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Posted: May 20, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Dale: 400 years of authority

This year marks the 400th anniversary of King James of England authorizing the translation of the Bible commonly known as the King James Version. He commissioned six committees (42 men, no women) to come up with a common translation of the Bible that would be the standard text of the realm. Their work began in 1604 and was completed in 1611.

 

Few texts have been as influential over the years as the KJV Bible. Many people today still regard it as the only "authorized" version. All others, they say, are inferior pretenders.

Of course, most Christians do not hold this view. They find the content of the Bible challenging enough without having to wade through the "thees" and "thous" and the "eth" at the end of singular verbs. They are tripped up when they see an archaic spelling of a word they know, or an archaic word they do not know. Recently, I made reference to the story in John 21 - when Jesus tells Peter the day will come when someone will fasten a belt around him and take him where he does not want to go. One person, a very faithful student of the Bible, was unfamiliar with it. I opened her copy of the KJV and read to her: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." She told me she was familiar with that story, but never quite knew what it meant. Point made.

Today, the Bible has been translated into almost every language in the world. Some versions are intended to highlight the particular theological bent of the author. For most translations, making the Bible easy to understand is the primary objective. Replacing the archaic with the colloquial makes the scriptures read more like your neighbor talking to you.

But is this necessarily a good thing? After all, it is not your neighbor talking to you, it is God. Shouldn't God be allowed to have a language that reflects his majesty, or must God always stoop to our slang?

The authors of the KJV understood this, and wrote in a manner that was archaic even in their day. But the cadence and poetic style gives it that needed air of authority.

No version, even the original Greek and Hebrew, is perfectly understandable. Ultimately, The Great I Am is beyond our understanding. Translations give us a window for seeing, but the nuances of thought and language render impossible a perfect grasp of the mind of God. It is only in the next life that "I will know fully, even as I am fully known" (1Corinthians 13:12).

When I preach and teach, I use the New Revised Standard Version. Occasionally, I will opt for a different version if it brings home a certain point. But at graveside, I pull out the KJV and read the 23rd Psalm. In this moment of grief, the scripture needs to be felt as much as understood.

When I read "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures," I see no quizzical faces, but I sense these comforting words have hit their mark. Occasionally, the entire assembly of people joins me in spontaneously reciting this psalm. After 400 years, no other version of the Bible has this potential for uniting worshipers in one voice to God. Thank you, King James.


Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.

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