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Mark Noll

Long Live the King

The 400th anniversary of the KJV.

The 400th anniversary of the King James or Authorized version of the Bible (KJB) has produced a magnificent harvest of exhibitions, conferences, and scholarship. A comparison with what happened in 1911 at the 300th anniversary is instructive. One hundred years ago, the most visible public figures in the English-speaking world led the celebration, including formal messages from President William Howard Taft and the newly crowned King George V, and, within a matter of weeks in the spring of that year, major speeches on the significance of the Bible from ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, presidential aspirant Woodrow Wilson, and three-time Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan. The Royal Albert Hall in London (March 29) and Carnegie Hall in New York (April 25) supplied the venues for grand celebrations featuring the British prime minister, the American secretary of state, and the ambassadors from Britain to the U.S. and the U.S. to Britain.

Much of the content of those 1911 commemorations was, however, neither historically informative nor religiously insightful. Rather, speakers and writers leaned on stereotypes and truisms. They rang the changes in praising the KJB as "the noblest monument of the English language in the time of its greatest perfection and vigor." They also stressed how this translation provided "the foundation of our civilisation and our religion"; and how it had functioned (in phrases from Thomas Huxley that were quoted repeatedly in 1911) as "the Magna Charta of the poor and the oppressed … the most democratic book in the world."

This time around things have been at least somewhat different. Queen Elizabeth did talk about the importance of the KJB in her Christmas address last December, and Bible exhibits have been mounted in centers of actual or remembered power like Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Palace. But in 2011 most commemorations have resulted from local initiatives under local sponsorship. Thus, along with many events in London, Cambridge, and Oxford, where the KJB's three companies of translators did their work, exhibitions have taken place in English cities like Bradford, Hereford, Manchester, and Peterborough; in Columbus, Ohio, Cumberland, Maryland, Columbia, South Carolina, and many other American sites; in Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Pertshire; in Alberta and Adelaide; in Copenhagen, Antwerp, and Leuven; and at far-flung establishments like the Good Book Shop on Donegall Street in Belfast, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, and the Dunedin Public Library in Otago, New Zealand. In South Africa, a motorcycle tour was organized to commemorate the KJB and promote Bible-reading today, taking participants through the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, the Free State, and Guateng. Further, as an indication of the ecumenical spirit that is more common now than in 1911, Brigham Young University sponsored an exhibit in Provo, Utah, and the splendid Green Family Bible Collection, in which several early KJBs occupy a prominent place, was displayed at the Vatican in Rome.

The extraordinary geographic spread of these local celebrations testifies eloquently to the worldwide impact of the KJB. Almost as impressive is the unusual depth of scholarship that in this anniversary year has documented the translation's profound importance for language, literature, culture, empire, theology, Christian life, and the church. While the six books and one video referenced in this essay are among the best of the crop, there have been many other worthy publications. And of course, the scholarship of 2011 on 1611 does not stand alone. Along with much fluff in 1911, several books were then published that still aid researchers today.[1] Moreover, the harvest of learning in this anniversary year has been preceded for more than a decade by a sturdy crop of worthy studies, several of them by authors who also brought out commemorative volumes for the 400th.[2]

Comprehensive consideration of the KJB must move in many directions, but the fine books published this year have asked and at least partially answered several of the most important questions about the origins of the KJB, its significance for language and culture, and its role in the advancement of Christianity itself. This essay takes up only four such questions, while setting aside the central issue of literary influence that Leland Ryken's Legacy surveys effectively, the crucial matters of translating accuracy and translation style that Robert Alter once again treats superbly in his contribution to the Hamlin and Jones volume ("The Glories and Glitches of the King James Bible: Ecclesiastes as test-case"), or the precise nature of the KJB's influence on English vocabulary (David Crystal's precise accounting discovers 257 "biblical" idioms in common use, with only 18 coming from the KJB alone, but 210 found in the KJB and at least one earlier translation).

(1) What were the circumstances in which the KJB was created, and what implications should be drawn from understanding those circumstances?

The clear message conveyed by David Norton's authoritative Short History, Gordon Campbell's more popular Bible, and Norman Stone's dramatized KJB is that politics drove the story. The Bishops' Bible of 1568 (revised 1572) was not a distinguished translation, but only a few complained about its central place in most English churches. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was a much better and, with its many notes, a more useful version that enjoyed great popularity among Puritans and also many others. Its compact size, economical price, roman print, and all-around-usefulness (the Geneva Bible was the first in English to divide chapters into verses) made it a genuine people's book. The grounding of all 16th-century translations of the New Testament and the Pentateuch in William Tyndale's reasonably accurate and beautifully phrased versions of the 1520s and 1530s ensured that these successor translations would be both reliable and readable.

