An extended version from the April 2011 magazine
King James Version of the Bible remains most influential English translation
The translation is noted for its ability to move us – its affective power – and influence through the centuries.
- Dr. Leland Ryken in an interview with Ronald E. Keener
The King James Version of the Bible (KJV), whose 400th anniversary we observe this year, was never authorized by either the king whose name it bears or an ecclesiastical body. The KJV is commonly known as the Authorized Version, or the A.V.
But in another sense the KJV was authorized, says professor of English Leland Ryken, it was authorized by the people. “So one answer is to say that the KJV has persisted through the centuries because the bible-reading public preferred it over other translations,” he says.
Ryken teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois and is the author of The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Crossway, 2011). He responded to questions on the translation and the anniversary for Church Executive:
But what qualities make the KJV a superior translation?
If I were to say that the thing that makes one English Bible better than another is that it has better words, my guess is the immediate response of most people would be that this trivializes the issue. But the answer is accurate. What do we see when we open our Bible? We see words. The best translation is the one that has the best words.
All right, but what makes the words of a translation good?
The words are not good if they are not an accurate rendition of what the original authors of the Bible wrote. The KJV is an essentially literal translation that aims at accuracy above all. Secondly, the words of the KJV have proven better than the words of other translations because they are beautiful, aphoristic or memorable, and elegant. I think that we need to acknowledge that the excellence of the KJV is not fully explainable. We can experience the superiority of the KJV but not fully explain it.
How do translations today line up in regard to the KJV?
The KJV set the standard for what an English Bible should be from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Starting in the middle of the twentieth century, all Bible translators have faced a basic decision—whether to perpetuate the translation philosophy and style of the KJV, or repudiate it. Today we have two categories of English Bibles—(1) those that align themselves with the King James tradition, and (2) dynamic equivalent and colloquial translations that distance themselves from the KVJ tradition.
What do you mean when you say that modern colloquializing Bibles are flat and lacking in affective power when read in public? How should a Bible sound when read?
To answer your second question first, a sacred book should sound like a sacred book, not like a conversation with the checkout clerk at a grocery store. It should elevate the soul and stir the emotions. As for what I call the flatness of colloquial translations, just compare the following two versions of 1 Timothy 6:6: “But godliness with contentment is great gain” (KJV; seven words and unforgettable); “and of course religion does yield high dividends, but only to those who are content with what they have” (a modern translation; nineteen words, eminently forgettable).
What is the case against the KJV today, and is it a valid and compelling case?
Let me note in passing that the KJV remains second on the list of sales of English Bibles. The only serious case to be made against the KJV is the archaism of its language and grammar. The archaism is extreme for most people today, though of course if an individual or family or church never abandoned the KJV, the archaic quality is not even experienced as archaic. The archaic language of the KJV is a valid reason why a person might legitimately choose a modern translation that perpetuates the stylistic excellence of the KJV rather than using the KJV itself.
What would such a translation be?
Either the New King James Version or the English Standard Version. For me personally, the first of those is a makeover KJV that does not sound like a modern translation. The ESV perpetuates the qualities of the KJV in updated language and scholarship.
What constitutes an “inferior translation?”
Let me begin by observing that an English Bible has two dimensions. One is content—the substance of the translation that a committee puts forward as representing what the authors of the Bible wrote. Excellence at this level means giving an equivalent English word or phrase for every word in the original text. At the level of content, an inferior translation is one that omits material from the original text, adds to it, or changes it—in each case in such a way that Bible readers can have no confidence that what they are reading is what the original text actually says.
What is the other dimension of a Bible translation?
The other side of translation is language and style. I believe that an inferior translation is one that abandons such qualities as beauty, elegance (not to be equated with eloquence, though there are certainly eloquent passages in the Bible), dignity, and reverence for what is after all God’s book.
How did the KJV come about?
In 1604, the newly crowned King of England, James I, held a conference at Hampton Court to listen to a slate of Puritan requests. He dismissed all of the requests except a last-minute request for a new Bible translation. The king granted the request with a sneering statement that he had never seen a Bible well translated into English. But surprise of surprises: when the process of translation began, everyone rose above party spirit, and the 47 translators were chosen solely on the basis of their expertise in Hebrew, Greek, and biblical scholarship.
What is most essential for us to know as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the KJV?
The KJV is a book of superlatives—among English language books the best-selling book of all time, the most influential, the most quoted, the most widely read, the most printed. It is the most influential book of English-speaking Christendom. In view of this, we have a right to be genuinely pained and indignant when Christians and advocates of modernizing Bible translations make sneering and debunking comments about the KJV.
What do you like about the KJV?
Everything! Its elegant and beautiful language. The translation philosophy that underlies it, which today would go by such names as verbal equivalence and “essentially literal.” Its ability to move us (affective power). The influence that it has had through the centuries.
What has been the influence of the KJV on culture?
As a preface let me quote the gist of a statement made by an endorser of my book: even if all copies of the KJV were suddenly to vanish, the KJV would live on as a cultural presence. Some spheres of influence that I discuss in my book are these: public discourse (such as political speeches and courtroom speeches); religious discourse (e.g., sermons and Bible commentaries through the centuries, and Bible verses on the walls of churches in England and America); education; music; visual art; literature public inscriptions.
Are the claims for the impact of the KJV on the English language true?
Yes, the claims are true, but we need to widen the scope just a bit. The KJV brought to a climax the successive refinements that a whole century of English Bible translation had brought into existence, starting with William Tyndale (who perhaps did more than anyone else to establish modern English as a viable language). Through the centuries thereafter, the KJV represented a norm of what good English was like. When American pioneers headed west with a KJV as their only book, one of the things they were doing was guarding the integrity of the English language.
What can we expect by way of commemoration of the KJV during 2011?
New books and articles on the KJV are appearing nearly every week. Conferences celebrating the anniversary number in the dozens. Some of these are professional conferences, while others are church conferences. I have also heard of musical performances celebrating the anniversary, as well as special exhibits at museums and art galleries. Commemorative editions of the KJV are also starting to appear. 2011 is definitely the year of the King James Bible.