The King James Bible at 400

My long-time friend Leland Ryken has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal on the King James translation of the Bible, which marks its 400th anniversary this year.  After telling about how the new king of England granted only one of the Puritans’ requests–to make a new English translation of the Bible–and how 47 scholars completed the project in only 6 years, Lee discusses its impact:

The King James Version was not an original translation. It was a revision—technically of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, but actually of an entire century of English Bible translations starting with William Tyndale. This history lies behind a famous statement in the preface to the King James Version: “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The King James Bible is familiarly called the Authorized Version, but the king who lent his name to the translation never officially authorized it, even though he hoped that the new translation would help to unify a politically and religiously divided kingdom (a kingdom that would erupt into civil war not long after his death in 1625). Nor did church officials authorize the new translation. The King James Version in reality was authorized by the people, who chose it over others. For three and a half centuries, when English-speaking people spoke of “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version.

The King James translators believed their task was to take readers as close as possible to what the original text says, and in doing so they created a great work of literature. Its style is part of its magic. Yet that style is hard to define.

Modern readers are too quick to conclude that with its now-archaic language and grammar, the Bible’s style is embellished and formal. But thee and thou pronouns and verb endings like walkest and sayeth were a feature of everyday speech in the early 17th century.

However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant. “Godliness with contentment is great gain”—six words and unforgettable. “Give us this day our daily bread.” “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The King James style is a paradox: It is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect. . . .

For more than three centuries, the King James Bible provided the central frame of reference for the English-speaking world. Former Yale University Prof. George Lindbeck well claims that until recently “Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world.” During the years of its dominance, the King James Bible was the omnipresent force in any cultural sphere that we can name—education (especially childhood education), religion, family and home, the courtroom, political discourse, language and literacy, choral music and hymns, art and literature. For more than two centuries children in England and America learned to read by way of the Bible. . . .

The influence of the King James Bible is perhaps most profound in the realm of literature. From Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to Toni Morrison’s “Paradise,” it is a presence quite apart from the author’s religious stance. In his book “The Bible as Literature,” British literary scholar T. R. Henn said it best: “The Authorized Version of 1611 . . . achieves as we read a strange authority and power as a work of literature. It becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source.”

Rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It is consistently, year after year, either second or third on the list of current Bible sales in the United States. Furthermore, the King James Version lives on in two modern translations that perpetuate the translation philosophy and style of the King James Version while updating its scholarship and language. They are the New King James Version and the English Standard Version.

via Leland Ryken: How We Got the King James Bible – WSJ.com.

The Common English Bible

A new Bible translation is now available, the Common English Bible.  Check out the website, which includes this comparison of passages from the new CEB and other translations:  Common English Bible – Compare Translations.

What agendas are evident in this translation?  What theology is at work in the word choices?  What can you say about the literary quality of the CEB?

HT: Matthew Cantirino

More Bible translations

The Washington Post has an article about two new Bible translations.  We’ve already blogged about the new gender-adjusted NIV that will take the place of the NIV beloved by many evangelicals.  There is also a new translation of the New American Bible, the version approved for Roman Catholics.

The new Catholic Bible retools only the Old Testament. The first new version since 1970, it is meant to sound more poetic and more contemporary, with “spoils” replacing “booty” and “burnt offering” supplanting “Holocaust.”

It could stir controversy, however, with decisions such as the one meant to be truer to the Hebrew – translating Isaiah 7:14 to say a “young woman” shall conceive, and bear a son, instead of a “virgin,” which is how the previous Catholic Old Testament and most evangelical Bibles read. …

Some experts predict that the radical fragmentation in the marketplace will kill the contemporary notion that the Bible is a fixed text meant to be read literally.

Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western University who just came out with a book called “The Rise and Fall of the Bible,” compared the flurry of versions to “a distressed crop. When a tree is about to die and puts out tons of seeds.”

The Bible, Beal said, “is not a book of answers but a library of questions. It doesn’t speak in one voice. It doesn’t take one perspective. This frantic, desperate effort to resolve contradictions is going against the grain of the Bible, which seems to embrace contradictions.”

via Sign of the times: Updated Bible.

One problem with today’s Roman Catholicism is its embrace of liberal Protestantism!  Liberal Bible critics have been pushing for the “young woman” translation of Isaiah’s prophecy ever since the RSV.  Never mind that when the New Testament quotes the passage it cites the Septuagint, which is clearly “virgin,” a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ.  Scripture is not allowed to interpret Scripture, as in classical Protestant hermeneutics. But now Roman Catholics are going down that line.  Will they now pray to the Young Woman Mary?