James nonetheless took the initiative to commission the leading lights in England's intellectual firmament to prepare a new translation. He did this for several reasons, but the primary one was to assert his own authority. James had been crowned King of Scotland in 1567 when he was only thirteen months old. Through a perilous youth and then with steely determination after he obtained his majority, James successfully stabilized the economic condition of his desperately poor land, held his own in tense theological debate with his Presbyterian tutors, and—most important—unified the intransigent factions that had made life impossible for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

As the newly crowned monarch of England, where the stakes were higher and the factions more powerful and almost as belligerent as in Scotland, James used all of his considerable wiles to secure his own rule and consolidate a realm in imminent danger of fracture. Commissioning the new translation was a stroke of genius. A respected Bible prepared for public reading could strengthen and unify the state church (thus demonstrating the king's authority to his bishops). A translation undertaken at the request of Puritans showed that they too might find a place in the king's church (even if James rejected all of their other proposals for reform). A learned translation would advertise his considerable expertise as scholar and lay theologian (in both Scotland and England, James made his own metrical translations of the Psalms direct from Hebrew). Not least, promoting a scriptural text that replaced the Geneva Bible would rid the realm of the Geneva notes that specified the circumstances in which subjects could disobey their monarchs.

As much as politics lay behind James' decision for a new translation, it was not coincidental that the result was a literary masterpiece, for the king's royal self-interest was matched by his acumen as a scholar-theologian. James, in other words, really did want a translation superior in scholarship and language to what had gone before. Yet this desire meshed perfectly with his need for a text that undergirded the king's authority while unifying his people.

And what of the long-term consequences of the intensely political story detailed so well by Norton and Campbell, and dramatized so effectively by director Stone? At the very least, it should be obvious that, whatever else must be said about the KJB's literary character or its spiritual impact, it is imperative to remember that the translation has always been read within webs of conflict and networks of power.

(2) What is the relationship of the KJB to its predecessor translations, and how did this one new translation win out so decisively over all its competitors?

All of the books are helpfully informative about the many ways in which earlier versions, especially the work of William Tyndale, informed the KJB. Indeed, as the translators' splendid prefatory address spelled out clearly, "we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones [to make] one principal good one."

Almost from the start, readers recognized both the dependence of the KJB on Tyndale and other 16th-century versions and the good work of those who prepared a "revised version." Yet it was not this recognition as such that won the day. It was rather that those who controlled the monopoly for publishing Bibles in England stopped producing the Bishops' Bible, supported the regime's effort to keep the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation as far away as possible, and maneuvered to freeze out publication of the Geneva Bible. (A testimony to the enduring popularity of that translation are the several editions of the KJB from the late 17th century that were published with the Geneva Bible notes.) The complex and sometimes sordid details of how royal monopolists schemed, scrounged, and sued to suppress other translations are narrated clearly by David Norton and Gordon Campbell. In fact, it took at least a century before the literary quality of the KJB received much attention. As Campbell points out, Jonathan Swift in 1712 was one of the first public voices to praise the KJB as "a kind of Standard for Language" and to explain that its "many beautiful passages" came from "the Simplicity that runs through the whole."

Even here there is more to the story, since what we today read as the KJB was not what readers before 1769 possessed. That year saw the publication of a refined and corrected text by Benjamin Blayney, an Oxford scholar who judiciously regularized the tens of thousands of variations (typos, "corrections," idiosyncratic printings, spelling changes, flat-out mistakes) that proliferated in KJBs through the translation's first century and a half.

(3) What kind of translation is the KJB, and why should we care?

Besides providing a wealth of well-digested literary history, Leland Ryken stresses in his book that the KJB was "essentially literal." According to Ryken, this way of translating Scripture, added to the singular virtues of the KJB in following this approach, set a very high standard against which the inadequacies of modern "dynamic equivalent" translations are glaringly obvious. Ryken raises here a most important issue with far-ranging implications. In his opinion, which he has developed more extensively in works related to the English Standard Version of Scripture, dynamic equivalent translations cannot begin to compare "with the grandeur and the elegance" of the KJB. In addition, by following the principle of verbal equivalence, the KJB represented "the most accurate English translation" available in the early 17th century. Even today, in his view, and despite better scholarly understanding of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts along with changes in the English language, the KJB is still notable for its accuracy.

Ryken's argument deserves much more than a simple response. But one textual example and one more reference to the KJB's prefatory "note to the reader" can nonetheless highlight the important issues at stake. The example is translations of John 20:31, given first in the "essentially literal" version of William Tyndale, which was followed closely in the KJB and then later in modern revisions of the KJB, and then second in a "dynamic equivalent" version:

Tyndale: These are written that ye might believe, that Jesus is Christ the son of God, and that in believing ye might have life through his name (spelling modernized).
Dynamic Equivalent: These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

In my judgment, Ryken is correct that the Tyndale/KJB translation is both more accurate and more elegant than the modern comparison. Yet if the Tyndale/KJB translation sounds odd or archaic enough to put off a modern reader, or if the dynamic equivalent version communicates to that reader, or if Tyndale/KJB is favored only because of superior elegance without any consideration of what is being communicated by the text—then interpretive judgments become complicated.

