, Newburyport, MA


May 12, 2014

A look at the King's English

“And why take ye thought for raiment? Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

“Beautiful, dignified, eloquent” were the terms one commentator used to describe these words from the great King James version of the Bible.

To me as a boy, the King James Bible was the Bible. During four years at a school where we went to chapel seven times a week, I heard many readings and have read many passages myself. Although not of a religious bent, I then and since have appreciated and enjoyed its language, in spite (or perhaps because) of its archaic flavor.

How the early books of the Bible were collected and edited is not entirely clear. Before the fifth century B.C., this work was evidently done by Hebrew scholars. Their materials were in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken in the Middle East between 600 B.C. and 700 A.D.

St. Jerome prepared the first Latin New Testament in something akin to its present form in 382 A.D. This was followed by other translations to Latin and Greek. Before the KJV was written these included the Vulgate, Douay-Rheims, Linacre, Erasmus, Tyndale, Cranmer, Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles! Significant variations between versions generated endless dispute — and “reforms.”

For centuries, the Church in Rome had forbidden the translation of the Bible into English or Greek. The reason seems to relate more to power than piety: If only the clergy spoke Latin, and the Bible was only in that language, the Church controlled access to God’s word, conferring upon it enormous power and its concomitant, wealth.

Fearful of losing its privileged position, the Church invoked the penalty of death for those who translated the Bible into any other tongue, and people were executed for even possessing an English Bible. Major reformers, including John Hus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake for their efforts.

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