Another article now available online from the new issue of Touchstone:
The Making & Endurance of the King James Bible, 1611–2011
by Barton Swaim
The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is fast becoming one of the great unread books of Western civilization—remembered and admired but not used. True, there is still a small band of believers in the fundamentalist tradition whose loyalty to the KJV remains uncompromised. But the vast majority of Christians in the English-speaking world think of the King James Bible as a hindrance rather than a help: an interesting document but, in the twenty-first century, pointlessly difficult to understand; an artifact prized by one’s grandparents because it reminded them of another time.
It’s the sad but inevitable end to the greatest of all biblical translations—sad because the translators’ goal was to make the Scriptures more, not less, accessible: a goal they achieved on a worldwide scale. Miles Smith’s preface to the first edition explains that goal beautifully.
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, Read this, I pray thee, he was fain to make this answer, I cannot, for it is sealed.
For well over three centuries in Britain and North America, the King James Bible was the Bible. Its language permeates our literature. In twenty-first-century Britain, where biblical illiteracy is almost total, phrases from the King James Bible still echo across the cultural landscape—a fact attributable to the nation’s Christian past, but also to the biblical translation that defined that past.
Even so, the Authorized Version, as it used to be called, is now thought of chiefly as an historical novelty. Young people raised in Christian homes today are hardly aware of its existence. Accessible translations, some of them very good, proliferate. You can hardly blame a modern congregation, one with no historical or emotional ties to the King James Version, for avoiding it—all the thee’s and thou’s and begat’s and whithersoever’s can sound bizarre to younger Christians. Yet somehow it seems tragic that a young Christian in an English-speaking country should enter adulthood with no experience of the KJV’s language.
As the King James Bible turns 400, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve lost.