Thursday, September 22, 2011

The King James Version: myths debunked 400 years later

One of the reasons I've been so excited to study at Wheaton is the multiple opportunities I have hear to learn from world-renowned experts at conferences such as this one.  Tonight I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Alister McGrath lecture on "The King James Bible: The Making of a Classic Translation."

McGrath is a British scholar widely respected for his work as a theologian, historian, and scientist.  His lecture was not a disappointment.  I learned a number of fascinating things.

Myth #1 - The King James Version has been popular for 400 years.

Actually it was not popular at first.  Historians are not even sure exactly when it was released in 1611.  It was a non-event.  Neither the Puritans nor the Anglicans wanted a new English translation.  Not until 1660, almost 50 years after its publication, was the KJV was widely embraced.  (And then for political reasons, fueled by the restoration of the British monarchy and the appeal of a national Bible.)

Myth #2 - The King James Version was written in the common language of the people.

While the goal of the translators was to be accessible, the KJV would have already sounded out of date by the time of publication.  Words like "thee" and "thou" had already begun to fall out of use by the time the translation was made.  The committee was guided by a set of rules that included the intentional re-use of earlier translations for the sake of continuity.

Myth #3 - The King James Version was radical and revolutionary.

Translators only deviated from previous English translations where inaccuracies were found.

Myth #4 - The King James Version is a bad translation.

The translation itself, according to McGrath, was a good one in its time.  The problem is that the English language has changed considerably since 1611, and the meaning of the KJV is no longer accessible to common people.  The translators endeavored to be quite literal, bringing Hebrew and Greek figures of speech over into English.  In many cases the sense of the original is "lost in translation."  Another problem is the failure to distinguish poetry and prose through different typesetting, resulting in misplaced expectations of readers.  On the whole, though, the translation is good.

Myth #5 - The use of the name "James" in the New Testament, where the Greek actually reads "Jacob," was a 'tip of the hat' to King James, who authorized the translation.

I approached Dr. McGrath afterwards to ask him about this in particular.  Somewhere during my education I heard this and have always wondered if it was true.  Dr. McGrath says this is a common assumption, but the practice of Anglicizing Hebrew and Greek names goes back further than the KJV.  Even the Great Bible of 1539 reads "James" for the Greek "Jacob."  No one knows why.

If you're interested in reading more summaries of the conference sessions, check out the new blog of Wheaton's doctoral students:  Summaries of the lectures will be posted as they are written.  I'm scheduled to write about Mark Noll's lecture tomorrow, so check back tomorrow evening for more!

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