The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 5: Linguistic Prejudice, or “Ritzy Writ? Or Beautiful Word?”
William Tyndale, of the renowned Tyndale Bible, was once challenged by a papal cleric on his belief that the common man should have true access to God’s word, not just priests. Ironically, many of the clergy did not know much Bible, though they knew papal law like the backs of their bejeweled hands. To the clergy he said, “If God spares my life, before many years pass I will make it possible for the boy who drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
Our last post covered how our language has changed since Jacobean times. We will now look at the myth that the Bible was meant to be in a “high class language”.
Before there ever was an English Bible, linguistic and cultural prejudice created resistance against the very idea. Lewis points out that there were three main hurtles to overcome for a vernacular English Bible to be successful:
1) It was widely held that Latin was THE language of the church.
2) Clergy didn’t think the laity could be trusted with access to the Bible or they would learn heretical ideas.
3) The way many Americans feel about English “slang” today is similar to how people thought about English vernacular then.(1)
Until around Chaucer’s time (13-1400), English was looked down on by everyone who thought themselves classy. It was either French or Latin that the educated and “pious” would be found speaking. So it wasn’t even for another hundred years or so after the great English volume Canterbury Tales showed the world the artistry of our language that the first English Bible would come along (Cloverdale), let alone be accepted by large groups.
Consider how these prejudices echo the ones we see today. People sometimes assume that everyone either should learn the language they know or should be withheld from knowing it. We must not withhold an opportunity to bring the Gospel to people of limited intellectual empowerment.
The King James Bible is, as I have said, a beautiful translation that exemplifies both the beauty of Early Modern English (1600s Jacobean, not to be confused with contemporary “modern” English), as well as the beauty of scriptures. F.W. Faber says that the KJV “lives on the ear, like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert hardly knows how he can forego.”
One thing is important to remember, though. Especially within the last hundred years, and most especially with the recent advent of new digital media, post-colonial cultural shifts, and the globalized marketplace, EME (1611 era English) has effectively become a foreign language to many Americans, and likewise, to ESL (English Second Language) peoples, an even more than foreign language. We are currently speaking an English increasingly foreign to “Shakespearean”, “KJV” English. This is more rapidly happening within this passing decade.
In fact, the Geneva Bible, which came 50 years before the KJV, did a fantastic job of rendering the Bible in common English. This Bible became available to the masses along with study guides and footnotes that allowed readers to do cross-referencing. For its time, the Geneva Bible was actually more contemporary and easier to read, focusing exclusively on a true English rendering. Shakespeare, Cromwell, Milton, Knox, Donne and Bunyan all relied on the Geneva Bible for their work.
In contrast, many of the scholars working on the KJV admitted to preferring Anglicized Latin in some places, that is, taking Latin words and putting them in, rather than using actual English words. Tasks like these only return us to one question: When rendering a translation, should it be more decorous, or should it be more pragmatic?
Great literature doesn’t have to mean ‘flowery’ literature. Shakespeare is one kind of great literature, Ernest Hemingway is another. If you translate Hemingway into Shakespearean English, it may sound better on stage to an Anglophile elitist (or it may not), but most folks will have a hard time getting it, and Hemingway himself would roll around in his grave at the inauthentic cadence. Is your purpose to decorate the Word as much as you can in order to show God how special he is to you on your terms, or to bring that word to men of various tongues (and abilities of tongue and ear) in order to show to the world how amazing God is just as he wished us to do?
A fella I once heard actually said that the New International Version is not International, but American. “It consistently substitutes rooster for cock,” he said, “but this is American barnyard talk…Such talk is not literary enough to be given a place in holy Scripture”.
This man overlooked the well-known fact that the New Testament was written in Koine Greek—literally, “common Greek,” or “language of street business”, which would be the Greek equivalent of “barnyard talk”. Also, the old English word “cock” means precisely the exact same as the modern English “rooster.” They both describe the exact same creature, and are literary in their own way. One reading is English dating back as far as 1200, and the other is American, dating up to today. Also, given new cultural meanings of the word “cock”, the word “rooster” is safer in our hands. If we want to be as “literary” as possible, we should use neither rooster or cock, but Chanticleer.
