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King James Bible a masterpiece but not an idol


King James BibleThe individual today has more choice of English versions of the Bible than at any previous time, most of them translations made last century. An important contributor to this book, the Apostle Paul, liked to talk of plethora — that is, magnanimous overabundance — and some would say that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to Bibles: our cup runneth over, there is a plethora of interpretations.

This year is the 400th anniversary of that most fabled and revered of all English Bibles, the King James Version (1611). The anniversary seems an appropriate time to consider anew what the Bible does and why we need fresh versions.

These questions were on the minds of the 47 scholars brought together to deliver a defining text in the native language of the new United Kingdom. One of the problems was too many Bibles. Catholics, Anglicans of various stripes, and Protestants of every type, had over the previous decades all produced versions, in keeping with the newfound zeal for having Scripture in your own language. The only problem was, which one was best? Which was most accurate? Which one was without ideological influence? Which one reflected reality, and whose reality?

This was not just a matter of personal taste. King James inherited from his godmother Elizabeth a realm divided by religion. Like her, he saw that anything that could bring about national cohesion was certain good. Conflicting opinions about the Word of God were a daily pest, so he commissioned a group of the ablest and most reverend linguists with the task of making an English Bible.

Nowadays we would not want to be seen to be associated with 'a book written by a committee', but the authors of the King James produced something authoritative.

Even better if you were James, it could become authorised, which had the useful outcome of quietening disputes about conflicting meanings in different versions. Except for a couple of violent interruptions, this and only this version was read in churches for over three centuries, with a resultant shaping of English usage that is inestimable: they were the words everyone heard every week of every year.

The Committee included such anonymous luminaries as Richard Bancroft and Lancelot Andrewes. William Shakespeare probably did Psalm 46 unless you think, as some do, that Shakespeare was a committee. Parts of the Catholic Douai Bible are found there. Nor did they put their candle under a bushel.

But interestingly, 90 per cent of the King James was done by someone no longer alive at the time. William Tyndale's earlier translation is the respected main basis, such that there are those who assert that the two greatest writers in English are both Williams.

All the right things will be said in 2011: the King James is the soul of our language, it shares pre-eminence (if that is possible) with the Bard, it is the best version made during the coalescence of the language. But all of this talk will be at odds with the actual purpose for which it was created. While readers exalt it as a 'pearl of great price', there are dangers.

One is to make an idol of the King James, not just if you say the whole text is inerrant but that its very excellence as literature is inerrant. A mistake made by many devotees is a kind of aesthetic fundamentalism, the fervently held belief that only the King James has a claim to be the greatest expression of faith and there has been nothing good like it before or since. Perhaps the simplest way of defining this mistake is that the medium is given priority over the message.

The men (and women?) who worked on the King James would have been dismayed at the idea that their work was read primarily for its lovely poetry and quotable quotes. It may be all rather marvellous, but the whole object is to effect meaning and conversion. Which is why translation keeps on happening, not just because readers want the closest sense of the words, but because of how those words can effect the lived experience of the individual.

Another mistake is to treat the King James as one of those great unread works, shelved between Dostoyevsky's Idiot and Joyce's Ulysses. As a template for the understanding of the evolution of not just religion but society itself, the King James is inimitable. It is a source book, a form of identification, a link to ancient truths. Erasmus and his colleagues in the 16th century agreed that clear translation was decisive for harmony, as well as meaning. While revelation is treated as a way to truth and justice through love, then individuals will want to hear those words in a language they can understand.

No national leader today feels it right and necessary to commission a definitive English Bible, despite the plethora of versions on offer. Finding 47 scholars in one country who could render the Hebrew and Greek into perfect and poetic contemporary English might be seen as quixotic, if it weren't impossible to locate so many experts in one place.

But, while arguments can lead to animosity and even violence over what the sin of Sodom actually is, or what is meant in Corinthians by 'Let your women keep silence in the churches', then engagement with the original texts is crucial. Even just to get close to what the Gospels mean by 'Kingdom of God', as distinct from the Kingdom of James.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, King James Bible, 400th anniversary



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Existing comments

Good to see that you have given William Tyndale the credit he deserves. Most of those loved expressions from the KJV originated from him.

