NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 12, 2014

A look at the King's English

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — “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.

To abbreviate a long and fascinating story, a not-wholly-pious king, King James, in response to a Protestant complaint, authorized the creation of a proper English Bible in 1604. He appointed 47 scholars representing a wide diversity of views to work on it. Divided into three committees meeting in three different places to address different parts of the revision, these men, amazingly, were able to come together, reach agreement, and produce a completed work in 1611.

The result was a document which deeply influenced English, “infusing its richness of texture, familiarity of phrasing, fund of imagery, force of simplicity into the very texture of our cultural heritage … informing much of our sense of community, of common language, [and] of belief …”.

Says one scholar, “… the ultimate standard of English prose style is set by the King James version of the Bible.” Charles Dickens’s statement that “The New Testament is the best book the world has ever known or will know” has been echoed in one form or another by scores of great writers and statesmen.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printed Latin Bible (1450) had paved the way for the KJV to be widely distributed to both churches and individuals. It is hard to imagine, but estimates of the number of copies of the KJV printed since its initial publication range into the billions.

In America, the first English Bible was printed in 1782 and widely distributed, influencing, said Noah Webster “[the] forming and preserving [of] our national American language.”

At least 250 phrases in common modern English usage came from or through the KJV. “Salt of the earth,” “Blind leading the blind,” “The skin of his teeth,” “The scales fell from his eyes,” “Give up the ghost,” “The grapes of wrath” and “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” are among many apt, colorful metaphors still in use.

One of the many ongoing challenges of biblical translation and interpretation is that many clergy and scholars feel that the KJV is too hard for the average person to understand, and that therefore KJV does not get its message across. Accordingly, there have been many attempts to couch the Bible in “everyday speech,” employing modern words and usages.

The proponents of KJV say that its uplifting style and rhetoric make it much more rewarding. My own feeling is that its elevated tone makes it more interesting and distinctive, and more worth remembering.

Contrast this effort in the Weymouth New Testament (early 20th century) to the first quote above: “And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the wild lilies. Watch their growth. They neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his magnificence could array himself like one of these.”

Which would you choose?

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Jonathan Wells of Newbury welcomes your thoughts at Jon3sticks@gmail.com.