the treasure of a king (james)

The scholars who produced this masterpiece are mostly unknown and unremembered. But they forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world.” Winston Churchill.

I have a couple of Bibles that are over 40 years old. They belonged to my Dad, who was a pastor for 50 years.

They are King James, of course. Scofields, actually, heavily notated versions of a translation that is 400 years old this year.

The King James Bible is easily the most influential version of the most influential book in the world. My dad read it every day. And so did Milton and Bunyan. I memorized it as a child and still find comfort in its cadence.

Now a small village church in England discovered an original copy, sitting on a table at the back of their sanctuary. There was a sign over it that said so: “This Bible is the second of two impressions printed in 1611.” It was discovered in the parish chest in 1857 and covered with an oak binding by the vicar at the time. And then it just sat there, waiting to be noticed.

Since it is the 400th anniversary of the King James version, they decided to have it checked. And experts confirm it is one of maybe 200 existing copies of the original printing. The proof? A typo in Matthew that says Judas, and not Jesus, entered the Garden of Gethsemane. But not another typo in Ruth.

What a wonderful gift at a wonderful time for this small congregation. And the translation itself was a gift for all of us.

It would be hard to estimate the influence of this version on English style. For example, the translators tried to duplicate the parallel style of Hebrew, for instance, frequently linking ideas with “and. ” Like this:

And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.”

Moses did this. Hemingway did this. And so do I. In fact, we see this in much writing and most speech.

But that’s not all. As Robert Alter points out, the KJV also “repeatedly demonstrates how stylistic restraint and simplicity of diction can generate expressive power.” Alter, author of Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, says the King James avoids the ornate, and is well noted for its understatement. This restraint has made it readable and memorable for four centuries.

But of course its greatest contribution is not about language. It’s dignity and directness has motivated missionaries and produced pastors. But more than that, it has changed hearts.

It certainly changed mine.

Someone once called the King James Bible the only work of art ever created by a committee. Over 50 scholars worked on it for seven years.

Despite its many detractors, it still works. Its vocabulary is mostly Anglo-Saxon and its style both sparse and sublime. Few if any books from its time are as easily read or understood. It’s a remarkable work, worth noting and celebrating.

So call someone “thou” today.

For King James sake.

9 thoughts on “the treasure of a king (james)”

  1. Thou are right. Couldn’t agree more.

    For a while I spent most of my Bible time (which is not a lot and also why I didn’t just say “most of my time”) with the NIV. It was what we used at camp when I was a teenager. In college it was NRSV.

    With the youth group now we use a contemporary translation that seems to work for them but then we read whatever it is we’re reading in a few other translations. My teaching partner, Steve, does a mean Charleston Heston voice when he uses the KJV. I go all Valley Girl when we use the Message (Can I abhor the Message and not the Messenger’s message?)

    But there are passages that cry out for KJV. Luke 2. Any of the Psalms. Genesis 1. The Beatitudes. Ruth. Exodus.

  2. I love looking at different translations — I even have an eight-translation-New Testament (I would’ve gotten the Old, as well, but was told one wasn’t made “because no one would buy it;” I replied, “I would” — I was younger and had more discretionary income in those days). For everyday reading, I usually use the NRSV. But for majesty of language, the KJV usually beats them all!

  3. I knew there was a reason I liked the KJV. Still memorize my verses out of it. It is like “comfort food” I guess. Thanks for putting all that into words. 🙂

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