Harry Herbert | 01 February 2011  

But the sweet baby James is still a bloody good read nonetheless! And though undoubtedly a "'pearl of great price' there" certainly were REAL "dangers" involved in its creation. Poor Billy Tyndale went up in flames for for his pains (he "was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned") and still succeeded in producing as much as 90% of the world's greatest English literary masterpiece and this entitles him to full intellectual property rights in my view. It's time for the Churches to pay the rent!

Moreover, the traditional date of commemoration of Tyndale's death (6 October) should replace Australia Day I reckon as it's a clear object lessons of the dangers of literary translation.

Joey Davis | 01 February 2011  

Thanks for the insightful article Philip. I commenced theological studies in an Anglican college - Common Bible RSV. Then majored in Scripture at ACU - Jerusalem Bible. Over the years I'm become more comfortable with the NRSV. Reading the Douai or KJV are like reading completely different books - translations with an agenda of the particular era? There will never be a universal answer to the most commonly asked question - "which one is 'the best.'"

Mick O'Donnell | 01 February 2011  

A translation from the middle ages incorporating lingo of that era. Isn't it amazing that with all the stuff proffered as reasons for the re-translation of the Roman Missal that a lot of our church prayers are still peppered with past English language of "thee, thy, thou and thine". Wonder why the ICEL didn't look at this.

Stan O'Loughlin | 01 February 2011  

An example of how a Bible text can be turned into a literary exhibition is this complete reading of the King James in the City of Bath. The readers seem to be doing the same verbal recreation of an artefact as Bloomsdayers when they read aloud from Ulysses:


A colleague has also drawn attention to this article, with the droll covering note that “Even Richard Dawkins likes the KJV, though he doesn't think it should be hijacked by religion”:


PHILIP HARVEY | 01 February 2011  

My problem with modern translations is that they weren't written by 'a group of the ablest and most reverend linguists' or based on the work of a literary genius. No matter how accurate or precise a translation is, for it to affect us emotionally or spiritually it must sing in both poetry and prose. How many of the modern Bibles have coined phrases which stay in our minds in the way Tyndale's phrases do? In the search for authenticity we may have lost the elements of language which reach the soul.

Pamela Freeman | 01 February 2011  

Yes, poor Billy Tyndale. I find it ironic that he was persecuted by non other than good ol' Henry VIII for wilful mistranslation of the Bible to suit his own dubious theology.

Francis | 01 February 2011  

James I (1603-1625) was the British king who established the committee to issue a new translation of the Bible to be read in Anglican churches, which is now commonly called the King James Version (1611). There are many omissions of text and errors in translation. It is heavily based upon on the Latin Vulgate, the authoritative text that the Catholic Church uses, and upon the Douay-Rheims (1582-1609) Catholic English translation. During the Protestant Reformation in England, and the subsequent persecutions of Catholics in that benighted country, the faithful were compelled either to go underground or to seek refuge on foreign soil. The clergy in charge of keeping alive the study of the Sacred Scriptures within the English-speaking world were among those who took flight to other shores. For their escape had become an imperative, if their work was to continue unencumbered. Among the great scholars who were forced to flee were the Catholic Fathers of Oxford, many of whom settled at Douay in Flanders (Belgium). They translated directly, not from the original Hebrew or Greek, but from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. This had been declared authoritative for Catholics by the Council of Trent, but it was also commonly admitted that the Latin text was purer than in any Greek or Hebrew manuscripts extant in the 16th century. The Douay-Rheims Bible is a scrupulously faithful, word-for-word translation into English of the Latin Vulgate Bible. The New Testament was published at Rheims in 1582, and the Old Testament, at Douay in 1609. Thus, the New Testament appeared nearly thirty years before the King James Version and is now commonly recognized to have been significantly influenced by it. In 1749-1752 Bishop Richard Challoner, a Carmelite, revised the Douay-Rheims version and modernized the language. This revision is sometimes called the Douay-Rheims-Challoner version and is the one most commonly used today in traditional Catholic churches. The Douay-Rheims translators took great pains to translate the Latin text exactly -- as exactly as any "translation" can. Of course, the Latin Vulgate is always to be preferred over any "translation." Contrary to the procedure of the modern Bible translators, when a passage seemed strange and unintelligible, they left it alone, even if obscure. The modern Bible translators, on the other hand, will often look at an obscure passage, decide what they think it means, then translate it in words that bring out that meaning. The result is that the modern English translations are usually easier to understand, but do not necessarily reflect accurately and completely what the Bible says. Rather, they reflect the biased interpretation and understanding of what particular modern translators think that the Bible says. Modern translations are generally not translations at all, but paraphrases, which inject modern "translators'" views into the paraphrase. In many ways, the King James Version, in addition to being a monument of English literature, surpasses post-Vatican II Newchurch translations, such as the New Jerusalem Bible and particularly the New American Bible, which is the Novus Ordo Bible. These introduce throughout the paraphrase Modernistic conceptions at the whim of the paraphraser. An interesting sidelight of the King James Version is that some scholars believe that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was raised as a Catholic and probably remained so in secret during his life. Psalm 46 is called by some the "Shakespeare" Psalm in the King James Bible. If you count 46 words in from the beginning you find the word shake and 46 words in from the end (excepting Selah) you find "spear." As the King James Version was published in 1611 when Shakespeare was 47 years old, he may have been working on his versions of the Psalms in his 46th year and thus chose that psalm to "sign."

