better.
©2011 Danny Tyree. Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at email@example.com. Danny’s’ weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.
Published in The Messenger 1.10.11