Why All the Fuss Over King James Bible?
2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. This year books have been published about the translation, about the KJV's influence, and even about the bi-numeral King James himself -- he was King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England and Ireland. There are conferences and exhibits. Lionsgate released an excellent movie with John Rhys-Davies presenting "The amazing tale of the birth of the King James Bible." And the National Mall in Washington, D.C., hosted a two-day King James Bible Expo.
Why all the fuss about a 400-year-old Bible translation? Over the last 60 years an incredible number of new Bible translations have been published. And with each one, the publisher has tried to convince us that the KJV is difficult to understand, told us it is inaccurate in parts, and has explained why we need that publisher's new translation. And we have tended to believe the advertising rhetoric.
But there has never been a book as important as the King James Bible to our language, to our culture, and to our faith.
Before Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, the grammar, style, and structure of the English language were all in flux. The "vulgar English tongue" might be suitable for everyday affairs, but certainly not for the careful thoughts of patriots and poets. Over the next 50 years English poetry blossomed (John Donne, for instance), it was the golden age of English drama (most notably William Shakespeare), and in 1604 the first English-language dictionary was published. "English was in the throes of discovering itself. The late Elizabethan age was an age of linguistic sizzle," says James's biographer David Teems.
The King James Bible stepped on the stage at the right time with the right influence and helped form our English language. To be fair, the credit should be given to the brilliant linguist William Tyndale who published an English New Testament in 1526. By the time of his death 10 years later, Tyndale had printed 50,000 copies of his New Testament. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the King James New Testament and much of the Old Testament is attributable to Tyndale.
It was Tyndale who gave us such phrases as "give up the ghost," "the powers that be," "my brother's keeper," "the salt of the earth," " fight the good fight," "a law unto themselves," and many more -- all of which came to us through the King James Version. The cadence, poetry, and words of the King James Version have helped shape our language.
Wherever the British went to build an empire -- whether for their monarch or for their God -- they took the King James Bible with them. It was the one book a family would own and read before all others. Thus, the King James Version gave English-speaking people worldwide a linguistic and cultural unity. When a clergyman in Scotland read the Scripture, when a student in America memorized a Bible verse, when a speaker in India or Australia told a story from the Bible, they all used the same words from the King James Version. It is only recently that we have lost this cultural underpinning.
"And God said, 'Let there be light'" brought to mind the story of creation to speakers of English everywhere. The words, "The Lord is my shepherd," reminded people around the world of Psalm 23. From the south of New Zealand to the north of Alaska, Christmas was celebrated with the words, "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." And the Puritan minister John Winthrop and Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could talk about "a city that is set on an hill," a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.
The King James Bible has affected our language and our culture, but it is not just a book. It is the Word of God, the foundation of the Christian faith. What makes the KJV different from other Bible translations is that it was, according to the title page, "appointed to be read in churches" -- out loud.
Every translation of the Bible has the power of the message: God made us, He loves us in spite of our rebellious attitude toward Him, and He wants to reconcile us to Himself. Most modern translations, though, are written to be read for the message, but not to be read out loud.
The KJV has a second kind of power -- the power and majesty of the words themselves. The KJV expresses the heart of the Christian message with a poetic beauty: "But now is Christ risen from the dead. . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" -- the power of the message and the power of the words.
And, for instance, when the modern paraphrase The Message expresses part of the Lord's Prayer as "Keep us alive with three square meals," it misses the power, poetry, majesty, beauty, and subtlety of "Give us day by day our daily bread." I'm convinced that the KJV's poetic power is why it seems easier to memorize than modern translations.
"In the story of the earth we live on," says Tyndale biographer David Daniell, the King James Bible's "influence cannot be calculated. Its words have been found to have a unique quality, of being able both to lift up a dedicated soul higher than had been thought, and to reach even below the lowest depths of human experience. . . . Sometimes the translation is wrong, or clumsy, or baffling. . . . Its older English can confuse the tongue. In particulars, it is not perfect. But the great love [the King James Bible] has received is justified by its master of the craft of the declaration of an incarnate God."
The KJV was written to be heard. To read it silently is to miss part of its unique power. So, to celebrate the King James Bible's 400th birthday, find a quite place where you will be able to read out loud the words, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."