Trent | 02 February 2011  

The Bible is not the possession of any one person or any one church. The amazing words of the Prophets, the Wisdom writers, the Gospel writers are for everyone. With all due respect to the counsel of Trent and his sources, the King James Version of the Bible is not “heavily based upon the Latin Vulgate”, though of course the translators knew the Vulgate better than anyone alive today. Like Saint Jerome, they also knew their Hebrew and Greek, the original sacred languages in which the books of the Bible were composed. The Bible and its interpretation and use were central forces in the Reformation and, strangely enough, it wasn’t just the Catholic clergy who were in charge of keeping alive the study of the Sacred Scriptures within the English-speaking world, but the Anglicans and the Protestants. They all saw it as their mission and purpose. They wanted the amazing awesome words and they wanted them in their own language, even when that was Latin. There is one offensive statement in Trent’s counsel that must be contested: “Of course, the Latin Vulgate is always to be preferred over any ‘translation’." The thing that is offensive in this sentence is “Of course”. Since when was the Bible in Greek and Hebrew to be preferred over the Latin? Say that to a Greek, or a Jew. I would have thought that readers of Greek and Hebrew would have a direct access to Scripture that readers in Latin or good modern English can only envy. Not that I try to envy them, because Scripture warns me against envy, but envy has a way of sneaking through. Lastly, it is a matter of some interest to me that Trent believes that “in many ways the King James Version, in addition to being a monument of English literature, surpasses post-Vatican II Newchurch translations, such as the New Jerusalem Bible and particularly the New American Bible, which is the Novus Ordo Bible.” This superstitious belief in the KJV as some absolute last word on the Word is precisely what I am questioning in my article. All of these versions have their value, they are all ways of getting at the meaning of Scripture, they are all ways of giving us the amazing words. Our thanks to all the translators of these words should be unbounded.

PHILIP HARVEY | 02 February 2011  

Why is it when secular writers quote the bible they seem only to quote the KJV? Is it 'a kind of aesthetic fundamentalism' or 'superstitious belief in the KJV as some absolute last word on the Word' (Philip Harvey). Perhaps is it just that they are unaware that other translations exist.

Docrev | 03 February 2011  

The reason that the Council of Trent said that the vulgate was to be prefered was because at the time it was known to be the most reliable version. While the original text was obviously written in Greek and Hebrew, it is my understanding that over time a couple of different versions of the Greek and Hebrew had arisen. The Vulgate version, translated in the 4th century by St Jerome using non-corrupted texts, some of which do not exist in any form today, had been been used by the church for some 1200 years and was known to be identical in form to the original translated version. Furthermore, St, Jerome relied on even older latin translations of some texts so he could be assured that the correct meaning was given.

Therefore, to the Council, it was obvious based both on tradition and reason that the vulgate was the most reliable source of scripture, and thus the Council declared the Vulgate to be free from error and the authoritive scripture of the Church.

Francis | 04 February 2011  

I see there are earlier bibles too. Wycliffe, from the 1380's. If you want to go much much deeper, there is also an anglo-saxon bible on the net.

In my opinion, Wycliffe is easy to read, and fun to read.

In comparison, some of Shakespeare reads so badly, to my years, that I wonder if the promotion of Shakespeare is a literary hoax.

telfer cronos | 04 February 2011  

Thank you Francis. Yes, the 16th century was one of huge linguistic change in Europe, that included the formalising of the modern languages inside the separate nation states. This was one of the factors that challenged the predominance of Latin as the lingua franca of the educated known world.

