Why The King James Version?
You might notice I cadged my title from a J. Reuben Clark book I have not read. President Clark felt it was simply the best Bible translation, but he wasn’t the only person ever to use the phrase. Duckduckgo the phrase and you’ll find a whole spectrum of opinion across Protestant denominations. As Reynolds Price said (in A Palpable God, or Three Gospels) the King James Bible IS the Bible for millions of English speakers. Protestants, anyway.
Let me emphasize that last sentence. The KJV was written to promote a particular theological viewpoint—or several viewpoints. One was revolutionary, but seems to us benign. In the roughly 80 years between the time William Tyndale made his translation and saw part of it (and his body and its life) destroyed by authorities, and the the time the translation was revised and completed by King James’ scholars, the idea of having a vernacular translation in English had become safer. Producing a vernacular translation didn’t put your life at risk—at least if you had the protection of a king.
Because we believe in the idea of free access to scripture, unfettered, we don’t see one of the theological/political points the translation was making. You could say the KJV addressed every theological controversy, every error, every truth controverted between Catholics and Protestants in Europe for the last hundred years, controversies which would still be burned over in New York 220 years later.
“This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.” (Quoted here.) Alexander Campbell’s memorable statement is so powerful rhetorically that he probably didn’t think about his unstated premise–that nowhere else in the history of Christianity had people been discussing the same matters as they had in New York for the last 10 years. But the controversies didn’t start 300 years before that when Fr. Martin nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg cathedral, or 1,000 years before that, or 2,000 before that.
The controversies are always fresh—always ongoing, and if we understood them we would understand the scriptures somewhat differently, we might liken them to ourselves without worrying we were maybe wresting them to fit our own situation. But the clothes the controversies wear are not always contemporary, so we don’t see what the clothes clothe. We don’t readily see what political or theological controversies the KJV addresses, so we think of it as neutral.
Or as a safe translation, made before Bible scholars began doubting the authenticity of scripture. My above-mentioned search in Duckduckgo turned up a March 16, 2008 posting by kendalbhunter at LDS Blogs which quotes five paragraphs by Howard W Hunter from the December 1970 Improvement Era, 115-116 (the last issue, and the Conference Report). One will suffice:
“There is a great effort on the part of so-called modernists to change religious beliefs and teachings of the past to conform to modern thought and critical research. They deemphasize the teachings of the Bible by modern critical methods and deny that scripture is inspired.”
I haven’t looked up the original quote to see if Elder Hunter was thinking specifically about new translations of the Bible, but kendalbhunter uses the quote to introduce the dangers of new translations: “As President Hunter pointed out, Modernist Philosophy, and now Post-Modernist Philosophy, is in vogue. Any translator who subscribes to these atheistic and anti-theistic philosophies will reflect that secular bias in their word selection.”
Gathering from the blurbs in the search results plenty of Protestants share that general feeling, but being neutral is not really where the value of the KJV lies, and the difficulty of the text for most modern readers may not be as big an obstacle as we think, given the availability of aural scriptures.
Title: A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible With an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative
Author: Reynolds Price
Genre: Scripture / Scripture Studies
Year Published: 1978
Number of Pages: 195
Title: Three Gospels
Author: Reynolds Price
Genre: Scripture / Scripture Study
Year Published: 1996
Number of Pages: 288
Title: The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Author: Robert Alter
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company
Year Published: 2004
Number of Pages: 1064
Binding: Hardback with slipcase
Reynolds Price called his first book of Bible translations A Palpable God because he was impressed with the Bible’s physicality. It doesn’t talk about God in abstract terms. The imagery is the imagery of the human body, the style reportorial. The Bible is mostly narrative—not philosophical argument about the nature of God—rather, stories of encounters with God and divine beings as embodied beings who would show up on photographs if there had been cameras present. Price was deeply impressed with the Bible’s palpability, as revealed in the King James Version. He quotes several modern translations that don’t preserve the palpability, that opt for abstraction, and praises the KJV for using the same English word for each occurrence of a Hebrew or Greek word. Of course, Price adds, that doesn’t mean the KJV is adequate for modern readers, who are 400 years removed from its language and have better texts available than King James’ translators.
Robert Alter discusses the same love of abstraction in his introduction to The Five Books of Moses. He calls it “the heresy of explanation,” where the translator chooses words that explain what they think is the meaning of a passage, rather than letting the original speak for itself through equivalent words in another language.
For both Price and Alter, the value of the Bible is not in the majesty of its language, but in its dignity, its plainspokenness. We think of the KJV’s language as majestic partly because it’s archaic, removed from our common speech, and it was somewhat archaic even in 1611, but the imagery was still the imagery of their everyday world. It is less related to the everyday imagery of our world, and the distance from us promotes a view of the KJV as the greatest monument to English prose, which prompted T. S. Eliot to warn, in his essay “Religion and Literature,” that if it is the greatest monument to English prose it’s a monument on the grave of Christianity.
