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The King James Version at 400

The King James Version at 400: Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence

David G. Burke
John F. Kutsko
Philip H. Towner
  • Book Info
    The King James Version at 400
    Book Description:

    In this collection of essays, thirty scholars from diverse disciplines offer their unique perspectives on the genius of the King James Version, a translation whose 400th anniversary was recently celebrated throughout the English-speaking world. While avoiding nostalgia and hagiography, each author clearly appreciates the monumental, formative role the KJV has had on religious and civil life on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) as well as on the English language itself. In part 1 the essayists look at the KJV in its historical contexts—the politics and rapid language growth of the era, the emerging printing and travel industries, and the way women are depicted in the text (and later feminist responses to such depictions). Part 2 takes a closer look at the KJV as a translation and the powerful precedents it set for all translations to follow, with the essayists exploring the translators’ principles and processes (with close examinations of “Bancroft’s Rules” and the Prefaces), assessing later revisions of the text, and reviewing the translation’s influence on the English language, textual criticism, and the practice of translation in Jewish and Chinese contexts. Part 3 looks at the various ways the KJV has impacted the English language and literature, the practice of religion (including within the African American and Eastern Orthodox churches), and the broader culture. The contributors are Robert Alter, C. Clifton Black, David G. Burke, Richard A. Burridge, David J. A. Clines, Simon Crisp, David J. Davis, James D. G. Dunn, Lori Anne Ferrell, Leonard J. Greenspoon, Robin Griffith-Jones, Malcolm Guite, Andrew E. Hill, John F. Kutsko, Seth Lerer, Barbara K. Lewalski, Jacobus A. Naudé, David Norton, Jon Pahl, Kuo-Wei Peng, Deborah W. Rooke, Rodney Sadler Jr., Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Harold Scanlin, Naomi Seidman, Christopher Southgate, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Joan Taylor, Graham Tomlin, Philip H. Towner, David Trobisch, and N. T. Wright.

    eISBN: 978-1-58983-799-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  2. Foreword: Vital Aspects of the KJV Genius
    (pp. ix-xx)
    David G. Burke

    The American writer and critic Dwight Macdonald once wrote:

    The King James Bible came at the end of the Elizabethan age, between Shakespeare and Milton, when Englishmen were using words more passionately, richly, vigorously, wittily, and sublimely than ever before or since. Although none of the divines or scholars who made it were literary men, their language was touched with genius—the genius of a period when style was the common property of educated men rather than an individual achievement.¹

    As this borrowed Latin term,genius, has evolved in English usage, it has come to mean “an exceptional natural capacity...

  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
    John F. Kutsko and Philip H. Towner
  4. The Editors to the Reader
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  5. Frontispiece: 1611 KJV Title Page
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  6. Rendering Voices: A Poem for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible
    (pp. 1-2)
    Christopher Southgate
  7. The KJV at 400: Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence
    (pp. 3-28)
    David Norton

    As an aid to understanding the genius of the King James Version (KJV), I offer here a sketch of what it is, how it was made, and how, after publication, it became the supreme English Bible. I conclude with some thoughts about one manifestation of its genius, its literary influence.¹

    The KJV began to be written when the Israelites moved beyond telling to writing down their beliefs and the stories of their heritage. This is the simple point we should never forget: the KJV is what it is primarily because of what the Jews and the early Christians wrote. It...

  8. Part 1: The King James Version in Its Historical Context

    • The King James Bible in Early Modern Political Context
      (pp. 31-42)
      Lori Anne Ferrell

      “The Bible only,” the English churchman William Chillingworth wrote in 1638, “is the religion of Protestants.” Whether it was also the religion of England’s Protestant church is the question that prompts this essay. It is a question rarely asked. A number of recent books, shrewdly timed to take advantage of the 400th anniversary of the so-called King James Bible, have focused our attention onto that enterprise of 1611 and the processes, political and scholarly, that allowed other early modern Bibles to be rendered into English. We are now well educated in the Bible’s literary influence, reception, and modes of translation....

    • The KJV and the Rapid Growth of English in the Elizabethan-Jacobean Era
      (pp. 43-54)
      Seth Lerer

      The period from 1500 to 1650 saw the largest documented increase in the English vocabulary since the Norman Conquest.¹ It has been estimated that about 70 percent of our current, working lexicon comes from words borrowed from outside the language, and the overwhelming bulk of these words entered learned and common parlance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such words, too, were not simply lifted wholesale from other tongues. They were coined out of the raw material of classical example: inkhorn terms, aureate diction, denotations for scientific and technical material—all of these came to increase the vocabulary of the...

