“Do we not already possess,” it may be said, “in the Authorised (King James) Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?” Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.
There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of our turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) “barbarous” English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into “language such as men do use” - language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernised is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial, and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic, and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the world in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly king …
I am greatly fond of Early Modern English. Whether in Shakespeare, Milton, or Bunyan, Chapman’s Iliad, or the Book of Common Prayer, I find myself deeply moved by its poetry, splendor, and majesty. Wonderful though those works are, none hold a candle to the Authorised (“King James”) Version of the Bible. Consider this famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, often read at weddings. First, let’s hear how it’s translated in The Message:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Granted, The Message is kind of goofy and hopefully few people take it seriously. But now listen to this passage in the mighty KJV:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
doth not behave itself unseemly,
seeketh not her own,
is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil;
rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Besides the wise use of the word “charity” rather than the all-purpose word “love” to represent ἀγάπη, a topic which could have an entire article of its own, this translation is simply poetic. Its style has even led people to assume that Portia’s speech from Act IV of The Merchant of Venice, is actually from the Bible:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
But does this beauty have any value? Does poetry, qua poetry, provide any edification in a specifically Christian sense to readers of the KJV as opposed to other translations? Can the beauty and solemnity of the translation tempt us to value speaking in “holy tones,” mere externality in religion, or, worst, idolatry?
I’ll write my thoughts on this question, but first I can’t resist showing KJV absolutely dunking on The Message one more time:
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
It’s not even a fair fight!
As C.S. Lewis explained in the above quotation, any translation of Scripture will always engender its own group of supporters. While Latin had its own nearly mystical hold on speakers of English, French, German, etc. as an almost otherworldly ecclesiastical or sacred tongue, the “vulgar” translations got at them by quite another, and probably deeper, way. Your mother tongue is the one you will be most emotionally attached to your whole life long. I know Mexicans and Guatamalans who speak perfect English, but go out of their way to find a Spanish-speaking church. There is something about hearing the word of God in your own tongue that cuts to the heart in a way nothing else can. I myself am somewhat competent in German and Russian, and I can (and have) read much of the Bible in both. While it’s illuminating to see the same evergreen truths expressed in a different language, nothing seems to “happen” when I read them there. But just let somebody read the account of Christ’s birth from the second chapter of Luke, and it’s hard for me not to choke up.
However, much as I am swayed by the beauty of the KJV, I realize that can also be a stumbling block to receiving the actual truth of God’s word. Whenever I am tempted to reflect merely on its poetic beauty or the comfort of a familiar passage, I am being diverted from worshipping the God whose word it is and transferring that adoration to a mere object. This is idolatry. For this reason, I occasionally dip into other translations (which ones being another article-worthy topic) to ensure that I’m not just engaging in reading some fine literature, but that I truly understand Jesus Christ, God the Son, was crushed for my sin; He took my punishment and imputed to me His own righeousness, and that I have been moved from death to life, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and made safe from condemnation, and that the Maker of Heaven and Earth accomplished all this when I couldn’t do it for myself and indeed was a backward and ignorant hater of God.
And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox - we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear, but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations.
If you are an English speaker, then the KJV is your cultural heritage and birthright. It is a majestic reminder of the ingenuity of man as an image-bearer of God. But don’t carry this appreciation too far. Christianity is not something that you should believe because it is helpful or moral, nor because you have some cultural or folkish attachment to it, nor yet because this or that translation is beautiful. It is something that ought to be believed because it is true and the ramifications of belief are eternal. The word of God is not that certain set of symbols or syllables that happen, through historical accident, to exist as this or that translation. The word of God is immutable, eternal, and has ultimate power. It is far more ancient than our language; it is far more durable than any ink or paper that happen to instantiate one of its copies.
For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away:
but the word of the LORD endureth for ever.