Like Alexander Campbell’s comment on The Book of Mormon, Eliot’s comment is so commonsensical that he probably didn’t think about his unstated premise. His argument goes something like this: There are a number of texts in the world whose purpose is not primarily literary, but after they’ve stopped answering their original purpose we might find literary value in them. But we don’t look for literary value in them until we’ve stopped using them for their original purpose. (David H. Yarn said something similar in his History of Philosophy I class: There are a lot of people who read Plato just for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his words. I don’t imagine many people read Aristotle that way.) Therefore when we start using scripture for literary inspiration we’ve stopped using it for spiritual inspiration.
Eliot warns against using the Bible as a literary inspiration because those who do are non-believers trying to find some other value in it (like that Ernst Hemingweh fellow?). But would Eliot really want someone like me to say, “Hey, I’m a believing writer, so I’m only going to seek literary inspiration from pagans and atheists, as a way of showing that their philosophies have outlived their usefulness”?
I’m sure Reynolds Price would say he sees no danger in translating Bible stories as a way of studying them very closely so he can become a better storyteller. He would surely say he chose Bible stories rather that Greek myths because they speak more powerfully to his own beliefs and soul.
I’ll talk more about other translations next month, but I should say something about the question I posed in my title. Why the King James Version? Though I have experience with several translations, the KJV is the only translation I’ve read all the way through, partly because the Bible is a long book, and I’ve been reluctant to read it all the way through in repeated translations, and partly because the KJV is available in audio. I found out several years ago that the Church had made available on lds.org the recordings I used to see on semi-transparent yellow LPs back in the 60s. My son made me CDs of the New Testament for Christmas at the time, and I made CDs of the Old Testament.
I devote my morning commute (currently powered by my feet and a pedal) and some other times to listening, and try to listen through all the scriptures twice a year, which has given me a lot more familiarity with the Bible, and more willingness to read another translation thoroughly. When I found recently that I had neglected to download Lamentations to my MP3 player (the one that doubles as a communications device), I also found that they are no longer on the site. A note on the Formats and Downloads page says, “Audio recordings are available on iTunes and will soon be available at LDS Media Library,” but the link to iTunes is broken.
An institutional why for the KJV is equally pragmatic. Kendalbhunter, mentioned above, quotes from The Encyclopeda of Mormonism 1:109-110
“Twentieth-century Church leaders have given a variety of reasons for the continued use of the KJV: it was the common translation in use in the English-speaking world at the time of the Restoration; its language prevails in all the standard works; a large number of passages in the Book of Mormon, which parallel the Bible, were translated into the English style of the KJV; the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) was based on the KJV, with 90 percent of the verses unchanged. All latter-day prophets have used the KJV, and using the KJV in all Church publications has made it possible to standardize annotations and indices.”
Another pragmatic why. Outside of Britain, where the KJV is under Crown copyright, it’s in the public domain, so the Church can do things like make recordings and PDFs of it freely available online. In 2009, when the Church brought out the LDS Spanish edition of the Bible, which includes new translations or reworking of some passages, one of the news stories I read quoted a Church spokesperson as saying that they had chosen the Reina-Valera translation, 100 years out of date, as the basis for the edition because it is in the public domain and they could use it without having to pay royalties to another church.
Whis leads to my final tool for scripture study, for this month, anyway. Read the scriptures in another language, even if you don’t understand the language. My wife bought me the Spanish edition for Christmas that year, and I downloaded the recording onto my MP3 player, and listened while I was commuting to that activity commanded of Moses in Numbers but forbidden to David at the end of his life. When the census ended I was still commuting by bus so I was able to get to Romans before I couldn’t read while commuting, matching the sound to words on the page.
I don’t speak Spanish. But several years ago in Deseret Book’s Salt Lake flagship store I came across Robert Blair’s Power-Glide Spanish, LDS Edition, a three-hour introduction to Spanish using stories and games and ditties and songs and a bunch of other good stuff, with a 4th tape containing modules on scripture, the language of prayer, and the language of testimony. Introducing the scripture selections, Dr./Bro. Blair says, “And believe it or not, you’ll understand most of what you hear.”
When I started spending Friday nights with my mother in Provo several years ago, to give my sister in Salt Lake a break and Mom a chance to go home for the weekend, I decided to play the tapes on the way over to Provo. For maybe the first year they engaged her, and then less engagement and less. I stopped playing them earlier this year when I saw that one is threatening to wear out.
Listening and following along in the LDS Spanish Bible I found Bro. Blair’s words to be true. I understood a lot of what I was hearing and learned a good deal.
So what kind of formats do you learn from?