And what do you think of the Bible scholar’s comments?

Do you agree that so many translations is diluting the sense that the Bible has a fixed authoritative meaning?

Bible translations and metaphor

In my earlier post about the even newer New International Version of the Bible, I complained about how that line of translations is indifferent to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language. I cited as an example how the new NIV renders “the valley of the shadow of death” as “the dark valley.”

I would argue that sensitivity to literary qualities is necessary in an accurate translation. Metaphors are not just ornaments. They express meaning and are essential in expressing complex, multi-leveled, rich meanings that go beyond simple prosaic statements.

Consider these translations of Genesis 4:1:

The historic English Bible, from the KJV through the ESV, keeps the Hebrew metaphor: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.”

The 1984 NIV thinks it has to explain what the metaphor means: “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The 2010 NIV is more romantic: “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The original Hebrew uses a profound metaphor that communicates important meaning about marital sexuality in God’s design: They “knew” each other.

Ironically, the other readings are just as metaphorical and even more euphemistic. “Lay with” is ugly and strangely old-fashioned, a version of “sleep with.” “Make love,” not too long ago, meant courting or flirting, not having sex (so that many contemporary readers of 19th century novels think they are much more racy than they are).

At any rate, “Adam knew Eve” is how the original language reads. If God inspired the words, He surely inspired the metaphors.

The two different NIVs

tODD, a long-time reader and commenter on this blog, told me that he was using Bible Gateway, that extremely useful site that allows you to find Bible passages from a wide array of translations, when he noticed that an NIV passage he was finding was different from the same NIV passage he learned as a child. He dug into the matter, and it turns out there is a new version of the NIV, with many quite different translations, that will replace the NIV of 1984.

On November 1, the new translation was put up on Bible Gateway. In March, 2011, it will be published as the New International Version, with both the controversial Today’s New International Version (TNIV) (with all of the gender-neutral and other non-conservative language) AND the original New International Version (that had become the dominant evangelical version) going out of print.

These plans were announced some time ago, but I suspect many people do not realize that this change is underway. The Wikipedia article on the TNIV says this:

“On September 1, 2009, it was announced that development of a new revision of the NIV is in progress, and that once it is released both the TNIV and the 1984 NIV would be discontinued.[3] Keith Danby, president and chief executive officer of Biblica, once known as the International Bible Society said they erred in presenting past updates, failed to convince people revisions were needed and “underestimated” readers’ loyalty to the 1984 NIV. The update NIV will be issued in 2011.”

The Wikipedia article on the NIV gives the updated details: “A major revision was announced on September 1, 2009 and was published online on November 1, 2010 at http://www.biblegateway.com and http://www.biblica.com. The first printed editions will be published in March 2011.”

The revised NIV will not use inclusive language for God, but it will use inclusive language in other places. Grammatical purists like me will be annoyed that the plural pronoun “they” will be used for singulars of unspecified gender. See Translation Notes, which lists other new readings. I’ll let tODD report the ones that caught his eye:

1 Peter 5:9
(NIV 1984) Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
(NIV 2011) Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

James 5:7-9 (partial)
(NIV 1984) Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. … Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
(NIV 2011) Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. … Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

* ‟Saints” often becomes ‟God’s people,” ‟the Lord’s people,” ‟the Lord’s holy people” and the
like (as in Romans 8:27)
* Certain uses of ‟Christ” are now ‟Messiah.”
* Some occurrences of ‟Jews,” especially in John, have become ‟Jewish leaders” or something
similar.
* Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh.”

Perhaps the most-changed verse, that I could find, was Malachi 2:16:
(NIV 1984) “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself[a]with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
(NIV 2011) “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

There are some good changes, in my opinion, such as translating some passages that are ambiguous in the original languages so that they are still ambiguous in English, leaving room for various interpretations, instead of the translator taking a position and making it look like that is what the Bible says! (That, to me, is the bane of many modern translations.) But still there remains lots of interpretations for the sake of modern readers in place of simply rendering what these non-modern texts literally say, this being part of the translating philosophy of the NIV. Here too is that tendency in American evangelicalism to cut itself off from the church of the past (eliminating “saints”?). Not to mention the presumption of correcting the Bible’s “sexist” language.

It also looks like the new NIV will continue and maybe even intensify what most annoyed me about the old NIV: the utter tone-deaf resistance to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language:

Psalm 23: 4: (NIV 1984) “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . . ”
(NIV 2011) “Even though I walk through the darkest valley. . .”


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