Eddie and Sue Arthur

Throwback Thursday: Authorised Myths

This post is from four years ago and was part of my response to the 440th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible. What was true after 400 years, is still true after 404! You can find a follow up post to this one entitled More Authorised Myths, here. 

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are now into 2011, which marks the 4ooth anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in English. This is a significant event and one which I have been involved in celebrating through the launch of Biblefresh. However, attitudes to the AV being what they are, it is also an opportunity for people to miss the point about the Bible and Bible translation.

I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight a few of the myths that surround the Authorised (or King James) Version of the Bible.

MYTH 1: IT IS THE FIRST TRANSLATION IN ENGLISH.

This morning, a prominent British Christian (name withheld to protect the guilty) posted this on Twitter:

2011 is the 400th anniv of the King James Bible, which put the Bible in the language of ordinary people for the first time

Thankfully, the satirical magazine, Ship of Fools (@shipoffoolscom) has a better sense of history and they tweeted:

Wyclif begat Tyndale; and Tyndale begat Coverdale; and Coverdale begat Matthew; and Matthew begat Great; and Great begat Geneva…

Far from being the first translation of the Bible into English, the AV was part of an already long tradition of English translations. In fact the translators were specifically charged not to produce an entirely new version of the Bible, but to improve and update an older translation (the Bishop’s Bible). (See  Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspiredp.237.)

The most popular translation in the early 1600s was the Great Bible. This was so well entrenched in people’s minds, that when the introduction to the AV came to be written, all of the Scripture Quotes were from the Great Bible, not the AV!

It is worth remembering that although the AV is 400 years old, that is not particularly long in the history of the Christian Church. If you think of the history of Christianity as a 24 hour day, the AV didn’t actually get published until 7 pm – for most of Christian history we have done without it. My Hungarian friends wonder what all the fuss is about – they had a Bible more than 200 years before the AV.

MYTH 2. IT IS THE BEST ENGLISH TRANSLATION

One of the reasons that the AV was translated was that the scholarship of the time meant that people had a better grasp of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible than earlier translators. Because of their more up to date knowledge, the translators were able to improve on earlier translations.

Over the last 400 years our understanding of the original manuscripts, of archaeology and of how translation works has improved out of all recognition. Today we are in a position to produce much more faithful translations than was possible all those years ago. I get irritated (as many of you know) by the profusion of translations in English but there can be no doubt that in an age where we can consult the ESV, the NIV and the NLT and numerous others, we are living through a golden age in English Bible translation.

MYTH 3. IT IS MOST CULTURALLY VALUABLE TRANSLATION

One cannot doubt the impact that the Authorised Version has had upon English life. The choice of phrase and the quality of some of the poetry is truly impressive. Even though I have not used the AV as my regular Bible for over thirty years, I can still often quote passages from there and not from the translation that I use regularly. In one of my poetry books, David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1 is given as an example of good English poetry. That’s not bad for something that started off as a lament by a Hebrew bronze age warrior.

However, this reverence for the language of the AV can be taken too far. Cranmer, in typically overblown prose describes it like this:

Yet there is something of the majesty and grandeur of God Himself in this translation: its cadences are poetic perfection and its vocabulary is a breath away from divinity. Coming during the life of Shakespeare, in the years immediately following his greatest tragedies and his richest poetry, one senses the imprimatur of the Bard himself upon the heavenly spark of Godhead.

It is important to realise that these cadences and poetic perfection were not there in the original. These are additions by the translators. The New Testament writers could well have written in Homeric Greek, their equivalent of Elizabethan English, but they didn’t. They wrote in Koine, common Greek. The Greek of everyman. I recall one critic of the NIV saying that they did not want a Bible that sounded like today’s newspaper. That’s a shame, because the NT was written in newspaper language, not high flowing Shakespearean cadences. Enjoy the touch of grandeur by all means, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is how God speaks!

God speaks! This is the point of the Bible. It is not a cultural artifact to be preserved in a museum and admired for it’s beauty and poetry. In its own words, the Bible is:

Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The next year will see many articles like the one from Cranmer which I quoted above or this one from the Daily Telegraph. They rightly praise the AV for its artistic and cultural merit, but as long as they ignore the whole purpose of the Bible as God’s self-revelation to humanity, they are missing the point completely.

The AV may well be the most culturally valuable translation – but that is simply not what a Bible is for!

MYTH 4. WE SHOULD USE THE AV BECAUSE OUR FOREFATHERS DID.

This argument is getting close to the old “if the King James Bible was good enough for St Paul it is good enough for me.”

Many people suggest that because great Christians of the past (choose your name…) used the AV then so should we today. Of course, this makes no sense at all. Many Christians in the past used the AV because it was the only translation available to them. Who knows what Bible Hudson Taylor or William Wilberforce would have used if they had today’s choice? And of course, if we are going to base our choice of Bible on what our predecessors used, then we should follow Jesus example and use the Old Testament in Aramaic or Greek.

In the end, I don’t hold a brief for any version of the Bible. My concern is that people read God’s word in whatever translation they please and that they hear God speaking through it and that they align their lives with God’s story. The Archbishop of Canterbury captures this well in his New Year address: though he would have done well to point out that the ‘big story’ belongs to the Bible in whatever language or translation, not just the Authorised Version.

I know that the picture has nothing to do with the Authorised Version of the Bible, but it is just a gentle reminder that the Scriptures exist in more languages than English and that there are still 2,000 languages without a single word of the Bible.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.
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