Thursday, September 16, 2010

Celebrating the King James Bible

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.
That's a bit unfair. I doubt that all of the fifty translators controlled all of those languages and commentary traditions, and there are many biblical scholars today who control many of them. I myself am competent in all of them except Ethiopic and the Reformation commentaries, although I'm not equally strong in every area. I bet we could assemble a group of scholars to match the competencies of the original team without too much trouble. And, as the blog post goes on to admit, we have many more ancient manuscripts at our disposal than they did. Whether a publisher would want to pay for a new project on the same scale may well be another matter, though.

All that said, the King James translation of the Bible was a stunning work of scholarly erudition and literary sophistication and beauty for its time and on many counts it has stood the test of time until today. Its fourth centenary deserves to be thoroughly celebrated.

UPDATE (17 October): More here.