National Lutheran News

Fear not, be of good cheer: The KJV at 400

We count on the Word of God, but which word? Giants or Nephilim? Calvary or Golgotha?

Is the enduring legacy of the King James Version (KJV), observing its 400th anniversary, to show that we must still work at the Word?

Carolyn Pressler doesn’t use the KJV in class and she doesn’t preach it — but she remembers. “It’s what I learned as a child and it’s beautiful,” says Pressler, who teaches Bible at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton. One of her favorites is John 14: “Let not your heart be troubled.”

The title page of the first edition of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.

The KJV’s sacred cadence certainly affects hearts — and history.

The KJV’s sacred cadence certainly affects hearts — and history. Men used Exodus 22 — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” — to execute people accused of witchcraft in England and in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph that revolutionized communication, cribbed Balaam’s final oracle from Numbers 23 in Morse’s first e-message in 1844: “What hath God wrought?” Sports Illustrated did the Bible no harm in 1971 by headlining a retrospective on artist Arnold Roth’s winsome sports illustrations, “What hath Roth got?”

In Matthew 5, Jesus says “think not” that he came to abolish the law, in both KJV and the 1946 Revised Standard Version. Later translations are lamer: “Don’t misunderstand.” “Do not think.” Did President John F. Kennedy exploit the KJV’s vigor in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Minneapolis author Joyce Denham, who plans to lead a KJV tour of Scotland in June 2012, loves the KJV in part because, she says, “it was translated with the purpose of reading it aloud.”

All about James

Scotland? The KJV began there, Denham contends. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, she says, he already had plans for a new English-language translation.

Two English versions were already in print: The Bishops’ Bible, preferred by church authorities, and the Geneva Bible, favored by the people. James launched his epic translation at a 1604 conference when a Puritan leader proposed a new translation to replace the rivals, according to The Oxford Companion to the Bible.

Fifty-four scholars went at it and published in 1611. Subsequent editions underwent hundreds of changes as emerging original Bible manuscripts cast new light on the translation. A KJV published in 1769 became known as the Authorized Version. In 1870, the Church of England authorized a revision that included the work of American scholars. That effort made about 30,000 changes in the New Testament alone.

What’s wrong with the KJV? Words change. KJV’s Psalm 59 says, “The God of my mercy shall prevent me.” Four centuries ago, “prevent” meant “help.” “It doesn’t mean it any more,” notes Mark Throntveit, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Moreover, does KJV’s “prevent” in the alarming Amos 9:10 mean something else still?

KJV also uses “Jehovah” — an amalgam of God’s sacred Hebrew name, Yahweh, and Adonai, “Lord.” Jews who wrote God’s name added vowels for “Adonai” to remind the reader of the holiness of the original name. “Jehovah” is how Renaissance scholars read the result, says Oxford Companion.

One more item: Later translations call the place of Jesus’ crucifixion by the original “Golgotha,” the sound of which certainly has deathly menace. KJV uses the Roman Catholic Vulgate’s calvaria, Latin for skull — but when you speak of the cross, go slowly, so as not to describe a mounted military unit.

King bed

Yet KJV language remains indelible. “Giants in the earth” — does your Genesis 6 have anywhere near the impact? Later translations replace “giants” with “Nephilim,” Hebrew for “fallen.”

One such was King Og of the Rephaim, a people apparently related to the Nephilim. Og ruled Bashan, an area now called the Golan, stretching east from the Sea of Galilee toward Syria. Indeed, Deuteronomy 3 reports a museum piece — Og’s iron bed: “Is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? Nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it.”

Giants? Any seven-foot NBA player could sleep in that bed with room for his wife and, in a thunderstorm, the kids, too.

The Reformation that Luther launched in 1517 relied on the Bible, and Protestants went several different ways with it. Yet in a few decades after its publication in 1611, the KJV was the top English translation.

For better or worse, it lives on. The New King James Bible (1982), backed by conservatives including televangelist Jerry Falwell, has drawn criticism for claimed mistranslations.

In short, the KJV’s compelling cadence still has us struggling to understand the Word. Even so, is the best translation the one written on your heart? The words that come out when you invite someone to church?

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