Leland Ryken, Wheaton College
The King James Version has reached the milestone of the 400th anniversary of its first publication. Academic and religious conferences, museum displays, books and articles, and commemorative editions of the KJV have exploded in such quantity that 2011 can confidently be declared the year of the King James Bible. Although King James I granted a Puritan request for a new Bible translation with the sneering put-down that he had never seen the Bible well translated into English, a spirit of benediction fell in the process of translation and the book that resulted.
The King James Version is a book of superlatives. For three centuries, when English-speaking people spoke of “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version. The King James Bible is the all-time best seller among English language books, and according to David Daniell, in his magisterial book The Bible in English; the KJV is still the best-selling book worldwide. The King James Bible is the most quoted English book, the most widely read, the most printed, and the most influential. It is no wonder that Gordon Campbell claims in his book Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 that the King James Version is “the most important book in the English language.”
The King James Version in the Church
We can divide the influence of the King James Bible into the two spheres of its influence in (1) the church and (2) the culture of England and America. From the time of its publication until the middle of the twentieth century, the King James Bible was the only major Bible in use among Christian individuals, families, and churches.
I myself grew up in that milieu. When at the age of nine my parents gave me a Bible with my name embossed on it, it was a King James Bible. I memorized verses from the King James Bible at home, school, and church. Twice every Sunday the King James Version was read and expounded from the pulpit. I heard the King James Bible read after every meal, three times a day. My experience was doubtless replicated by millions of English-speaking Christians through the centuries.
When we pick up Bible commentaries from the past like Matthew Henry’s commentary, we find that the authors who wrote them do not even tell us what translation of the Bible they have used (in obvious contrast to commentaries published in recent decades). It was simply understood that the author of a commentary had used the King James Version as the base text. If we read the sermons of the towering preachers of the past—Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham—the quotations from the Bible are from the King James Version. When we step into a church in England or America that has Bible verses on the walls, we hardly need to ask what translation is represented: it is the King James Version.
The Cultural Influence in the King James Version
Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Bible formed the universally accepted frame of reference for English-speaking cultures. Here, too, it was axiomatic that the King James Version was the Bible in view. In my book The Legacy of the King James Bible, I survey the spheres of culture where the King James Version was preeminent for over three centuries They include public discourse (such as presidential addresses and courtroom speeches), education, music, visual art, and literature.
One of my favorite pieces of research for my book was public inscriptions that bear texts from the King James Version. During my years at the University of Oregon I could look up every time I entered the library and read, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, KJV). Every year two million visitors file past the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and read, “Proclaim LIBERTY through all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10, KJV). Inscribed on the “Isaiah wall” across the street from the United Nations headquarters in New York City is Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks….”
But these inscriptions are merely a shorthand index to the influence of the King James Version in culture. Even if every copy of the King James Version were to vanish suddenly, the King James Bible would live on in the music, visual art, and literature of the English-speaking world.
It is right that the King James Version is being honored in many corners of England and America in this anniversary year. Regardless of what English translation one uses today, Christians should celebrate the fact that the King James Bible is the most influential English-language book of all time. Conversely, the sneering put-downs of the King James Version by people who prefer dynamic equivalent and colloquial translations are inappropriate. Instead of gloating over the proliferation of modern translations, we should take stock of what was lost with the proliferation that began in the middle of the twentieth century. What was lost was a common Bible and all of the advantages that resulted from having a single Bible that English-speaking Christendom used. Biblical illiteracy has accompanied the eclipse of the King James Bible.
The King James Version Today
The remainder of this article will cast an eye to the future and ask what functions the King James Version can serve in a day when it is only one of a dozen prominent English Bibles. But before I look forward, I want to take stock of the King James Version today.
First, the rumors of the demise of the King James Version have been greatly exaggerated (to cite the comment made by Mark Twain when he read a newspaper account claiming that he was dead). If we consult the current sales of English Bibles, we will find that the King James Version is either second or third on the list. Then if we look at websites related to the King James Bible, we find many churches and schools that remain loyal users of the King James Version. People who use a modern translation (as I myself do) have an unwarranted tendency to assume that everyone else, too, has abandoned the King James Version for a modern translation.
Additionally, in the literary sphere, the King James Version continues to reign unchallenged. Within my own guild of literary authors and scholars, the number of people who use anything other than the King James Version in their literary endeavors is statistically insignificant. Similarly, any study of art and music from the past that is rooted in the King James Bible requires that teachers and students use the same translation that is woven into the fabric of the art and music. In fact, every time we read a sermon, a religious document, a novel, a poem, a courtroom speech, a political speech from the seventeenth century through the middle of the twentieth century that quotes from the Bible, the King James Version lives on in the present.
I have already provided several answers to the question of what we can expect for the KJV in the future. We can expect thousands and probably millions of English-speaking readers to continue to read the King James Bible. We can expect literary authors and to lesser extent musical composers to weave the King James Version into their artistic works. In addition, scholars who teach and write about the literature, art, and music of the past have no good alternative to using the KJV in their scholarship.
My subject in the rest of this essay is to explore the continuing usefulness of the KJV as a model for English Bible translation today. My starting point is a comment that Alister McGrath makes on the last page of his book entitled In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. “The true heirs of the King James translators,” writes McGrath, “are those who continue their task today, not those who declare it to have been definitively concluded in 1611.” I interpret McGrath’s phrase “those who continue their task today” to mean “those who perpetuate the translation philosophy and style of the King James Version.” I think that the statement is preeminently true of the English Standard Version.
