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The King James Bible – avoid all imitations


HERE’S a glimpse of glory for you: ‘Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy Holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.’

That is the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent today, commonly called Bible Sunday. So let me celebrate the Bible this morning: the real thing, that is the King James Version (KJV)of 1611. Beware of alternatives which are as numerous and nasty as a plague of flies. There is no such thing as noble truth expressed in ignoble words. For the choice of words determines what is being said. Therefore, we should choose the best.

‘Strips of cloth’ is no substitute for ‘swaddling clothes’. And Mary was ‘with child’ – we think of the Madonna and Child – she had not ‘fallen pregnant’ as it says in one of the godforsaken modern versions. You cannot satisfactorily replace ‘through a glass darkly’ with the crass literalism ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror’ or ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbal’ with ‘noisy gong and clanging cymbal.’ The KJV was designed to be read aloud in churches. All the modern versions sound as if they have been written by people with tin ears and no rhythm.

What level of vacuity is reached when ‘Son of Belial’ (the devil himself) is rendered by the New English Bible (NEB) as ‘a good-for-nothing’? As if the devil is a truant from the fourth form who has been stealing jelly babies from the sweet shop.

The real Bible says: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ The NEBgives us instead: ‘The first step to find wisdom’ (God save us!) – and then, if you are ever so good little children, I’ll show you the second step. This is infantilisation.

Sometimes the pedantry of the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), its pseudo-scholarly fascination with all that is merely foreign and obscure, is just silly, as in ‘You, Yahweh examine me.’ But occasionally it is mindlessly unpoetic and banal, as in the substitution of ‘Acclaim Yahweh’ for the mesmerisingly beautiful and timelessly familiar ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ And in one example of supreme idiocy the meaning becomes impenetrable. The KJV says: ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord . . . ’ In the NJB this degenerates into tasteless obscurantism: ‘If you live in the shelter of Elyon and make your home in the shadow of Shaddai, you can say to Yahweh . . . ’

The Revised Standard Version (RSV) loves to parade the translators’ acquaintance with the slightest nuances in the ancient languages but their utter ignorance of what will go into ordinary English. It renders the ‘giants’ of Genesis as ‘nephilim’. And the ‘two pence’ that the Good Samaritan gave to the innkeeper is ‘two denarii’, lest we should imagine that the currency of the Roman Empire was the same as that of England.

The numbskull authorities who published their wretched new versions did so, they said, to make the meaning clearer. Rot! The KJVis generally plainer than all these plastic alternatives.

The RSV makes a habit of iconoclasm, as for instance in its destruction of that very familiar phrase: ‘Arise, take up thy bed and walk.’ This becomes: ‘Take up your pallet and go home.’ Because we must on no account be allowed to imagine that the poor paralytic slunk off carrying his four-poster, we have forced upon us the literalism ‘pallet’.

The NEB cannot tell the difference between speech that is poetic and metaphorical and speech that is literal and descriptive. That is why for ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ we are given instead the pantomime howler ‘men dressed up as sheep’. We recall perhaps Ulysses’s escape from the Cyclops or that pejorative expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. In the KJV men are ‘at meat’ or they ‘sup’; but the RSV mentions a Pharisee who ‘asked Jesus to dine’ – where, at the Garrick or White’s? Likewise, Our Lord’s rebuke to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘O fools and slow of heart’, is emasculated to become ‘How dull you are!’ How dull indeed. Can you imagine for one minute Jesus Christ on the evening of his day of resurrection using such language?

The KJV’s ‘pearl of great price’ is exhibited in more of that infantilised Noddy Goes to Toytown language as ‘a pearl of very special value’. The end of the world itself is described as if it were only an exceptionally hot afternoon at Goodwood: ‘My dear friends,’ (that is the voice of the NEB’s urbane, housetrained St Peter) ‘do not be bewildered by the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you, as though it were something extraordinary.’ The end of the world not extraordinary?

There is a discreet charm about the KJV’s saying: ‘It ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.’ This is marvellous. It seems to reach up the underclothes of words, as that other great admirer of biblical prose, Dylan Thomas, said. But the NJB was written in the era of sex education, so it can confidently come straight out with ‘ceased to have her monthly periods’. And the KJV’s ‘great whore of Babylon’ seems to have lost what she had left of her character when the NJB refers to her only as ‘the famous prostitute’. Who is this, then – Eskimo Nell?

With costive pedantry, the NJB replaces ‘inn’ with ‘living space’ – I suppose because they imagined readers to be so literal-minded that we might think St Luke meant the Rose and Crown. A similar pedantry removes the KJV’s lovely ‘coat of many colours’ and offers us ‘a decorated tunic’.

The KJV translates Psalm 139: 16 – a heart-melting poem in which the Psalmist declares that God knew him ‘while he was yet in his mother’s womb – as ‘Thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect.’ This is allusive, evocative, tender. Unbelievably, the NJB gives us: ‘Your eyes could see my embryo’ – as if God were a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority!

There is a pervading irreverence bordering on blasphemy. The translation of the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer is by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) and he renders the Hebrew mellifluously: ‘O let thine ears consider well.’ The NJB gives this as: ‘Listen attentively Yahweh.’ Is that the way mortal flesh should speak to God? What more is there to be said when we notice that the NJB renders ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ as ‘Sheer futility. Everything is futile’. That phrase will serve as the motto for all the modern translations: ‘Sheer futility’.

How hypocritical and sordid of the church authorities relentlessly to suppress the KJV, only to take it out and gawp at it at a Coronation or the state funeral of a man as singular as Winston Churchill – as if it were a museum piece and we were all blundering tourists. The proper place for the KJV is on the lectern in every parish church, to be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, week in, week out.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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