Triumph of a committee: King James still reigns

The Argument

The 400-year-old Anglican translation of the Bible remains a literary glory, surpassing all others.

April 23, 2000|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

The King James Version of the Bible is the best piece of writing ever to come out of a committee. I just attended a meeting where a hundred educators convened mid-continent to spend seven days thinking of ways to say "Students should be taught how to read and write," and I am awed that 400 years ago 50-some men could come up with this huge, gorgeous, gut-wrenching, world-shaking book in a mere seven years.

The Bible is one of the most problematic works ever written. Thousand-year wars have been fought over who was the author or authors. Few still believe God and his Son wrote it down personally -- much less in modern tongues. Scholars agree the original language of the scribes and witnesses was Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Latin came only in translation, but once entrenched as the scholarly language of Europe and the official tongue of Roman Catholicism, it took on a political life of its own.

A question that fueled the Protestant Reformation was this: are ordinary people supposed to read the Bible at all? In England, the common man won, as evidenced by John Wycliffe's 1382 translation of the Bible into English, followed in 1525-35 by William Tyndale's English version. Late in 1611 came the Authorized King James Version.

That the Bible was ghost-written complicated the task of translation: when God dictates, transcribers work in fear -- of damnation. Even King James, who convened his famous yet curiously anonymous committee in 1604, worked in fear-not of God but of Oliver Cromwell, who spearheaded the bloody Puritan revolt against both Roman Catholicism and the Church of England.

Given an enormous committee of Anglicans and Puritans who hated each other's guts; given multiple languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) and multiple translations (Latin, Spanish, medieval English and more), here was a war ready to be fought -- a war for desperate religious and political stakes.

Then came this:

"And they crucified him ... and sitting down they watched him there; and set up over his head his accusation written, 'THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then there were two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. ... And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads ... Likewise also the chief priests said, "He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God ...

"And behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said." (From Matthew 27 and 28.)

Of course, by now there are dozens of 20th century translations, of which perhaps the most radically different is the "Good News Bible," a 1960s-80s effort grandly subtitled "Today's English Version." The thieves are "bandits," the headwagging solemnized as head-shaking, the folksy chief priests heard to say, "Isn't he the King of Israel? ... He trusts in God and claims to be God's Son. Well, then, let us see if God wants to save him now!"

The angel becomes a bureaucrat: "I know you are looking for Jesus ... He is not here; he has been raised." A promotion, no doubt.

Obviously my passion for the King James version of the Passion (and the rest of the Book besides) is rooted partly in familiarity. Old words, long in your head, linger on your tongue. The different versions of "The Lord's Prayer" provide cases in point. You know this poignantly if you went to a public elementary school like my beloved Margaret Brent, P.S. 53, way back when this prayer was a requisite part of "opening exercises.'

At P.S. 53, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindi, and other religions represented in that diverse Charles Village neighborhood dutifully ended the prayer thus: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever." Those daily exercises produced generations of non-Roman Catholics who even today, when attending a Roman Catholic ceremony, hear their lone voices trailing off in the humiliating silence left by all the people who knew to stop after "kingdom."

My many R.C. friends, on the other hand, must be a savvy crew. I've never once heard any of them say "supersubstantial bread." That's what "daily bread" became in the Latin-based Douai-Reims Bible, which, for 400 years, remained the only authorized Roman Catholic version in English.

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