There are two dimensions to an English Bible, and accordingly two spheres in which the King James Version can serve as a reliable guide to modern translators. One is the content of a translation, what the translators put in front of the reading public as representing what the authors of the Bible wrote. The second is the style in which an English translation is embodied. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, all translation committees have faced a need to choose between perpetuating the King James tradition and repudiating it.
I want to start my projection into the future by elaborating on my previous statement that modern translation committees face a fork in the road at which they must make a choice. The King James Bible itself was a synthesis of a series of six English Bible translations that had appeared during the sixteenth century, starting with William Tyndale. Unlike what prevails with many modern translations, the King James translators did not wish to be innovative and original. They did not view the preceding translations as rivals but as contributors to their own effort. The entire sixteenth-century project was based on a communal understanding of knowledge in which successive translators viewed themselves as inheriting a great tradition, improving it, and then passing it on.
The preface to the King James Version makes this principle of continuity with the existing tradition explicit. In a famous statement in the prefatory document entitled “The Translators to the Reader,” we read, “Truly (good Christian Reader) we 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, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not to be excepted against.”
This principle of perpetuating the great tradition from Tyndale through the King James Version is one way in which the KJV continues to exert an influence even among translators and readers who cast their lot with a modern translation. The prefaces to three modern translations explicitly align those translations with what is variously called the King James tradition, the Tyndale-King James legacy, and the classic mainstream of English Bible translations. The three translations that consciously perpetuate the principles of the King James tradition are the Revised Standard Version, the New King James Version, and the English Standard Version.
By contrast, adherents of dynamic equivalent translations and colloquial translations either distance themselves from the King James tradition or repudiate it. One will look in vain for any statement of continuity with the KJV in the prefaces to these translations. The reason is obvious: the translators who produced these translations do not agree with the translation philosophy or the stylistic norms of the King James tradition. I turn now to these two subjects.
Perpetuating the Translation Philosophy of the King James Version
The King James translators did not consciously choose the translation philosophy that today goes by such names as verbal equivalence, essentially literal, or formal equivalence. Starting with Tyndale and running through the middle of the twentieth century, this was the only view of Bible of translation that held any genuine credence. Tyndale actually coined as many as two thousand English words in an effort to render in English what the biblical authors had written. Examples include intercession, atonement, peacemaker, and Passover. Not until the rise of dynamic equivalence was there any widespread doubt that the goal of English Bible translation was to take the reader as close as possible to the very words of the biblical authors.
The King James Version accepted this premise without reservation. The translators found an equivalent English word or phrase for everything that was in the original text—but not more than was in the original text. They were so scrupulous about keeping the record straight regarding the original text that they followed the practice of the Geneva Bible of putting into italics words that had been added for the sake of intelligibility or fluency in English.
As we look toward the future, then, we can say that the King James Version lives on among modern translations that likewise give readers an equivalent English word of phrase for everything that is in the original. The true significance of this is blunted if we simply quote from an essentially literal modern translation. To see the true significance, we need to set a literal translation alongside dynamic equivalent translations. The King James model lives on when a modern translation renders the last verse of Psalm 87 as “all my springs are in you.” It dies when non-literal translations render it as “I too am from Jerusalem”(CEV) or “all good things come from Jerusalem”(NCV) or “in Zion is the source of all our blessings.”(GNB)
Honoring the King James Style
Content is one-half of an English Bible translation and style is the other half. Style refers to the vocabulary and sentence structure through which the translation embodies the content. What role can the King James Version serve for future English Bible translation? That question is easily answered: the King James Version lives on as a stylistic influence in the branch of English Bible translations that position themselves in the King James lineage, also called the classic mainstream of English Bible translation.
Since I believe that the English Standard Version (ESV) is truest to the King James style, though in updated language and grammar, I will take my illustrations from it. Right in the preface we can see the claim that the ESV perpetuates the style of the King James Version. The preface claims that the ESV retains the “enduring language” of the King James tradition. That is a virtual code language for “the dignity, beauty, and elegance that is a hallmark of the King James Bible.” The adjectives that we find in the prefaces of colloquial translations are “fresh” and “innovative” and “common,” but emphatically not “enduring.” Elsewhere the preface to the ESV speaks of the “simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression” that it carries on from the King James Version and Revised Standard Version.
It is not immediately apparent what descriptors to use when describing the King James style, but the words elegant (not to be equated with eloquent), dignified, and beautiful are indisputably accurate. The King James translators and their modern heirs do not reduce the Bible to the level of conversational or colloquial discourse as it prevails in the dormitory or the local coffee shop. At this point, it is relevant to observe that the Bible in its original form is a primarily literary book. Literature always does things with language and syntax that elevate a statement above informal conversation.
The key to the style of the King James Version and the English Standard Version is that it is elegant without being stilted. The actual vocabulary is often simple, but the effect is majestic. Since any choice of a specimen is somewhat arbitrary, I will simply select the famous statement from Jesus found in Luke 11:9-10: “Ask, and it will be give to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (ESV). The vocabulary is simple, but the patterns of parallelism and antithesis raise the statement far above the chatter at the bus stop.
The King James Version is far from dead. It lives on as a cultural presence, especially (but not only) in the culture that comes to us from the past. It lives on among readers and churches that use it as their primary Bible. It lives on in modern translations like the ESV that perpetuate the translation philosophy and stylistic norms of the King James Version.