I wonder: When Jesus was born, was he offended by the “non-literary” language of the crowing roosters, the braying horses, squealing pigs, and baah-ing sheep who praised Hosannah? Did he spurn the praise of his non-literary carpenter father and housewife mother? Did he offend his Holy Father by gathering “non-literary” fishermen to preach his word? No more than Hemingway’s American “boatyard talk” classic The Old Man and the Sea can be said to be “non-literary” because of its simple syntax and low adjective count. We might as well ask if any good thing can come from Galilee.
I am reminded of the words of Walt Whitman, the revolutionary poet who challenged the rigid artistic form of the Fireside poets and showed America that blue collar poetry could be just as beautiful, meaningful, and valuable. I am reminded of this phrase from his preface to Leaves of Grass:
“Your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
The greatest “poem” Jesus ever wrote was coming to us in the flesh. Human flesh. That stuff that’s full of errors and eventually decomposes. The stuff that Paul used to contrast against the spirit in his letters. Jesus came in the form of that stuff. Flesh. There was a time in English history when the Bible would be printed not on papyrus, or on parchment, but on vellum, on sheepskin, on animal flesh. The Lord is a shepherd, a smelly, rough shepherd. If the word became the flesh of a shepherd, it can speak with the tongue of a shepherd.
The uppity Greek poets wrote in “proper Greek.” The New Testament was spoken and written in common Aramaic and Greek—barnyard talk, grocery store talk, the language that ritzy Athenians threw in the gutter.
The idea of Jacobean English being “Bible English” is nothing more than a construct that some people use to try and push the Bible to a distance that makes it hard for us to reach. It would be like Jesus coming to this earth only to live on a hill and talk to people from behind a glass wall. It would be like a Catholic priest chaining his Latin Bible to the podium and reading it while the English commoners idly sat still in confusion. If your translation of the Bible can’t be easily understood by a fifth grader, it may be good for a “pretty sounding reading”, but how much teaching will you get? How much edification and exhortation? How much correction and reproof? How much instruction in righteousness? How thoroughly can most listeners be furnished in it?
Primitive Greek?When Latin translators came across the Greek Bible they realized it was written in a “primitive” version of the high Greek they knew. Some scholars called “Purists” thought that this was a “special Greek” created by the Holy Spirit, when really the Spirit was using a common language just as Jesus gathered common fishermen. Other scholars called “Hebraists” thought this “special Greek” was Greek translated especially from Hebrew so it would remain “Holy.” Many scholars since have done this with the KJV. They assume that Jacobean English is a “special Bible English” that God commands us to use, or that Jacobean English is the only way to faithfully translate Greek into English. There is no warrant for this nonsense.
Jack Lewis brings this home for us:
“It has been argued that we should not translate the Bible down to the people but that we should educate people up to the Bible. This logic, carried to its ultimate conclusion, would leave the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and impose upon us the obligation of teaching all people these [three] languages. Only those who learned [all three] original languages could read the Bible. It would remain a closed book to all except the learned few. Only a small percent of preachers could read it fluently.”(2)
Of course, in some cases it does seem that a small percent of preachers read the Bible, considering how little of it they include in their pulpiteering. But you see, although we should always encourage study of these ancient languages among those blessed with language-learning gifts, the very message of the Gospel itself involves the grace of bestowing to everyone the opportunity to see God’s gifts from where they are. Lewis leaves us with four questions for us to ask ourselves if we are afraid to “abandon” the KJV:
- Do we understand what we read because we are familiar with the wording, or because someone told us the words should mean something different from what they say?
- Are we acting in obedience to what the words say or what they mean?
- Would it not be simpler and better to have a translation which would at the first reading, without comment, suggest the meaning the writer intended?
- Is it not time to do what the King James scholars said they were attempting to do: “To deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand“? (3)
1 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.18
2 Ibid. p.9
3 Ibid. p.61
[In the next post, we ask if other translations of the Bible are too vulgar]