Impact of the King James Bible

King James Bible
Detail from title page of King James Bible, 1611 (Wikimedia Commons).
Novelist John Updike once called the King James Bible “our language’s lone masterpiece produced by committee.” He said that in a New Yorker review of Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch—The Five Books of Moses.

Well, Alter now has a new book about the King James Bible and its influence on the style of six American novelists: Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. It’s called Pen of Iron, a title taken from Jeremiah 17.1.

The idea might strike some as a bit esoteric, but I think there’s something important here. Alter speaks of the King James Bible as “determin[ing] the foundational language and symbolic imagery of a whole culture” in America. Beautiful, lyrical, impactful language has staying power. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Four hundred years, and the translation is still ringing in our ears. Despite fading “fervid faith in Scripture as revelation,” says Alter, “the language of the Bible remains an ineluctable framework for verbal culture in this country.”

But is the iron pen showing signs of rust? Alter points out that the 300th anniversary was publicly celebrated by such luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He suspects that scholars will be the main group in observance for 2011. I think that would be a shame if it came true.

All of this brings to mind a few questions: What do you think of the influence of the King James Bible on American culture? Has it had an impact on you personally? Do you think that contemporary translations trade long-term cultural impact for accessibility? And finally, even more speculative than the last, do you think any modern translations potentially have the staying power that the KJV has had?

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  • I love the King James Version of the Bible. Since the mid-1970’s, I have delved into the KJV with passion. I love the strength of the language–what is better than these words: “…that thou mayest cleave to him (God), for he is thy life…” (Deuteronomy 30:20)?

  • Larry Bray

    I think the only version that could have the same impact as the KJV would be the ESV…but the impact would only be ecclesiastical in nature. I don’t think any version will have the impact the KJV had on culture as a whole.

  • Don

    The KJV had a tremendous impact upon my spiritual development. I came out of a tradition that believed that “if it the KJV was good enough for Peter and Paul it was good enough for us.” However, as I grew spiritually I began seeing the gross inadequacies of the KJV. The clear message of God was being obscured by the beautiful but mystifying language of the then 360 year old translation. As someone who has dedicated his life to clarity in communication, I came to see the KJV as archaic and obstructive to spiritual development. Ministers spent a lot more time explaining the meaning KJV words and phrases than they did the spiritual content behind them. The KJV is beautiful, but it only speaks to those who have mastered its thundering diction and convoluted syntax.

    Today, I view the KJV as an old friend, but one that is so limited in so many ways in its value to communicate, I never recommend it to anyone. People who use it must master Elizabethan English before Scripture becomes accessible and that’s an unnecessary step. There is no point in translating old English meanings into today’s understandable English when there are a number of excellent translations that do not require that.

    There is no question that the KJV has been a major influence in our culture. However, I hope our understanding of biblical precepts never again gets locked in a time capsule as it did during the long reign of the KJV. I also hope that no other more recent translation reign as long as the KJV did; contemporary translations add vitality to faith.

  • Joel, I couldn’t resist quoting some of what I said about the KJV in The Story of the Bible:
    “The influence of the King James Version on English civilization has been profound. It has helped form our language; it has given context to our literature; it has inspired our music; and for centuries it was the one book a family would own and read before all others. Wherever the British went, they took the King James Bible with them. The first English Bible printed in the New World was a King James Version and its words can be found in American place names, political speeches, and literature. It was the foundation of early education.
    Around the world people have been comforted by the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” They have been challenged by the words, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” and “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” They have celebrated with the words, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” And the words of the King James Version have expressed the heart of the Christian message with a poetic beauty: “But now is Christ risen from the dead. . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
    The King James Version has been treasured for four hundred years. “Wherever in the world there are English readers, there are copies,” says David Daniell. “In the story of the earth we live on, its influence cannot be calculated. Its words have been found to have a unique quality, of being able both to lift up a dedicated soul higher than had been thought, and to reach even below the lowest depths of human experience. . . . Sometimes the translation is wrong, or clumsy, or baffling. KJV’s readings of the base texts are in hundreds of places now superseded by greater knowledge, or just better texts. Its older English can confuse the tongue. In particulars, it is not perfect. But the great love it has received is justified by its master of the craft of the declaration of an incarnate God.”

  • Like Larry Stone, I am quoting from my own book (MAJESTIE, 10/10):

    “Other than linguistic issues, the difference in tone, mood, the depth of its rhapsody, the stateliness, and perhaps age, the major difference between the King James Bible and all other Bibles is that the KJB is the only Bible that has the seal and imprimatur of a king. Other translations may have an organization behind them, a movement, a single personality, maybe even a corporation, but nothing quite like a king, and definitely nothing quite like James.”

    The following are just some thoughts (not necessarily in the book): The KJV is a monarchist’s bible. We serve a monarchist God. It was nurtured by an absolutist king. The rule of God is absolute. The kingdom of heaven is not a democracy. The KJV was created with majesty in mind, with royalty, dominion, with that “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” resonance. We had to reach for it. Reach was, and is, part of the charm. Today’s translations, which, by the way, I love, are tending the other direction.

    There will never be another translation like the KJV, proving, as Robert Frost might have said it, “Nature’s first green is gold.”

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