The Council of Trent was necessarily conservative in its findings, it needed to assert the Church’s universal claims, which were under serious threat, and keeping Latin was seen by the Council as non-negotiable.

I don’t know anyone who actually spends time questioning the achievement of the Vulgate, but today we would have to be very careful about declaring “the Vulgate to be free from error and the authoritative scripture of the Church.” We live in a multilingual world. The lingua franca used in the City of Rome today is not Latin, not Italian or German, but English.

Further, it is incredible that in the 21st century our correspondent Trent can still say 'the Latin Vulgate is always to be preferred over any ‘translation’,’ when anyone can tell you that the Vulgate itself is only a translation.

This fervent belief in the perfection of this one version over all others is no different from the belief asserted by others that the King James is the champion version of all possible versions. In the 20th century we witnessed the, in my opinion, ludicrous spectacle of the great Ronald Knox being expected by Church authority to make an English translation of the Bible based on the Vulgate, when everywhere in Europe for over four hundred years translators had been going to the original, while using the Vulgate as a useful aid.

My reading of the position Knox was put in is that the Church was still locked into its blind faith in the Latin, long after the game had changed, forever. I think there are great great things in the Knox Version, but am glad to know that such a process of translation will never be tried again.

PHILIP HARVEY | 04 February 2011  

These days the importance of the bible to all christians is not just the words themselves but the background of the texts both in their content and origins. both the hebrew scriptures and the Christian additions were written in cultures so different from ours. It is important that all Christians have a general understanding of modern biblical scholarship. the Bible is not a "Magic" book that can be used to solve all life's problems with texts taken out of context according to the whim of the reader using a modern concordance.

John Ozanne | 05 February 2011  

The only evidence for Willy Waggledagger penning Psalm 46 is the coincidence that the 46th word from the beginning is "shake" and the 46th word from the end is "spear."

Shakespeare did not serve on the committee which produced the Psalms.

You might as well say that Goguh was a fascist, because of you take off the first and last letters of his name you get HITLA

David McKay | 06 February 2011  

Whoops. Gough, I mean

David McKay | 06 February 2011  

Shakespeare did not serve on the Committee which produced the Psalms, but this does not alter the proposal that he probably did Psalm 46. As likely, Lancelot Andrewes probably did Psalm 46 and John Donne probably did Psalm 46. We know who were on the Committees, but we don’t know everything about who they talked to and all the people they may have consulted outside office hours. They all lived within one degree of separation from each other.

King James himself probably did Psalm 46 and if you are a Baconian, Francis Bacon definitely did Psalm 46. People believe what they want to believe, especially if they live in the 19th century when Bardolatry and Baconian Theory skyrocketed.

Having said that, I have been doing my own consulting. Psalm 46 in the Geneva Bible (1560) has ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ in the same places. The Douai Bible (1609), which treats the Psalm as No. 45 (Deus noster refugium) translates the relevant Hebrew word as the mountains were ‘troubled’ instead of ‘shake’, and prefers ‘weapons’ to ‘spear’. So yes, let’s say ‘probably’ is very elastic when used in my article.

As an indication of how thorough, and how language-minded, King James’ men were, consider their revision process. When a Committee had completed a draft of a Book, one man would read the translation while the rest held in their hands some Bible in another language – French, Spanish, Italian, German (Luther), Latin, even the recent Douai – comparing each word and phrase. This is after they have already translated from the Hebrew and Greek, but also the relevant Syrian, Ethiopic and other versions. They knew that words change and are, well, elastic over time. Our arguments about translation and transmission have alot to do with the elasticity of words.

PHILIP HARVEY | 08 February 2011  


I will keep adding links on this subject through the year as they come to hand, for those interested. Here is a link to an extended article published on February the 9th in The London Times, also as I understand in The Times Literary Supplement. It includes at the end a good short bibliography of new publications on the KJV and its history.

I should also mention a Melbourne seminar on the subject of the KJV, featuring Charles Sherlock and Chris Watson, scheduled for the Tuesday the 7th of June, 7.30-9.30pm at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, i.e. at St Peter's Anglican Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne.

PHILIP HARVEY | 12 February 2011  


The King James Bible Trust has an excellent site that leads to all sorts of events, lectures, readings and so on being conducted in 2011.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 April 2011  


Lighthearted notice about the King James Bible placed in the New York Times.

