Should we revere the Authorised Version?
2011 is being marked by many as the year of the Bible. It’s just four hundred years since the first publication of the Authorised Version – the AV, now most often called by its American name, the King James Version, the KJV. First published in 1611, this translation of the Bible has had a bigger influence on the English-speaking world than any other book.
The anniversary is being celebrated in Britain and across the world. In this country there are going to be big ceremonial events like the national service at Westminster Abbey with Prince Charles and a plentiful supply of dignitaries. The anniversary is being celebrated in the media and celebrated in the life of many churches.
The anniversary is a good reason to celebrate the Bible, but we don’t need a reason to celebrate – for Christians the Bible is the foundational document of our faith and the source of God’s dealings with his world and the people he has made.
The history of the AV is a fascinating one. The King James whose name it bears is James I and VI, the first king to bring religious stability to Britain after Henry VIII broke from Rome, and after Henry’s children led the nation in the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism. James became the first Stuart king in 1603 and called a conference of Bishops and puritans to debate religious matters. There it was suggested that they needed a new English Bible that didn’t belong to the Anglo-Catholics or to the Puritans.
It’s remarkable that they should be asking for another English Bible less than a hundred years since William Tyndale and his followers had published the first ever Bible in English. At that time it was illegal and seen as scandalous that the “common ploughboy” and even women could read the Bible for themselves. Tyndale’s English Bibles were printed in Holland and Germany and smuggled into England where they were burned if they were discovered by the church hierarchy. Eventually Tyndale himself was burned for his crimes in 1536.
Now only seventy years later the king of Scotland and England commissioned a new Bible to be produced. There were by then two English Bibles in common use – one was the Geneva Bible, which was seen as being dangerously Protestant, and the other the Bishops’ Bible which supported the status quo and was liked by King James, but it was thought to be unreliable. The solution was to make a revision of the Bishops’ Bible using committees of the best scholars in the country.
It then took the various committees and groups just five years to produce a Bible that ended up using over 80% of the exact working that Tyndale had used. The AV wasn’t all that original.
It wasn’t all that modern either – the scholarly translators decided to keep from older translations words such as “thee”, “thou” and “thy” which were already old fashioned terms in 1611. At that time the word “you” had pushed out the earlier forms of “thou” and “ye”, but the translators continued to use the word “thou” in addressing God, which would have been seen as very last-century by its first readers.
It did use some simpler language and rhythms of speech in places and that’s where it has been most influential. For example in Psalm 23 the older Bishop’s Bible said “God is my shepherd, therefore I can lack nothing”. But the new version changed that to “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. In some ways that’s harder to understand, “I can lack nothing” is more straightforward language, than “I shall not want”, with its ambiguous use of the world “want”. But the newer version reads much more smoothly. Other than the word “shepherd” it’s all one syllable words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. The emphasis in the speech is forced upon ”shepherd”, to focus attention on the most important word in the sentence.
So the AV wasn’t very original and it wasn’t very up to date. Neither was it very accurate, and it went through many changes in the years that followed. The finished version of the translation was finally produced not in 1611 but over a hundred and fifty years later in 1769 and by that time several thousand changes had been made since the first edition.
What made the AV was successful was mass production. It became ubiquitous. Over three centuries it became the Bible everyone read, in the days when everyone read the Bible. People stopped talking about the Authorised Version and just called it The Bible.
The AV became the Bible on every church lectern and in every family’s bookshelf. Still these days many people think the Authorised Version is the Bible. One objection to modern translations was that they were not seen as the real thing. People still say, “if it was good enough for St Paul it’s good enough for me”. In truth modern translations are more accurate and easier to understand and closer to the original languages of the Bible but people remain very attached to the AV Bible’s words and phrases.
Over 250 phrases used first in the AV now commonplace in our language, twice as many as the complete works of Shakespeare have given us.
Let’s look at some examples. “Let there be light” is now used outside of the context of creation. The rhythm of those words is just right for the act of creating light, holding back the important word for three less important words to increase the tension. This da-da-da-dum pattern which builds tension then releases it is also used in the most famous theme in classical music, the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
Other elegant phrases we may cite include, “My brother’s keeper” and “man does not live by bread alone” – again the rhythm is so much better than “only by bread”. There are also more surprising finds: “the skin of your teeth”, “no peace for the wicked”, “how are the mighty fallen”.
There is no doubt that the AV has had a significant effect on our language, though sometimes it is overplayed. It could easily be claimed that any piece of prose repeatedly read aloud and privately at home and in community would have the same effect.
The AV has clearly shaped our culture in significant ways, but I’d like to suggest that there has been something more influential on our country than the language of the Bible over the years, and that’s the content of the Bible. We’ll be hearing many people this year claiming that the AV has made our language what it is. I want to say something different – that the Bible in any translation has made this country the country that it is. The fact that the Bible was translated in to English and has found a place in people’s homes and has been read and believed has changed the hearts and lives of more people than any other book. God has spoken and still speaks through the Bible and the Bible has changed our world, and continues to change the world.
So I thank God for the AV and the Bibles that came before it, for Wycliffe and Tyndale and the pioneers of translation, for modern translations and translations into nearly every language in the world. Their work has changed us, not only our language, but every part of us.