    • English Printing before the King James Bible: A Reconsideration
      (pp. 55-68)
      David J. Davis

      English printing in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is of immense importance to the King James Bible and is perhaps one of the most overlooked or oversimplified aspects of the Bible’s origin. Of course, it is not difficult to understand why this is the case. When compared to the Bible itself or its impact on Western society, the nature of English printing does not present nearly as riveting a subject.¹ When we gaze upon the monumental title page that introduced readers to what would become the most widely read English book, the printing industry fades like a dwindling shadow....

    • The King James Bible and the Language of Liturgy
      (pp. 69-86)
      Robin Griffith-Jones

      The question was properly and widely asked, during the 2011 celebration of the KJV’s quatercentenary, whether the KJV still satisfies the translators’ own aspirations. Two reservations mounted a more radical challenge: perhaps the KJV had not risen to its own ideals, even at the time. There would then be good reason to qualify the enthusiasm expressed for the KJV by its devotees.

      First, the KJV was oddly archaic even in 1611. So much of its ubiquitous usage was out of date: “ye,” “doth,” hath,” and “saith.”¹ “Thou” and “thee” were by 1600 used by seniors to juniors (who used “you”...

    • The KJV and Women: Soundings and Suggestions
      (pp. 87-102)
      Katharine Doob Sakenfeld

      When I was asked to prepare this paper on the King James Version and women, I initially declined because it was not at all an area of my research. Eventually the organizers of this symposium persuaded me to dig around. Since scholarly reporting and discussion of the origins and afterlife of the KJV has been overwhelmingly focused on the role of men in that story, I tried to approach my assignment from a wide range of angles. As I began to identify topics relating to women that might bear fruit, it quickly became evident that most of these areas should...

    • John Speed’s “Canaan” and British Travel to Palestine: A Journey with Maps
      (pp. 103-122)
      Joan Taylor

      The Bible can create a peculiar dissonance for Christians who read it as a sacred story illuminating the relationship between God and humanity. It is not of our age. It may be prefaced, at the very beginning, with something similar to theStar Warsfilm series: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Or slightly more poetically one thinks of Bob Dylan’s song “Long Ago, Far Away” (1962):

      To preach of peace and brotherhood

      Oh, what might be the cost!

      A man he did it long ago

      And they hung him on a cross

      Long ago, far...

  9. Part 2: King James Version in the History of Bible Translation

    • Luther’s Approach to Bible Translation and the KJV
      (pp. 125-140)
      Graham Tomlin

      Perhaps the two most influential documents that emerged from the Reformation period were Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, which finally appeared in full in 1534, and the King James Version, whose 400th anniversary the English-speaking world celebrated in 2011. Both had an extensive and profound effect on the languages into which they were translated. Luther combined the various forms of contemporary German into one common vernacular usage, which became the basis for a standardized spoken and written language for centuries to come. The King James Version shaped the English language both in England itself and also in...

    • Revising the KJV: Seventeenth through Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 141-156)
      Harold P. Scanlin

      The ink was barely dry on the first copies of the KJV when one of the translation committee’s fiercest critics issued a pamphlet decrying its translation choices and recommending ten specific changes, enumerating ten examples of errors and urging that his corrections be sent to all churches that have bought Bibles. That critic was Hugh Broughton, generally considered to be one of the best Hebrew scholars of the day but also known to lack the temperament to be a part of a committee translation. His treatise,A Censure of the Late Translation for Our Churches… (1611), begins:

      The late...

    • The Role of the Metatexts in the King James Version as a Means of Mediating Conflicting Theological Views
      (pp. 157-194)
      Jacobus A. Naudé

      Translations of sacred texts have often been accompanied by metatexts, which function to guide the reader in interpreting the text. The King James Version as it was originally published in 1611 included various kinds of metatexts. This paper examines three metatexts—two metatexts consisting of the two prefaces found in the preliminaries, and the set of marginal notes accompanying the translation. One preface was a three-page dedication to the king. A second, eleven-page preface to the translation articulated the aims and goals of the translators with great clarity. It also carefully specified the nature of the marginal notes as metatexts...

    • Priorities, Principles, and Prefaces: From the KJV to Today (1611–2011)
      (pp. 195-226)
      Richard A. Burridge

      Throughout the extraordinary year of celebration, 2011, there was much discussion and debate, even arguments, about the original purpose of the KJV—religious, political, or cultural?—and what the translators might have thought about it all in the light of this year of celebrations, not to mention the intervening four hundred years. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore the original principles and priorities of the translators of the King James Version as explicitly expressed in the prefaces to their translation. Having determined these principles and priorities from the original prefaces to the KJV, I then want to...

    • The KJV and the Development of Text Criticism
      (pp. 227-234)
      David Trobisch

      Several years ago I was invited to teach an evening class at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. The topic of the session was apocalyptic literature. We read from the book of Daniel using the New International Version. At one point a student asked, “Why are we not reading the Bible in its original language?” I was impressed by this question, especially since some chapters of Daniel are written in Hebrew, while other chapters are written in Aramaic. It took a while before I realized that the student referred to the King James Version.

