King James Bible celebrated in royal service
The Queen was among the congregation at a grand church ceremony to mark 400 years since the great Bible translation was finished. It was the culmination of a year of special events.
This week, the King James Bible celebrates its four hundredth birthday. Created by a committee of 54 scholars and theologians during the reign of King James I, it remains the most famous and widely respected Bible translation in the world. In its long history, it has been printed more than one billion times.
The King James Version came together in an age of religious upheaval, when theological debates were tearing countries apart. Previous Bible translations had proved bitterly divisive; this new translation was meant to be the one everyone could agree on – the one that would stop British Christianity from splitting apart.
The language was meant to be simple – so that everyone could understand – and literal, sticking close to sense of the original biblical texts. The translation of each line was debated by committee, with representatives from the full spectrum of Christian views.
What resulted was a version of the Bible that is unequalled in its poetic power. Its powerful, muscular style has been admired ever since. Winston Churchill called it a ‘masterpiece’. Christopher Hitchens, known for his atheist beliefs, praised its ‘crystalline prose’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it would prevent anyone who read it from becoming ‘vulgar, in point of style.’
The book also made a deep impact on ordinary language. There are more than 250 everyday expressions that trace back to the King James Version, from a ‘fly in the ointment’ to ‘the powers that be.’
In keeping with this democratic tradition, one of the major commemorative events this year has been the creation of a handwritten ‘people’s bible’, in which celebrities and members of the public from all over Britain were invited to write two Bible verses in a special manuscript. On Wednesday, all 66 books of the finished version were presented at a special anniversary service at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Out of date?
Not everyone thinks the King James Version deserves its current prominence. When it was written, say critics, it was accessible, in everyday language, something that everyone could hear and understand. Four hundred years later it is out of date, full of old fashioned words and difficult expressions. Modern Bibles should use modern language, not the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘begat’s of a bygone age.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his sermon at Wednesday’s ceremony, offered a different view. A good translation, he said, is not ‘one that just allows me to say, when I pick it up, “Now I understand”.’ Instead, it will be ‘an invitation to read again, and to probe, and reflect... Rather than letting me say, “Now I understand,” it prompts the response, “Now the work begins”.’
- Should religious texts ever be ‘updated’? If so, how?
- Rowan Williams said a good Bible translation would make him say ‘now the work begins’. What did he mean exactly? Do you agree?
- Have a look at some passages from the King James Bible. What do you think of it as a literary work? Is the language beautiful, or just old fashioned?
- Choose a religious text from any world religion and research its history, origins and development by later thinkers. Write a short article explaining the subject.
Some People Say...
“Religious texts should be difficult and mysterious – not easy reads.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why did the Bible need translating?
- The Bible was written over a period of about 1,000 years, in three different languages: Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. These original texts have been translated into hundreds of different languages.
- How was it written?
- There are 66 books in the Bible, written by all sorts of different people. In Christian tradition, many of the books are regarded as having been written by famous individuals like the prophets, but textual analysis suggests that most of the older books come together from an accumulation of different sources.
- Why is it called the ‘Bible’?
- The name actually comes from the Greekbiblos, meaning ‘book’.
- Theology was originally the study of God and Christianity. Now it means the study of religion in general.
- James I
- The first of the Stewart kings of England, he reigned from 1603 to 1625 and presided over a flourishing cultural and literary scene.
- Previous Bible translations
- One of the greatest was the Tyndale Bible. Its creator, William Tyndale, was persecuted for have translated the Bible into English and was eventually burnt alive by King Henry VIII.
- Archbishop of Canterbury
- The most senior bishop of the Church of England, currently Rowan Williams. Strictly speaking, however, the head of the Church of England is the Queen herself.