Happy Birthday, KJV

This year marks the 400th anniversary of a momentous event in the English-speaking world: the first publication of the Authorised Version of The Bible, commonly known as the King James Version.

The translation project was instigated by King James I as a way of reconciling some of the theological disagreements between high-church Anglicans and Puritans. The transition from Latin Vulgate texts to early English bibles had not been a smooth one, and in 1604 James called for a completely new translation, “as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek.” Published in 1611 after 7 years of diligent work by 47 different scholars, the Authorised Version was not just the most influential version of the Bible, it was one of the most influential works in the history of the English language.

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I should probably put in a brief caveat here: strictly as a translation of Scripture, the KJV isn’t my personal favourite. The task of converting the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts into a serviceable English equivalent is a continual challenge for each generation of translators, and the KJV tends more towards formal over functional equivalence than several more modern translations. Opinions will differ on this point, and that’s ok.

But as a work of literature, the KJV sits on the loftiest peaks in the English language. Seriously, this is the book that gave us all these expressions:

  • How are the mighty fallen (2 Samuel 1:19)
  • A still small voice (1 Kings 19:12)
  • Eat, drink, be merry (Luke 12:19)
  • By the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20)
  • The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
  • Be horribly afraid (Jeremiah 2:12)
  • A fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10.1)
  • A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)
  • A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)
  • Like a lamb to the slaughter (Jeremiah 11:19, Isaiah 53:7)
  • A law unto themselves (Romans 2:14)
  • A man after his own heart (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22)
  • A thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7)
  • Pride goeth before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Put words in his mouth (Exodus 4:15)
  • A broken heart (Psalm 34:18)
  • Baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11)
  • Feet of clay (Daniel 2:31-33)
  • Let there be light (Genesis 1:3)

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Great orators such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were powerfully influenced by the KJV for both idiom and cadence. The majestic structure of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I have a dream…” speech at the Lincoln Memorial draws heavily from passages in the King James Version. The sentence:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

…comes directly from Isaiah 40:4-5 in the KJV.

Likewise, the beautiful imagery of:

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

…is drawn from Amos 5:24, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

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In his 2001 book, In The Beginning, Alistair McGrath documents the creation and impact of the KJV Bible. He writes:

“The King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians. The influence of this work has been incalculable. For many years, it was the only English translation of the Bible available. Many families could afford only one book—a Bible, in whose pages parents recorded the births of their children, and found solace at their deaths. Countless youngsters learned to read by mouthing the words they found in the only book their family possessed—the King James Bible. Many learned biblical passages by heart, and found that their written and spoken English was shaped by the language and imagery of this Bible. Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address. These, and innumerable other works, were inspired by the language of this Bible. Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished. The King James Bible played no small part in shaping English literary nationalism, by asserting the supremacy of the English language as a means of conveying religious truths.”

“Paradoxically, the king’s translators achieved literary distinction precisely because they were not deliberately pursuing it. Aiming at truth, they achieved what later generations recognized as beauty and elegance. Where later translations deliberately and self-consciously sought after literary merit, the king’s translators achieved it unintentionally, by focusing on what, to them, was a greater goal. Paradoxically, elegance was achieved by accident, rather than design.”

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