In Tents #31 Some Tools for Studying Scripture, Part III

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
Publisher: Atheneum
Genre: Scripture / Scripture Studies
Year Published: 1978
Number of Pages: 195
Binding: Hardback
ISBN10: 0-698-10837-0

Title: Three Gospels
Author: Reynolds Price
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Scripture / Scripture Study
Year Published: 1996
Number of Pages: 288
Binding: Hardback
ISBN10: 0-684-80336-4

Title: The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Author: Robert Alter
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company
Genre: Scripture
Year Published: 2004
Number of Pages: 1064
Binding: Hardback with slipcase
ISBN10: 0-393-01955-1

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 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?

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6 Responses to In Tents #31 Some Tools for Studying Scripture, Part III

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    So, you were helping to build a temple?

    I find it heartening that the Givenses’ book The God Who Weeps, published by Deseret Book, uses translations other than the KJV. And I find it disheartening that I find that heartening, if that makes sense.

    Can’t use scriptures you believe in as literary inspiration? Tell it to Milton. Or the later Eliot, for that matter. Or any of a number of other believing authors…

    Still, there’s some truth to the comment. Readers, writers, and scholars/critics talk about literary beauty once they no longer believe but are unwilling to give up their literary heritage. (Rather like Campbell with his archetypal patterns, come to think of it.)

    • Harlow says:

      No, not building the temple is the prohibition David obeyed. I was involved in the activity whose prohibition he ignored. One night in the breakroom one of the other enumerators told me she had called a woman who declined to do the census on religious grounds. “That’s because David got in trouble for taking a census. It’s at the end of II Samuel.” “Is that in the Old Testament?”

      Eliot might see that exchange as an example of how few people read the Bible anymore, but it could just as easily mean she grew up in a non-Christian faith tradition.

      I was reading Paradise Lost at the time, part of a chain of listening to epic poetry, beginning with Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, then The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, and The Divine Comedy. When I got to Paradise Lost I found I had to read along. All the others were translations into a more or less contemporary English idiom–Samuel Butler being the oldest–but this was an original in an older idiom.

      Clearly it’s a devotional work, but there is Blake’s famous comment that Milton was of Satan’s party without knowing it, and gives Satan all the best lines.

      I think Eliot’s comment is one of those flashes of insight that people don’t quite know what to do with, so they have to work out an argument to arrive at the insight–which may be why people quote the epigram about the King James Bible being the monument on the grave of Christianity, but don’t go through the argument.

      Steven Robinson has a similar moment in Believing Christ. He tells a story in the forward about sending his son to his room and then forgetting he had sent him there.

      When he finally remembered, his son said, “Daddy, can’t we ever be friends again?” Robinson says that’s the same question we all ask of God. I didn’t like the way his comment glossed over his own negligence, his forgetfulness, justifying it, and decided not to read the book. The real principle the story illustrates is, “Can a father forget the child of his loins? Yea he may forget, but I will not forget thee, Oh house of Israel,” which is also a comment about atonement–the promise of atonement, rather than the desire for it.

      Then it occurred to me a couple of years later that the story was there because Robinson saw it as significant, wanted it there, and had to create a reason for including it. So I’m better-disposed toward the book, though I still haven’t read it.

  2. Th. says:


    I don’t really have a comment, but I enjoyed this look at things immensely.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Th. It’s nice to know people enjoy my strange digressions. Some day I may get back to Jesus and the Pharisees.

  3. Dennis Clark says:

    So I’ve read J. Reuben Clark’s book, and most of his reasons still persist as outlined in the quote from The encyclopedia of Mormonism. One that doesn’t is that, if we adopted a different translation, we’d be out of step with the Protestant world and couldn’t as easily extract agreement from Protestants we were teaching.

    Brant Gardner, in a recent issue of Dialogue, laid that argument to rest by reporting on his excursions with missionaries on splits, and how we look to people who rely on, say, the New International Version for their scripture study.

    • Harlow says:

      That’s a good point, Dennis. Thanks. As I recall both Price and Alter fault the NIV for its spiritualizing tendencies–for choosing abstract words where the original uses very concrete language. Being aware of that I can correct for it, or cross check it with other translations. The problem is that a lot of times readers don’t know what they should cross check.

      For example, Mark 7:18-19.
      18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;

      19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

      I just became aware recently that many or most Christian traditions see this as a declaration that all foods are clean, which would make “purging all meats” Mark’s editorial comment, rather than part of Jesus’s statement. So why have I been reading Jesus’s statement as saying, “All food enters into the belly and goes out into the bowels, which purge all foods from the body–both kosher and non-kosher”? I realized tonight it’s because the question mark comes at the end of everything, thus including “purging all meats” with the quotation.
      Since the punctuation was added by editors, it’s also possible that the interpretation that this is a comment about food laws comes less from the text and more from Christians seeking to explain why they don’t keep kosher.

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