Sacred words, well spoken!

Marking 400 years of the King James Bible.

Early copy of King James Bible 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: BBC)
Early copy of King James Bible 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: BBC)
It may be Britain’s greatest contribution to the world, and yet scholars quip that it came from an unlikely source – a committee, of all things.
On May 2, Britain and the world began marking the 400 year anniversary of the publication of the authorized King James version of the Bible, a literary work from 1611 which still towers over the growing smorgasbord of “contemporary” Bible translations compiled ever since.
Written in an old-fashioned prose that remains timelessly stylish, it has become the most popular English translation of the Bible ever, as well as the most beloved and quoted literary masterpiece in the English language.
Translations of sacred texts – whether from Judaism, Christianity or Islam – have always been ringed with controversy. Jewish liturgy prefers chanting the original Hebrew, while Muslims frown on ever taking the Koran out of Muhammad’s mother Arabic tongue.
The Septuagint marked the first major Jewish attempt to translate the Hebrew Bible into another language – Greek, the lingua franca of the day.
The first Jewish translation into English was not until Isaac Leeser in 1853. Until then (and ever since) the King James rendition of the Old Testament was the one most widely “adopted” among Jews.
Within Christianity, the Latin Vulgate completed by Jerome in Bethlehem in 405 CE was the dominant compilation of Christian Scripture for the next 800 years, lasting well past the demise of Latin as an everyday language. Thus the Protestant Reformation included among its demands the rendering of the Bible into the vernacular languages of Europe, so ordinary folks could read and interpret its meaning on their own.
In the British Isles, John Wycliffe completed the first English translation of the Bible by going directly from Jerome’s Latin edition. Between 1526 and 1611, no less than 50 different translations of various parts of the Bible surfaced around the kingdom, of which four were complete versions containing both the Old and New Testaments.
In 1526, William Tyndale completed the first version of the New Testament that went directly from Hebrew and Greek into English. The so-called Geneva Bible from 1560 is the first complete canon of Scripture to be translated directly from Hebrew into English, in addition to being the first Bible to make use of numbered chapters and verses as we know them today. In 1538 the Great Bible was released, followed by the Bishops Bible of 1568, as well as the Douay Bible of 1610.
So Bible translations in Christian circles had became commonplace, yet they remained divisive. The controversy surrounding the translation ordered by King James was not just academic and religious, it was also about politics.
In 1567, James VI ascended to the throne of Scotland. In 1603, he further inherited the crown of England and Ireland from Elizabeth I and became King James I, monarch of all Great Britain. Yet his new realm was mired in a heated theological debate between the more conservative Anglicans and the reformist Puritans, who wanted to finish purging the Church of England of Roman Catholic influence.
Always game for a religious argument, the king appointed himself as personal mediator. He eventually sided with the established Anglican churchmen, as they posed less of a political threat to his throne. But he also distrusted the popular Geneva Bible because it had marginal notes about how people ought to view kings which he viewed as subversive. So, as the debates ended, James threw a concession to the growing Puritan movement by officially commissioning a new translation of the Bible, hoping it would bring peace to the kingdom.
The year was 1604. At a conference held at the Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London, a college of 54 men was initially chosen for the task and divided into six nine-man subcommittees, known as “companies.”
In his lucid account, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, author Adam Nicolson describes this eccentric band of translators as a sundry mix of not only respected scholars proficient in both Greek and Hebrew, but also pompous clergy, drunkards and plain troublemakers. For seven years, they labored under general and specific rules laid down by King James himself. Some 47 translators were still standing at the end.
Along the way, they translated straight from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, making use of the Septuagint and the Masoretic text. The translators also relied heavily on existing Tyndale translations, thus hastening an otherwise monumental task – some estimates claim over 90 percent of the King James Bible derives from Tyndale’s work decades earlier.
Yet since most of the committee’s notes were lost, their scholarly deliberations and undoubtedly heated debates have escaped the probing eyes of historians.
Still, the results evidence a conscious and cohesive effort to create a language with both rhythm and pace suitable for its main objective – a pulpit Bible “appointed to be read in churches.” They polished the English phrasing to sound musical and poetic in public readings, like the iambic pentameter of the Shakespearean age.
In this regard, many scholars and clergy credit the King James translators for forging a lyrical, elevated style that rose above the mundane discourse of that or later eras to take on the feel of a foreign, almost heavenly tongue. The cadences and dramatic pauses suggest divine origins. The repeated use of the already archaic “verily” sounded like the way God indeed would talk. Thus the oddity of the King James Bible has lent it an enduring appeal.
The original Hebrew Bible also has these rhythmic, celestial qualities, according to Halvor Ronning, director of the Home for Bible Translators in Jerusalem. An expert in Biblical Hebrew, he has helped train translators from dozens of countries worldwide over recent decades to produce Bibles that go directly from the original Hebrew and Greek text into their various native tongues.
“Someone who doesn’t know Hebrew will think that it’s a matter of years to translate the Bible, while those who are already familiar with the language will say it’s a lifetime job,” Ronning recently told The Christian Edition.
