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Celebrating the King James Bible

By Gordon Campbell

In 2011 the King James Version of the Bible will be 400 years old, and plans for a protracted birthday party are in hand. In the UK the celebrations are being coordinated by the 2011 Trust, whose burgeoning list of events includes lectures, conferences, exhibitions and services on both sides of the Atlantic. Oxford University Press has published the King James Bible since the seventeenth century, and will soon be publishing three books to mark the quatercentenary: David Crystal, the Anglophone world’s greatest living linguist, has written a sparkling book entitled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language; I have written a biography of the Bible’s first 400 years, and edited a version of the 1611 Bible which lovingly preserves both the preliminary pages and the printer’s errors. Lesser presses will also be publishing celebratory accounts. In the UK the BBC will be broadcasting two television programs on the subject, one presented by Adam Nicolson on the making of the King James Bible (I make a cameo appearance on this one) and the other presented by Melvyn Bragg on the heritage of the King James Version. I hope that there will be similar programs in other countries.

Why all the fuss about an old translation of an ancient book? There are two reasons: first, it is the founding text of the British Empire (including breakaway colonies such as the United States), and was carried to every corner of the English-speaking world by migrants and missionaries; second, it matters now, both as a religious text and as the finest embodiment of English prose. Its history in the intervening centuries has been complex. The text has evolved over the centuries, and there are thousands of small changes in spelling, punctuation and grammar. The commissioning of a revised translation was suggested by a puritan to King James, but the KJV was subsequently repudiated by some puritans, because of its inclusion of the Apocrypha and its use of ecclesiastical terms (e.g. ‘baptize’ instead of ‘wash’, ‘church’ instead of ‘congregation’, ‘bishop’ instead of ‘elder’). In the twenty-first century its most loyal advocates are those at opposite ends of the Protestant continuum: Anglo-Catholic ritualists who revere it alongside the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and evangelicals who think that God answered the prayers of the translators by helping them to produce the most authoritative of all translations.

Is it a good translation? The answer is yes and no. On the affirmative side, it is certainly the most scrupulous of all translations, in part because the scholarly fire-power of the original translators could not be matched in our less educated age. Where could one now find fifty translators with competence in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Ethiopic and Arabic (the languages of the English polyglot Bible of the period) and a command of patristic, rabbinical and Reformation commentaries? Another reason for its scholarly probity is the scrupulous process through which the KJV was produced. The time lavished on the translation by the learned translators was secured by relieving them of other duties; no modern publisher would buy out fifty scholars for several years in order that they might devote their full attention to a translation of the Bible.

In this sense the KJV is the best of all translations. Against this, the authority of the Greek and Hebrew texts which formed the basis of the translation has been subverted by the publication of earlier Greek texts (notably the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) in the nineteenth century, and earlier Hebrew texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls, which antedate previously-known manuscripts by a millennium) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The challenge to the texts used in 1611 means that the scholarly authority of the KJV may have been subverted. The debate may be reaching a new phase, in that after 59 years OUP has just completed publication of the 40 mighty volumes of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, which contains the transcriptions, translations and notes needed to carry the argument forward.

Challenges to the authority of the King James Version are a proper part of the critical scrutiny to which all texts should be submitted in an open society. What is remarkable that such scrutiny does not subvert the affection that English speakers have for the KJV. The principal reason for this affection, even for readers who use other translations, is the aural quality of its prose. Modern translations are normally intended for private study, and so are usually read silently. The KJV was, as its title-page pronounces, ‘appointed to be read in churches’: it was a translation intended to be read aloud and understood, and so it was in countless churches, chapels and households. Its prose has a pulse that makes it easy to read aloud and easy to memorize. When Adam ungallantly blames Eve for the fall, he says (in the KJV) ‘she gave me of the fruit and I did eat’ (Genesis 3: 12); he uses ten simple monosyllabic words arranged in a line of iambic pentameter, which was the verse form used by Shakespeare. This is prose with the qualities of poetry, and it would be hard to think of any modern translation of which that can be said. Other translations may reflect more recent scholarship or satisfy particular doctrinal requirements, but the KJV is the best loved of all translations, and rightly so.

Gordon Campbell is Professor of Renaissance Studies at University of Leicester. His recent books for OUP include The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance (2003), Renaissance Art and Architecture (2004), The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts (2 vols, 2006), Milton and the manuscript of ‘De Doctrina Christiana’ (2007), The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture (2 vols, 2007), John Milton: Life, Work and Thought (2008) and The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art (3 vols, 2009). In October 2010 OUP will publish his Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 and his 400th anniversary edition of the Bible.

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