"Did you know," a bright-eyed young woman breathlessly exclaimed to me, "that when King James wrote the Bible, he didn't actually put everything in?!" I was riding the D.C. metro a few weeks ago when she sat down beside me with this information. Since people don't normally talk on the train (unless it's a first date or someone you work with), I might have suspected that the conversation would take an odd turn. King James did not, of course, write the Bible. He didn't even write the version that got his name. My commuting companion was right, in a way, though: the King James Version didn't happen out of the blue and from scratch but depended on other versions and the input of a lot of people.
This is a big year for the King James Version (KJV, for short). Blow out the candles before the house goes up in smoke, the KJV is 400 years old. Ironically, especially in light of the young woman's misunderstanding, the story of the translation's development is not so very different from the Bible's earliest beginnings: it evolved over time (though a much shorter period); a lot of people were involved; and those people had a variety of texts "to hand," some of which they included, others they rejected and all of which required repackaging.
But who cares about the old KJV, except for a few Bible nerds such as ? Well, for one thing (venture capitalists, take note) the business of translating the Bible into English really got humming with the KJV. Now a multimillion dollar industry, people are snapping up any number of versions from the eco-minded Green Bible (for the college bound vegetarian daughter), the graphic novel Manga Bible (for her comic book crazy brother), The Teen Study Bible (from well-meaning god-parents lost in the world of Xbox, Lady Gaga and Wii), variations on the ever-beloved Children's Bible, and the Good News Bible (for the baby boomer sibling's shelf of hippie nostalgia). For the buyer, inclined toward the most popular modern English translation, a dilemma: go with the new, gender-inclusive NIV or stick with the man-means-everybody-dammit version. The Bible is a perennial best-seller and not in the Hebrew and Greek of its origins.
Second, the King James Version shows up at least as often as any other in pop culture references to the Bible, despite its thees and thous and sometimes impenetrably antique vocabulary and syntax ("peradventure," anyone?). From its beginning, the KJV has been the gold standard of Bible-sounding language. Why? Not only is it lyrical with a cadence beautiful to our ears, but its very strangeness makes it sound the most Bible-y of all translations, and that has been a self-perpetuating condition. Some of its turns of phrase and word choices were out of date even in its own time. The original translators themselves chose archaic language, intending a version that evoked the endurance and wisdom of age and that transcended the vulgar and ordinary to sound dignified, yea, even divine.
Third, its development makes a mighty fine story. It began in 1604, when King James I convened a conference for theological debate whose agenda did not include what would become its most famous item -- an authorized version of the Bible endorsed by the king himself. Several predecessor English versions (the anti-monarchy notes of the popular Geneva Bible contributed to James' endorsement of a new translation), three committees (at three English centers of learning), and a few printing missteps later ("thou shalt commit adultery" being perhaps the most unfortunate ... or fortunate, depending on whom you asked), we finally had "a still small voice," "the root of the matter" and "to every thing there is a season."
In the end, knowing these things about the KJV reminds us that translating the Bible has never been simple (there's no single original Bible from which to work, for one thing); can always be dangerous (God help the person suspected of tampering with God's Word); and is ultimately doomed (our own language is constantly changing, regularly requiring new translations). Miles Smith declared in his preface to the King James Version, "Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light." The light that shines through the KJV has been refracted by the centuries, yet it streams through a whole new opening in what had been for ordinary folks an impenetrable wall of foreignness.
Kristin Swenson is the author of 'Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time' (Harper, 2010), now in paperback (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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