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Mark Noll


Long Live the King

The 400th anniversary of the KJV.

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If Smith was correct, judgments about translations, including the KJB, must move from linguistics and language to theology. In Smith's terms, the "word of God" arises at the intersection of piety, saving truth, and Scripture. This conception certainly postulates the Bible's original Hebrew and Greek as foundational and certainly makes quality of translation important. But the most significant thing, put now in terms of John 20:31, is life through the name of Jesus Christ; for Smith, the "word of God" was defined dynamically as the Holy Spirit quickening the saving truth of the Messiah to bestow real and eternal life.

Where does this reasoning leave the question of judging the relative value of translations? In the reckoning of Myles Smith as theologian, that version is best through which the Spirit works most directly to communicate life in Christ. Myles Smith as translator would certainly also say that, if the spiritual action of the word of God is maintained as the primary thing, then as a secondary matter it is appropriate to consider qualities of precise accuracy, compelling style, and forceful diction.

One additional issue is pertinent in relation to the issues Ryken opens up. It concerns the relationship between the KJB as a literary masterpiece and the KJB as the word of God. What, in particular, should be said about those readers who esteem the literary qualities of the KJB but pay no heed to its spiritual message? T. S. Eliot's dictum in response was unequivocal: "Those who talk of the Bible as a 'monument of English prose' are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity." Gordon Campbell in Bible says something similar. When he writes of Mary Wollstonecraft and the many in her train who praise the KJB for its "pure and simple style" but no longer embrace Christian faith, he speculates that "readers who had abandoned belief in God created substitutes to fit God-shaped holes in their spiritual lives." One of those substitutes, in Campbell's reckoning, could be reverence for "the works of Shakespeare and the KJV" as "a kind of idolatry."

For Leland Ryken it is obvious that respect for the KJB as a literary masterpiece only augments or enforces his belief in Scripture as the word of God. Stretching back into the late 18th century, however, is a long line of others who have separated the KJB and the word of God, filled with admiration for the former but indifferent or antagonistic to the latter. The prominent contributions of some from this long line to the celebrations of 1911 and 2011 explain why those who value the word of God above all else—who, again in Myles Smith's phrasing, consider that word to be "a fountain of most pure water springing up unto everlasting life"—must tread carefully when comparing the KJB with other translations or when evaluating its translation philosophy against modern alternatives.

(4) The most complicated questions, both historically and theologically, arise from combining the circumstances of the KJB's origins (question 1), its cultural dominance from the early 17th century until the recent past (question 2), and the interplay of spiritual purpose and literary excellence in its history (question 3). These questions ask what studying the history of the KJB reveals about the relationship between divine revelation and its human reception, about words on a page and the message of salvation, about the use of secondary means and the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit.

Contributors to Hamlin and Jones' King James Bible after 400 Years do not address the theological implications of such questions directly, but the essays in their book do provide a great deal of excellent research bearing on the specifically Christian interpretation of the KJB's history. The essays are concerned not so much with judging the intrinsic quality of the translation's literary style or theological accuracy as with assessing what happened in the societies where the KJB enjoyed its long dominance as the Bible of the English-speaking world.

The book includes several essays like R. S. Sugirtharajah's examination of how the KJB at the center of the British Empire affected approaches to Scripture on the peripheries. In particular, Sugirtharajah casts a jaundiced eye on the unfortunate results when the sovereignty of the KJB in England became the model for Bibles translated into Indian vernacular languages. In his judgment, "The KJB was responsible for creating and perpetuating a standard of singular, absolutist, and irrecoverably fixed textual authority and reference." Moving in a similar direction is Heather Walton's documentation of the extensive use made of the KJB by authors Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Smart in the 20th century. Walton wonders whether women writers will continue to make use of Scripture if they encounter the Bible "either through dominant cultural myths (mainly unfriendly to women) or in the context of a religious environment in which modern translations are regularly used."

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