PHILIP HARVEY | 25 April 2011  


Mark Noll in 'Christianity Today', looking at what the world would be like if we didn't have the King James Version.

PHILIP HARVEY | 13 May 2011  

The Bodley Library and Folger Libraries have combined to show an amazing exhibition in Oxford: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about/exhibitions I imagine any catalogues and monographs from this exhibition would be worth looking out for. Meanwhile this website is of interest and includes a section that covers the translation working companies: http://www.manifoldgreatness.org/ The unstoppable Ben Myers has some very good links on his blogspot http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/ with a special site dedicated to the anniversary of the King James Bible, featuring multimedia presentations and articles by Robert Alter, N. T. Wright, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Phillip Jenkins and others. Ben includes in his directions this page on the Religion and Ethics section of the ABC site: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/king-james-bible.htm

PHILIP HARVEY | 19 May 2011  

The Melbourne Age: http://www.theage.com.au/national/the-book-that-changed-the-world-20110526-1f68t.html

PHILIP HARVEY | 27 May 2011  

The American critic Harold Bloom, famous for his shocks and his shibboleths, has just released a book on the subject of the KJV called ‘The Shadow of a Great Rock’. Readers familiar with Bloom will know that he doesn’t let religion get in the way of high literature, so it is not surprising that the advertising blurb from Yale for this book goes as follows: ‘The King James Bible stands at "the sublime summit of literature in English," sharing the honor only with Shakespeare.’ This is precisely the kind of language that is warned about in my article. The blurb makes the modest claim we will be reading ‘a magisterial and intimately perceptive reading of the King James Bible as a literary masterpiece.’ Curiously, Bloom calls it an "inexplicable wonder" that a rather undistinguished group of writers could bring forth such a magnificent work of literature, and he credits William Tyndale as their fountainhead. One finds it an inexplicable wonder that Bloom could think a group of the greatest linguists and divines of the Jacobean English Church could be thought of as “undistinguished”. Perhaps by “undistinguished” he means they are not household names, like his beloved Bard. I look forward to reading his opinions on Lancelot Andrewes, for example. But the blurb does say that Bloom goes to pains to compare translations and also traces the impact of the KJV language in works from the Romantic period to the present day. So it should be worth the effort.

The blurb ends: ‘Throughout, Bloom makes an impassioned and convincing case for reading the King James Bible as literature, free from dogma and with an appreciation of its enduring aesthetic value.’ For someone with such a dogmatic position on the status of the KJV in English literature, it will be instructive to learn from Bloom where dogma is not dogma in the Bible.

PHILIP HARVEY | 31 August 2011  

The Bible Society is holding an exhibition to commemorate the King James Bible. The exhibition is called ‘The Book That Changed the World’ and includes displays of rare Bibles. It is at the Melbourne City Library, 253, Flinders Lane from October 2nd to the 28th.

Also, an Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on Sunday October the 2nd at 2.30pm. Beverley Dunn will read from the text, Sons of Korah will sing psalms, the Revd Dr John Harris and the Revd Dr Charles Sherlock will speak on the subject of the KJV.

PHILIP HARVEY | 02 September 2011  

Sophia Think Tank is involved in a Public Forum called 'What's the Bible Ever Done for us?' as a part of the KJV 400th Anniversary celebrations put on by Bible Society Australia. It's on October 1st at 7pm at Melbourne City Conference Centre, 333 Swanston St., Melbourne. We have Lord Salisbury, a current member and former leader of the British House of Lords speaking from the British perspective and then Dr John Harris telling the Australian story. Dr Greg Clarke, CEO of Bible Society Australia will speak on the use of the Bible in the Public Space (Public Theology) and there will be time for audience participation.

PHILIP HARVEY | 13 September 2011  

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preached at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday the 16th of November at a Thanksgiving Service for the 400th anniversary of the 1611 Authorized (King James) translation of the Bible, attended by Her Majesty The Queen and TRH The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales. Here is the text of Rowan’s sermon:


PHILIP HARVEY | 17 November 2011  

yes i agree with the article,kjv is a loved translation and ought not to be idolized

jaime guillermo | 09 May 2012  

OSU Libraries has an online exhibit on the King James Bible until May 2013 "Translation…openeth the window to let in the light: The Pre-History and Abiding Impact of the King James Bible.” http://library.osu.edu/innovation-projects/omeka/exhibits/show/the-king-james-bible

PHILIP HARVEY | 05 February 2013  

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