A book that brought God closer
As The King James translation of the Bible marks its 400th anniversary, its deep influence and prominence are slipping.
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The KJV was compiled from 1604 to 1611 by about 50 clergymen-scholars working in six groups at the behest of England's King James I, who hoped that having a common "authorized" translation would help heal the religious strife threatening to tear apart his country. It drew heavily on previous English translations, especially the work of exiled scholar William Tyndale, who had translated most of the Bible into English in the early 16th century.Skip to next paragraph
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"[W]e never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one," wrote the translators in a preface to the first edition (no longer included), "but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.... [T]hat hath been our endeavor, that our mark."
It is translation, the preface goes on to say, that "openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place."
Indeed, the KJV was not a translation at all, but a revision. "It was a patchwork quilt, with the finest elements of its former voices stitched together," says David Teems, author of "Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible."
In a society in which literacy was still largely confined to an elite, the KJV was meant to be read aloud, to be heard and, with its rhythmic cadences and use of repetition, remembered. What the translators sought was not only accuracy – based on the manuscripts at hand – but euphony, harmoniously combining words to be pleasing to the ear. The members of the committees read their proposed translations aloud to one another.
The result was remarkable text.
"Suddenly God was accessible," Mr. Teems writes. "No longer hidden or obscured, he seemed to genuinely care. Worship was no longer the remote procession of mystical events."
The writing styles ranged from earthy and sensual to lofty and poetic – the same wide range exhibited by Shakespeare who, during the same period the translators were toiling in anonymity, wrote some of the greatest plays in the English language, among them "King Lear," "Othello," and "Macbeth."
For Beal, modern translations, while essential to scholars, can reduce a passage "to a simple, straightforward meaning when the text isn't simple and straightforward: It's poetic. Poetry is rich and complex and poly-vocal: It has many different voices and images for different readers – many different possible meanings."
The language was often elevated, but for a purpose. "It might not be the way you talked in the marketplace, it was the way one talked religiously," Radner says. "It was the way one prayed. It was the way one preached." A barely educated Methodist preacher in the 18th century knew the Bible by heart and "could be extraordinarily rhetorically sophisticated by having learned and memorized the King James Bible," he says.
Radner, an Episcopal priest who has returned to using the KJV alongside the Revised Standard Version, says some looser modern translations pose problems. "You're never really sure how close these are to the actual words and sentence structure of the originals," he says. "You can be sure that the KJV tries very hard to do that. That's one reason why it's still useful."