      In a nutshell, the student’s...

    • The KJV Translation of the Old Testament: The Case of Job
      (pp. 235-252)
      David J. A. Clines

      Perhaps surprisingly,¹ the King James Version of Job has provided only two phrases that may safely be said to have “entered the English language”:

      The root of the matter (19:28)

      Escaped by the skin of my teeth (19:20)

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, in both cases, though the KJV’s literal translation is unexceptionable, the original meaning has been misunderstood. “The root of the matter” is generally used today to mean the essential or inner part of something, the core,² but roots are more properly the origin of things than their essence. The friends whom Job imagines saying “the root of the matter is...

    • The KJV New Testament: What Worked for the Translators and What Did Not?
      (pp. 253-272)
      James D. G. Dunn

      Part of the reason for taking on this subject, I guess, was the memory of teenage irritation, more than fifty years ago, when I found myself increasingly frustrated at the many occurrences of “thou,” “thee,” and “ye”; the suffixes “-eth” and “-est”; and “hath,” “spake,” “wist,” “wax,” and “brethren.” It was all so old-fashioned, out of date, not language I would use in any other context than reading the Bible. So I suppose I wanted an opportunity to say how I came to find the KJV less and less satisfactory and satisfying as a translation. Not simply for me in...

    • The KJV and Anglo-Jewish Translations of the Bible: A Unique and Uniquely Fruitful Connection
      (pp. 273-296)
      Leonard J. Greenspoon

      In a recent study of the relationship between the King James Version and English-language biblical translations by/for Jews, I concluded: “In no other language or culture does a single non-Jewish version exert such influence over Jewish translations.”¹ In order to establish a firm foundation for this declaration, two propositions must be demonstrated. The first, which is implicit in my statement, is that the KJV exerted a significant influence on subsequent Jewish English-language texts. The second, which I might term explicit, is that there are no parallels for such extensive influence by any other non-Jewish version in another language or culture....

    • The Influence of the KJV in Protestant Chinese Bible Translation Work
      (pp. 297-308)
      Kuo-Wei Peng

      The history of Protestant Chinese Bible translation is a long and complex one, 1 and therefore the role of the KJV in Protestant Chinese Bible translation needs to be discussed stage by stage. The first stage begins with the translation work of the first Protestant missionaries; the second stage begins with the first (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at a Chinese Union Version; the third stage is an era of a plethora of Chinese Bible translations; and the last stage I wish to discuss starts with the translation process that led to the completion of a Union Version.

      Robert Morrison (1782–1834)...

    • The Monarchs and the Message: Reflections on Bible Translation from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 309-328)
      N. T. Wright

      The phrase “lost in translation” is such a cliché that it even became the title of a movie. There is a famous story about a missionary starting a sermon by quoting Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd,” only to have the local interpreter tell the congregation, “He says he is a good man, and keeps goats.”

      But things get lost just as effectively when, instead of translating, we stick with a foreign or ancient language that readers or hearers do not understand. This is so whether we are talking about the Bible or Shakespeare, about Schubert’s songs or Wagner’s...

  10. Part 3: The Impact of the King James Version:: Its Reception and Influence

    • The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version
      (pp. 331-344)
      Robert Alter

      If there is a single attribute large numbers of readers attach almost reflexively to the King James Version, it would most likely be eloquence. The warrant for this attribution is abundantly evident.Eloquence, a term often associated with oratory, perhaps especially delivered orally, suggests a powerful marshalling of the resources of language to produce a persuasive effect, and that quality is manifested in verse after verse of the 1611 translation. It is an intrinsic quality of this English rendering of the Bible that no doubt has been heightened by the virtually canonical status the King James Bible came to enjoy...

    • The King James Bible Apocrypha: When and Why Lost?
      (pp. 345-358)
      Andrew E. Hill

      The program title for this paper reads as follows: “The King James Bible Apocrypha: When and Why Lost?” I have alternatively titled the paper: “Now You Read Them, Now You Don’t! Whither the Apocrypha in the King James Bible?”

      In this paper I will first set the English Bible translation context for the King James Bible (KJB); review the making and early publication history of the KJB with respect to the Old Testament Apocrypha; examine the reactions to the KJB by the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians; survey the publication history of the later editions of the KJB with respect...

    • “Not of an Age, But for All Time”: King James and Master Will, Words with Thoughts
      (pp. 359-372)
      C. Clifton Black

      In the slender space of twenty years not one but two corpora exploded the course of English language and literature. I know of no other culture in which a revolutionary convergence of such magnitude occurred. Two centuries separate Goethe (1749–1832) from Luther’s Bible (1534). Pushkin (1799–1837) consolidated Russia’s vernacular a century after East Slavic’s push and pull between Church Slavonic and Peter the Great (1672–1725). From 1590 to 1611 England witnessed the emergence ofbothShakespearean poetryandthe King James Bible. The world has never been the same since. The Bard of Avon is now regarded...

