The King James Bible—the Authorized Version of Holy Scripture, dedicated to James I as “principal mover and author”—is not really a triumph of translation. Not, at least, if perfect accuracy and re-creation of the original narrative voice are the proper goals of translation.
The examples typically seem minor, but they’ve nagged at scholars for the past 400 years. The King James Version always had a little trouble with Hebrew verb tenses, for instance, and the problem shows up as early as the Bible’s second verse, famously translated as “And the earth was without form, and void.” The verb form there is hayah, which the King James correctly gives as became just a few pages later in Genesis: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” More theologically significant are such stumbles as perpetuating the misreading of ’azazel as ’ez ozel in Leviticus 16—the proper name of a demon transformed into the word for an innocent scapegoat, punished for sins not his own.
For that matter, the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 was not an unalloyed triumph of religion. A narrow set of Puritan and Roman Catholic scholars have always insisted that the Church of England was established primarily by force, imposed on a mostly reluctant nation by the government’s power of pikes and scaffolds. But only over the past 20 years—particularly since the publication of Eamon Duffy’s magisterial study The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (1992)—has popular awareness gained much sense of just how extreme the exercise of that power
When James VI came down from Scotland at the death of Elizabeth in 1603, there was considerable relief at the lack of violence in his succession to the English throne and a reasonable expectation that the harsher elements of the Elizabethan religious settlement would be eased for Catholic and nonjuror Protestants. Unfortunately, early agitation against James, from the Bye and Main plots to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, embittered him. He quickly settled into the coercive mode of his predecessors, and the King James translation became a key element of that mandatory nationalizing of religion: the only Bible that churches were allowed to purchase.
And yet, if it wasn’t the best translation, or a genuine high point of Christian faith, the book was a triumph of rhetoric. In fact, the King James Bible remains the single greatest monument of the English language ever constructed. More than Milton, more than Shakespeare, more than Spenser, more than Chaucer, the 47 scholars who worked from 1604 to 1611 managed a feat unrivaled in English literature. They gave reality to the idea of a unified Great Britain by drawing together in a single tongue the separate nations of the islands. They gave America the vocabulary that would become the sole public idiom of the Protestants’ new world. And they established, once and for all, the rhythms of English rhetoric: the way the language wants to go, the repetitions and patterns into which, like traps, it always falls.
The first copy is thought to have been printed on May 5, 1611, and publishers have been pouring out commemorative editions of the translation and popular studies of its effect. In Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, for example, the British scholar David Crystal documents 257 idioms, from “salt of the earth” to “two-edged sword,” that derive solely from the King James. In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, the American Robert Alter argues that the book’s way of “imagining man, God, and history” infested the nation’s “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk” and thereby created American literature.
Meanwhile, here in Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011, Gordon Campbell provides an “affectionate biography” of the translation’s origins, printings, and effects. Six groups undertook the work at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, and Campbell argues that even today it would be difficult to assemble as literate a set of translators:
The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators.
Of course, they didn’t start from scratch. Officially, the King James was a revision of the Bishops’ Bible, which was a reworking of the Great Bible, which drew on Miles Coverdale’s efforts and John Roger’s editions—both of which came out of William Tyndale’s translations. David Crystal found only 257 common English idioms born in the King James because he excludes the ones that the translators simply took over from the burst of scholars, from Erasmus on, working in the century before.
Nor was the text strictly defined. As Campbell notes, even the first year of this official Bible “appointed to be read in churches” saw two editions: the He Bible and the She Bible, which vary the ambiguous pronoun in Ruth 3:15, uncertain whether Ruth or Boaz has entered the city. Innumerable small and unannounced changes in wording, spelling, and punctuation followed over the years, until Oxford’s Benjamin Blayney established the modern text in 1769. “Printers have persecuted me,” declared one edition, misprinting “princes,” and readers could well believe it. Although the typos were surprisingly few for a 1,400-page book at that stage in the history of printing, the early editions were famous for their (sometimes intentional?) misprints. “Let the children first be killed,” one edition explained, instead of “filled.” “The Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great asse,” in place of “greatness.” “The unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom.” And of course, the Wicked Bible of 1631, which commands, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
Nonetheless, the King James Version won. It arrived at the right moment of political history in England, enforced by law during James’s 22-year reign, and acceptable enough that it eased the worries of Protestants from the highest of high-church Anglicans to the lowest of low-church Puritans.
It arrived, for that matter, at the right moment of linguistic history. Here’s an example: English would shortly undergo its transformation into what’s known as a “polite language,” the formal use of the second-person plural (the “vous” constructions) driving out the familiar use of second-person singular (the “tu” constructions). The King James correctly uses thou, thy, thine—all the singular forms of you, particularly to refer to God. It preserved them, in fact, far beyond the disappearance of those constructions from general speech, with the curious consequence that modern readers often hear thou not as familiar but as formal: a more ceremonial and polite way of speaking to God.
Which is surely a major part of what a translation of the Bible is supposed to provide. Looking back on the efforts, from the 1952 Revised Standard Version onward, to provide a text for modern readers, one has to say that they were profoundly misguided. The text of the King James was stable enough for over 300 years that biblical phrases could enter common speech and biblical rhythms shape literary prose.
Whether it should have dominated or not—the Douay-Rheims Bible, completed in 1610, may have been a better translation—the King James provided the language both a rich connection to the past and a general seriousness of reference. It was English, the living root. And it was public Christianity, the perpetual flower. What could possibly have possessed us to abandon it?
Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.