A couple of days ago, in my post on Authorised Myths, I mentioned that the Authorised Version of the Bible was not actually the first translation of the Scriptures into English. This is an interesting fact, which is of importance to historians, Bible translators and the compilers of pub quizzes but does it actually have any relevance to real people today? Actually, I think it does. Given the iconic state of the AV (of which we will be hearing a good deal more over 2011), it is vitally important that we place it firmly in its historical context. There are all sorts of things that could be drawn from looking at the AV in context, but I’d like to make three broad points. Feel free to add others in the comments:
We Live in A Story
The Bible provides a story, a narrative for our lives. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our lives are lived out against the Bible’s story of creation and fall, through to eternity. The Church age, the one in which we live, is a part of this story. As Christians, we live in continuity with the Church of the book of Acts and with the Church all down through the ages.
Some of the more extreme advocates of the Authorised Version suggest that it is the only true version of the Bible; not even the original manuscripts are as ‘pure’ as the AV (try here if you don’t believe me). Leaving aside any questions about the worth and quality of the translation, this sort of view takes us right away from the Biblical notion of God working down through the centuries. It imagines that for sixteen hundred years (80% of the Christian era) God did not give his people a true version of the Bible and then somehow stepped in and rectified the problem. All of the other translations of the Bible, from the third century Georgian, to Luther’s German translation are somehow invalid compared to the AV.
It is much more accurate to see the AV as fitting into the story of God’s work in the Church down through the ages. Since the miracle at Pentecost in Acts 2, the Christian message has generally been made available in the languages of he people who received it. The imposition of Latin in the Middle Ages was a short lived aberration in the life of the Church. When this cultural stranglehold began to break, new translations were produced in many European languages, including English. The English translations, one of which is the AV, are a part of the amazing story of God reaching out to the world. There are now Scriptures available in hundreds of languages, though they are still two thousand languages in need of the Bible.
English Speakers Are Not as Important as They Think
The first publication of the AV in 1611 occurred at a time when the English speaking peoples were starting to make their presence felt on the world stage in a serious way. The intervening 400 years have been, to some extent, dominated by the rise of the British Empire and then the American cultural and political hegemony. It is also true that during this time, the English speaking nations have been prominent, if not dominant in the modern missionary movement.
Because of this English it has become easy for English speaking peoples to see themselves as being somehow special. This impression is enforced by the way in which some people see the Authorised Version as being superior to other Bible translations.
Again, if we see the AV in it’s historical context, we can see it as one translation among many down through the years. Equally, we can see the rise (and wane) of the power of the English speaking nations as being typical of what has happened through the centuries too. The British and Americans have been highly influential in the spread of the Christian message, but this is not because we are something special; and it won’t last for ever.
It Wasn’t The First and It Shouldn’t Be the Last
The aim of the translators of the Authorised Version was not to create a new translation, but to make an existing one better. The time allowed for the work was such that they could not hope to translate the whole Bible afresh from Hebrew and Greek, so they built up on the work that had already been done. They did not see their work as standing on its own or as being somehow different or more inspired than earlier versions. They simply wanted to convey God’s message to the people of their time.
It is beyond doubt that the King James Version of the Bible as an outstanding translation by the standards of 1611 and beyond. Yet translations eventually require revision, not necessarily because they are defective, but because the language into which they were translated changes over time. Translation involves aiming at a moving target that has accelerated over the centuries…
Those who insist on retaining the King James Bible as the only acceptable English translation of the Bible actually betray the inventions and goals of those who conceived and translated it – namely, to translate the Bible into living English.
The Authorised Version of the Bible is a remarkable translation and it has had an enormous impact over the centuries. But it is, itself, part of a much bigger story, the story of God’s eternal engagement with his creation. We should never let our loyalty or affection for a translation, whichever one we prefer, blind us to the important message of the Bible itself.