Thus, Ronning explained, the King James translators unquestionably relied on the previous works of Tyndale, who was the first biblical scholar to move from Hebrew and Greek straight into English. He, in turn, had been inspired by his contemporary Martin Luther, who did his translation directly from Hebrew and Greek into German. Tyndale did not complete the whole Bible, but had managed to translate the entire New Testament and considerable portions of the Old.
“A large part of the work was hence already done when King James commissioned his authorized translation,” said Ronning. “A recent study shows that some 70% of the Old and New Testament in the King James Version are made up of expressions that can be attributed to Tyndale.
There is, therefore, no doubt that he had a heavy impact on the process and that his preliminary work reduced the time it took for the King James translators to finish their mission.
“The men behind the translation did a superb job for their time, so much so that it has been a favorite Bible until very recently,” insisted Ronning.
“Nevertheless, the King James scholars were not equipped with the same knowledge as we possess today.”
Ronning noted that the main difference in Bible translation today compared to 1611 is the advantage of being able to experience the land of the Bible in 3-D and to use spoken Hebrew as a medium of communication among translators.
“Of the first one thousand words that you encounter when learning modern Hebrew, over 80% is straight out of the Hebrew Bible,” he stated.
“Another important improvement has come from research in ancient languages such as Ugaritic, Acadian, Hittite, and ancient Persian.
Archeology is another field that has helped us to understand and perceive the settings of the Bible from a more enlightened perspective than the 1611 translators had access to.”
One simple example of their limited knowledge was their references to the Galilee as a “sea” rather than an inland lake, Ronning offered. Another mistranslation related to biblical geography can be found in Numbers 13:17, where the Hebrew word negev – a specific region in southern Israel – was misconstrued as saying Moses was directing his people “south” whereas actually they were heading north.
Nevertheless, Ronning assured there are numerous examples where the translators did deliver and as a result produced an excellent work.
“One such example is found in Psalm 23, where the King James scholars have managed to encapsulate a very accurate and precise meaning of the rod and the staff as an instrument for both discipline and support respectively,” said Ronning.
Dr. Randall Buth, director of the Jerusalem-based Biblical Hebrew Ulpan and lecturer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, also has high praise for the King James translators.
“I think almost every translation in the King James is excellent. They were not done lightly, but they are all translations, which have to make choices to sound natural. So there is no such thing as necessarily ‘got it wrong’ or ‘got it right,’” said Buth, a specialist in the Synoptic Gospels.
“When you translate, you are in a new system. The new language does not have the same points of evaluation, and so if you stay close to the original system you may actually miscommunicate in the new, even though you are close to the old.”
The field of Bible translation is as flourishing as ever today, and both Ronning and Buth are strong advocates of starting from the original Hebrew and Greek. Ronning just hosted a tour of veteran Wycliffe translators and outlined for them the virtues of working straight from biblical Hebrew and from the vantage point of the Land of Israel. The reaction was positive, he said, adding that there remains much work to do.
Of the current 6,600 spoken languages in the world, only 469 can claim a complete version of the Bible, while some 1,231 languages have the 27 books of the New Testament translated. There are an additional 2,527 tongues that have translated specific parts of the Bible and over 2,000 tongues have translations now in progress.
Altogether, this makes the Bible the most translated book in the entire world. And no translation has been so impacting and endearing as the King James version.
Thus this year’s 400th festivities are a historic and cultural milestone for the United Kingdom as well as for the English language. The authorized King James Bible is still the number one selling book in the world. It is credited with making Britain one of the most literate societies on earth. It raised literary standards and educated the masses.
Indeed, the universal influence of the King James Bible can be easily seen in the long list of idioms that have made their way into everyday use, even by Bible detractors unaware of their origin: clean hands; feet of clay; fly in the ointment; drop in the bucket; twinkling of an eye; labor of love; casting pearls before swine; lamb to the slaughter; skin of your teeth; thorn in the flesh; wolf in sheep’s clothing; writing on the wall, et al.
Over time, however, the significance of the King James Bible has been lost on most Britons. Those behind this year’s tributes hope to recapture its central place in the national heritage, and turn the “Bible bashers” of 2010 into true “English scholars” of 2011.
Thus, churches all across the nation are taking part in the observances.
Various denominations, schools and communities are partnering with Biblefresh and the British Bible Society to make the most of the occasion.
From grand cathedrals to home prayer groups, Christians are holding Bible read-a-thons and other commemorative activities. In a day when people want shortcuts and easy answers, the King James Bible is being presented again as both literary genius and timeless truth.
Today we have all manner of more “accessible” and specialized Bible translations for every taste and temperament – for hippies and yuppies, for feminists and gays and those preaching gender neutrality.
Even skateboarders have their own “rad” version. But most tend to mediocrity in comparison to the elegance and majesty of the KJV.
Thus, many Christians still lovingly cling to their trusted King James Bible, figuring that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.”