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Learning To (Reluctantly) Appreciate The KJV

I wasn’t raised in a KJV-only tradition. Most of my elders had some respect for the King James, but we rarely used it in study or in worship, and we certainly weren’t taught (as many young fundamentalists are) that it represents the definitive and authoritative revelation of God’s Word in the English language. For us it was just the old fashioned Bible where people talk funny.

So it’s been easy for me to overlook and even to disdain the KJV, especially as I have developed an interest in the evolution and transmission of biblical texts. I remain baffled by the American fundamentalist obsession with the KJV as a timeless and inerrant text, despite its clear origins in such a specific historical place and moment and its abundance of questionable translation choices and outright errors.

gods-secretariesIt was a pleasant surprise, then, to read Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and to find myself appreciating the KJV in a more informed and sympathetic light. Not a book by or for American fundamentalists, this is the work of an English historian reconstructing the milieu of Jacobean England from which the King James Bible emerged. Far from the world of snake handlers, young-earth creationists, and tent revivals, this was 17th century England; still reeling from the Protestant Reformation, steeped in royal intrigue, devastated by the Plague, home to wild opulence and astounding poverty, rattled by the Gunpowder Plot.

The KJV translation is less a product of divine revelation or inspiration than of royal ambition and scholarly collaboration and competition. The colorful cast of characters includes King James himself, who commissioned an official royal English Bible, and various famous courtiers, translators, and opponents: Lancelot Andrews, Richard Bancroft, Henry Savile, and many others, all self-interested, all flawed, and all brilliant. And this is my curious takeaway from the book, that the very thing I came to appreciate about the KJV is probably also what ultimately disqualifies it as a faithful and reliable transmission of scripture: the willfully grandiose and magisterial English prose created by its translators.

When we were kids (and I think most American Christians still assume this), we thought the King James sounded like that because it was very inspired and religious, and that heavenly language was bound to sound highfalutin’ to mortal ears. But of course, the words of the KJV were not dropped from the heavens, they were written and rewritten and debated and reworked and revised and compromised by a team of feisty and combative scholars.

I’ve often read American histories of the King James Bible that claim it is written in the vernacular of the common folk of 17th century England. However, Nicolson’s book makes it clear that the translators of KJV quite intentionally amplified and bedazzled their text to give it a unique air of majesty and import. No one ever really talked that way, it seems, but they aspired to. And the KJV was the perfect platform for that very English ambition. This is a work of literary art, a deliberate attempt to bring the full arsenal of Renaissance English to bear upon the old texts of the Bible.

This all helps me to appreciate the KJV in its native context as a work of intention and aspiration, but there should be no mistake regarding the real motivation behind the work. This was no mere attempt to precisely and faithfully transmit the spirit and letter of the ancient Hebrew and Greek scriptures, though the translators were certainly experts in those fields for their time. The KJV represents an explicit and overt attempt to marry the majesty of the British throne with the authority and power of the Bible. This meant not only amping up the language and weaving a work of grandeur and artistry, it also meant deliberately crafting a Bible which endorsed and upheld a specifically British church polity, purged of anything that might fuel papists on the one hand and anti-tyranny Calvinists on the other. This was the king’s Bible for the king’s reign, designed to buttress the authority of crown and church simultaneously.

It should not be scandalous to suggest that any translation of scripture is a subjective product of a time and place in human history. (The same is true, of course, of the original texts.) As for the KJV, it stands as an artifact of a strange and volatile moment in English-speaking history. As a translation it carries little authority for our time and place, and too often actually obscures the spirit of the original texts. But as a work of English literature, it may rival the works of Shakespeare as a high point in the history of the language. I am still baffled by those who claim the words of the KJV to be the specifically authentic and authoritative utterances of God for all time, but I have learned to enjoy and admire what is truly an invaluable work of religious art.