You know the old saying— ’something gets lost in translation’. That is especially true when we are dealing with a language as different from Biblical languages as English is. Every translation is already an interpretation because scholars had to decide which of a variety of English words and phrases most nearly and accurately represents what the original text meant as well as said. And of course in many cases there are no exact equivalent terms. For example, there are five or so Greek words for different kinds of love. In English we just have the word love. Or take the word kingdom. In English it always seems to connote a place or at least it is a noun. But the Aramaic term malkuta like the Greek Basileia can have either a verbal or a noun sense, which is why I prefer the translation ‘dominion’ since in English we can talk about having dominion over someone (a verbal sense) or visiting a dominion ( a noun sense).
With this prolegomena, it is appropriate since there are all sorts of celebrations large and little of the 400 anniversary of the publishing of the King James Bible in 1611, to ask what we should think of this landmark work, this many years later. Mark Noll in a lead article in the last issue of CT tells some of the historical tale about the King James Version. First of all, it is not a translation done by good King James. It was done by a translation team of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge, and based on the best original language manuscripts they could muster. And sometimes they were so poor, that the Latin manuscripts were in fact closer to the original than the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts they had to go on. A translation is only as good as the Biblical manuscripts one has to use as a basis for translation. And frankly today we are much closer to the original language texts of the Bible than we were in 1611. We have earlier and better manuscripts to go on, and lots more of them. For example, we have about 5,000 whole or partial manuscripts of the Greek NT some going back to the second century A.D. Lancelot Andrewes and his team of translators in 1611 had no such luxury. And further they lived in an age before modern textual analysis and reassembling of original readings of a text done in a scholar way.
The history of the English Bible is of course a story in itself, but what we need to know about the KJV is it was not even the most popular translation in its own day, and for about 50 years there after. The Protestant Geneva Bible was more popular and with Catholics the Douay Rheims Bible was the translation of choice. Even so, as Alistair McGrath demonstrates at length in his wonderful review of the history of the KJV entitled In the Beginning…. the KJV was not intended to be an entirely original new or fresh translation. To the contrary, the King had said they needed to follow closer prior well known translations, such as the Tyndale Bible and even Wycliffe’s translation, as well as the Geneva Bible. BTW, it was not the KJV that the Pilgrims tended to bring to America and first use— that was the Geneva Bible for the most part. Many of them were ‘Geneva Bible only’ kind of folk. One of the more startling things I discovered when studying Tyndale’s wonderful translation is that many of the famous memorable translation turns of phrase like ‘by the skin of one’s teeth’ or ‘apple of his eye’ or ‘the quick and the dead’ and the like were in Tyndale’s translation and were simply taken over by the KJV translators, which again, were not tasked with creating a completely new translation into English. Indeed, King James had a political motivation for having the new translation done. The Geneva Bible, especially in its notes, seemed to question the notion of the ‘divine right of kings’ to rule. King James was having none of that. Politics and religion were all intertwined when the KJV was produced. We need to understand that some 140 editions (not reprints, editions) of the Geneva Bible had been undertaken between 1544 and 1610. It was hard to stem the tide of this popular Bible with Protestants. As Noll chronicles, it was at least 150 years after 1611 when people began to really extol the literary merits of the KJV and even longer before it became the go to translation of Protestants in America. Indeed one can say that it is really part of the religious history of America in the 19th and 20th centuries that made the KJV as enormously popular as it has become. King James might well be gratified, but he would be equally surprised.
The KJV of course became the Bible of Presidents in the 19th and 2oth centuries. Lincoln quoted it liberally during the Civil War, and it was no accident that President Obama chose Lincoln’s own KJV Bible to be sworn in on when he became President. The New KJV is of course an updating of the KJV eliminating a good deal of the archaic verbage, but not eliminating many of the questionable textual decisions that with the benefit of many more manuscripts and much more knowledge we shouldn’t be following any more. For example, the case for maintaining Mark 16.9ff. as an original part of the Gospel of Mark as Mark originally wrote it is not merely weak, it is frankly fatally flawed in many ways (sorry Kentucky snake handlers and poison drinkers). The so-called long ending of Mark is at best a second century A.D. addendum meant to round out that Gospel properly. And there is the even bigger problem that when the overarching guiding principle of a translation is not doing a fresh new translation, but being faithful to a now outdated old one, we already have a problem. Translators are of course notably conservative by nature. They tend to follow the examples of translations that have come before. But when you do that, how will anyone ever know that Hebrews 12. 2 does not say Jesus is the author and finisher of ‘our’ faith. The word ‘our’ is in no Greek manuscript. Or how will one learn that the earliest text of Phil. 2.4 does not say ‘look not only to your own interests but also to that of others’ but rather ‘look not to your own interests but rather to the interests of others’. The answer is no one dependent on English translations that are that tradition bound is likely to ever know the original wording of such verses. They are stuck in the King James spin cycle and can’t get out.
One might conclude, ye verily, that I have some ax to grind against the KJV and the NKJV (which still tends to follow the Western Text and Majority text in ways that don’t amount to sound text criticism) but in fact, I am thankful for any translation that has done as much good for lives Christian and otherwise as the KJV has done. It has not only shaped English diction in ways that have enriched the language, it has formed many generations of Christians with memorable and memorizable forms of verses that one keeps in one’s heart forever. Still to this day, whenever I am called upon the recite John 3.16 there is a ‘whosoever believeth’ that tends to come out of my mouth. If you like Shakespearean and 17th and 18th century English from an aesthetic point of view, it is not surprising you like the KJV.
Lancelot Andrewes and his team were not infallible translators, and no English translation should be baptized and called perfect, but it was a very good translation for its day considering the state of Biblical scholarship and knowledge of available original language manuscripts in 1611. If the measure of the worth of something is the impact it has had for good on human lives, there has hardly been a book that has had more impact on the world since 1611 than the KJV Bible.
So here is where we tip our hats to old King James. He could never have realized what an impact he would have on the world in a Christian and Biblical way when he tried to have an antidote to the Geneva Bible produced. He was neither the author nor the authorizer of this translation in the broader sense, but he was certainly the instigator. We still have much to appreciate about what his translation team accomplished