    • The Word and the Words: Andrewes, Donne, and the Theology of Translation
      (pp. 373-384)
      Malcolm Guite

      The aim of this paper is to explore a little of the theological framework that lies behind the effort of translation and also to show the way in which the act of translation itself became a key theological metaphor, a way of understanding and unpacking the truth that the translators believed was at the heart of the words with which they were working. In particular I want to look at what Lancelot Andrewes, whose name headed the list of translators, was thinking and saying about translation in the midst of his work on the KJV, and also at the way...

    • The KJV and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric
      (pp. 385-400)
      Barbara K. Lewalski

      Why was there such a flowering of religious lyric poetry in England in the seventeenth century, and did the publication of the King James (or Authorized) Version in 1611 have anything to do with it? I think it did, for reasons and in ways I want to explore here. Some aspects of the Reformation and its aftermath in England seem hardly conducive to the development of religious arts—insistence on the single, literal sense of Scripture, iconoclasm, suspicion in some quarters about church music, anxieties about adding to or ornamenting the Word of God in sermons or poems, and the...

    • The King James Bible: Messianic Meditations
      (pp. 401-412)
      Deborah W. Rooke

      This letter from the landed Leicestershire gentleman Charles Jennens to his friend Edward Holdsworth is the earliest information we have about the genesis of George Frideric Handel’s masterpieceMessiah. There can be no doubt thatMessiahis responsible for much popular knowledge of the KJV, and also that it has to a significant extent established the commonly accepted messianic interpretation of the texts that it uses. ButMessiah’s appropriation of the KJV is far from the straightforward presentation of self-evident truth that it might appear to be, partly because the KJV’s presentation of that truth is itself questionable and partly...

    • America’s King of Kings: The King James Bible and American Civil Religion
      (pp. 413-444)
      Jon Pahl

      The 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible has given rise to many fine appreciations of the text and its influence.¹ There is no reason to gainsay these appreciations. The text does, often, dignify English with a singular sonorous sublimity. Yet the question I would like to consider today is less aesthetic than political. That is, what is the connection between the KJV and the emergence on the global stage of what I call, in my most recent book, an American empire of sacrifice?² Put more prosaically: Are there historical links between the KJV...

    • The KJV in Orthodox Perspective
      (pp. 445-454)
      Simon Crisp

      A possible framework for this study is provided by the following question: What kind of influence of the King James Bible could we expect in the Orthodox world? Given that the majority of Orthodox Christians are familiar with the Scriptures in Greek or Slavonic, we might imagine that any influence would be either slight or nonexistent.

      One possible starting point for our investigations could be the boom in Bible translation in the early nineteenth century, which was driven by the major English-speaking Bible societies in the colonial context of missionary expansion and included translation projects in many countries with majority...

    • African Americans and the King James Version of the Bible
      (pp. 455-474)
      Rodney Sadler Jr.

      The King James Version of the Bible has been a prominent factor influencing the course of Western history for the past four hundred years. You need look no further than the African American community to find evidence for this claim. As a people, African Americans were not easy converts to Christianity. In fact, it took more than a century, two Great Awakenings, and the typically more egalitarian evangelistic tactics of the Baptists and Methodists for Christianity to begin to make significant inroads into African American communities. But more than these sociological factors, it took the stories from the pages of...

    • “A New Garb for the Jewish Soul”: The JPS Bible in the Light of the King James Bible
      (pp. 475-498)
      Naomi Seidman

      In a field as well trodden as that of Bible translation, a would-be translator has two curiously dissimilar tasks. On the one hand, Bible translators at least since Jerome have insisted on the importance of “going back to the original text,” of coming closer to this original than previous efforts had succeeded in doing. On the other hand, new translations, particularly in the modern period, also aspire to differentiate themselves from their precursors who have worked in the same language, to gain the sort of status that accrues to new translations and is justly withheld from mere revisions.¹ Proximity and...

    • The Master Copy: Postcolonial Notes on the King James Bible
      (pp. 499-518)
      R. S. Sugirtharajah

      On the Richter scale of English national affection, the King James Version is way at the top, like the late Queen Mother. The lovers of the King James Version often lapse into quasi-spiritual terminology when extolling its virtues and achievements. Listen to the words of William Canton, the passionate historian of the British and Foreign Bible Society: “The blind had a new world opened to them. Hospitals were supplied with small volumes suitable for the sick-wards, and many a little book was afterwards found under the pillow of the dead. In prisons, penitentiaries, workhouses, the Bible wrought wonders.”⁴ Those of...

  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 519-522)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 523-526)