The complication relates to an important point that Myles Smith made as the author of the translators' "note to the reader" in 1611. In an extensive defense of Protestant eagerness to translate the Bible and distribute it as widely as possible, against Roman Catholic strictures on giving Scripture to the laity, Smith claimed that "the very meanest translation of the Bible in English … containeth the word of God, yea, is the word of God." Even as Smith was taking pains to explain why the Bible he had worked on was a good translation, he contended that "the word of God" was what any even half-way adequate translation communicated. For Smith, "the word of God" was of utmost importance since, as he wrote in another part of the prefatory note: "But now what piety without truth? What truth, what saving truth, without the word of God? What word of God whereof we may be sure, without the Scripture?"

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."

Paul Gutjahr is more ambivalent as he identifies 1986 as the year when the New International Version "dethroned" the KJB as America's best-selling translation. Gutjahr views this dethroning as an almost inevitable occurrence that "echoes the American political trope of democracy replacing monarchy." But he also wonders if niche marketing, simplified English, and aggressive marketing have not meant a serious loss when compared to "the multivalent, layered meanings which characterize the KJB."

A number of fine essays in Hamlin and Jones can be read as parts of an aggregate narrative tracking the process Gordon Campbell described for Mary Wollstonecraft: from writers who saw the KJB as both great literature and also the word of God (Milton, Bunyan, Philip Doddridge) to those for whom the word of God gave way to simply great literature (the English Romantic poets, Ruskin, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner).

Katherine Clay Bassard contributes the most moving essay in writing about the KJB and African American literature. Her achievement is to show how securely rooted this translation became in black communities, despite its use by many whites to defend slavery, because it constituted "a field for the miraculous and supernatural, the promise of radical individual and social change." But she also describes the growing tendency of recent African American writers to use the KJB only as a rich resource of "signification," signs for constructing the self or community. And she asks poignantly, in an echo of T. S. Eliot, "if the Bible can no longer function as a text of supernatural wonders, what, then, might be its fate as a book of signs … ?"

Brief attention to the four questions treated in this essay barely scratches the surface of first-order considerations prompted by the excellent books (and video) that honor the KJB on its 400th anniversary. Those who have any kind of investment in the word of God, in the heart of Anglo-American language and literature, or in both (and may the Lord increase their number!) have been given an intellectual-spiritual feast in Norman Stone's drama, David Norton's meticulous scholarship, Gordon Campbell's trustworthy popularization, Leland Ryken's provocative arguments about translation, David Crystal's careful exploration of common English, and Hamlin and Jones' path-breaking historical essays.

A different kind of feast—yet still with much historical, literary, and spiritual nourishment—awaits those fortunate enough to possess the facsimile of the 1611 KJB published this year by Oxford University Press and graced with an informative afterword by Gordon Campbell. Physical support is necessary for enjoying this volume, for it is weighty in the physical meaning of the term. But its metaphorical weightiness will create an even stronger impression. Once understanding what the facsimile represents (except for roman type replacing the original gothic, an exact replica including the original's elaborate woodcuts, its ornamental capitals, its typographical mistakes, its initial v's and u's all printed as "v" and the internal u's and v's all printed as "u," its incomplete positioning of pilcrow [¶] marks), the reader is ready to go—past the sycophantish epistle dedicatory to King James, past Myles Smith's luminous translators' note to the reader, past the calendar and almanac and directions for calculating Easter and ordering of Psalms for daily prayers, past the names of books in the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament, past the exceedingly elaborate genealogies and the map of Canaan—to the word of God:

  1. In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth.
  2. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.
  3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans) and Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press).

Mentioned in this essay:

Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, eds., The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).

King James Bible: 400th Anniversary Edition, afterword by Gordon Campbell (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Crossway, 2011).

Norman Stone, producer; John-Rhys Davies, narrator; KJB: The Book that Changed the World, DVD (Lion's Gate, 2011).

1.The most important is A. W. Pollard, Records of the English Bible (Oxford Univ. Press, 1911).

2. As examples, Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (Simon & Schuster, 2001); Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Doubleday, 2001); David Daniell, The Bible in English (Yale Univ. Press, 2003); and Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, 2003). For earlier contributions, see Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Crossway, 2002); and the many definitive volumes of David Norton, including A Textual History of the King James Bible (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), and A History of the Bible as Literature, 2 vols. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

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