Friends and colleagues often ask me why I read the King James translation of the Bible (which from here I will refer to as the Authorized Version, or “AV”). Some suspect I may be a King James Only-ist or a curmudgeonly traditionalist. The former I reject, the latter…may be true. Traditionalism is preferring old things for the sake of their antiquity. The worship of antiquity is nothing more than superstition, preferring “oldness” as sacred merely out of fear of the new. Sometimes, however, a man must reject the new because of what the new represents.
For us, “new” translations of the Bible are made to cater to the needs of “the people”, those who struggle to understand the language of the AV. I scratch my head at this, since the AV continues to be the most popular Bible translation in the US. Who is this mass that struggles to understand the King James Bible? Of course, the zeitgeist always caters to “the people”, a designation for that which is “without form, and void” and which is always used to manipulate the actual people (just ask any good Marxist and he will tell you how well this trick works; Lenin built an empire of tyranny upon it).
So then, is it traditionalism that keeps me reading the KJV? Is its age its only quality that makes it worthy of the praise I heap upon it?
No. Sometimes, the antiquity of something doesn’t give it its essential value but rather its essential beauty transcends its age. It is a not only a work of art, but a work of architecture, a Vitruvian masterpiece of taxis (order), diathesis (arrangement), and oeconomia (proportion and symmetry). Its language builds itself into a grand cathedral, raising the consciousness above to the majesty of God and all the while built on a language whose ancient qualities are mixed in a mortar of blood, mud, bone, and beer. In that Elizabethan mansion of prose and poetry, the specter of Beowulf, Alfred the Great, Danish Vikings, Piers Plowman, Virgil, Seneca, and Cicero all come to lend their voices to the composition.
The men who wrote it were not the mere specialists of our time, who treat languages as a cold science to be tinkered with in a lab. They were not appointed by media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, but rather kings. They did not treat the Bible as a seminary linguistics paper. The translators of the AV were men classically schooled in Trivium, men who understood that truth, beauty, and goodness were all relevant to our discussion of God. They recognized the words that they translated as inspired words, and thus set out to achieve a majesty of composition fit for it. Unlike the neo-classicists who find complexity a virtue and simplicity a vice, these men stooped the level of the ploughman and made a work fitting not only to his ear but also the ear of nobles and Princes.
Thus, they accomplished a feat unlike any other in English history: providing a book which was fit for a nation, a book the knowledge of which put all on level ground. Commissioned by a king to suppress the Puritan spirit, they confounded him by enshrining the words of Tyndale – bought with his martyr’s blood – forever baptizing the work of a man who like John the Baptist rebuked his grandfather for his adulterous acts.
They made words into a symphony, sonorous to the ear like a Bach cantata. “Appointed to be read in Churches”-because faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). These men translated a work of the ancients into a language that could be understood by plebe and publican and soared to the tympanum like utterances breathed out by God; upon this tablet God writing his Word on the hearts of men.
Can other translations achieve this end? Sure. All faithful translations of the Word of God are the Word of God. But a man can be a faithful man and be an anemic man. A translation can be a faithful translation and anemic all the same, lacking the iron which Christ forms into a rod with which he shall crush his enemies. Compare one of our modern translations with that of the AV:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name. (Psalm 23, New Living Translation)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me
in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23, AV)
The former is fit for a Hallmark card, all cursive and rainbows illuminated and photoshopped with extra contrast for a “godly” feel.
The latter is fit for men charging a hill to their deaths, women in the pangs of childbirth, the meade halls of monarchs, and the plowman sowing seed in his field.
“But we must make the Bible communicable to men!” They say. How will the people understand it if the idiom is foreign to them? And yet, we see Presidents quoting the AV in speeches, Herschel from the Walking Dead reciting psalms from the AV while praying with his family for deliverance, atheist Richard Dawkins singing the praise of the translation while scorning the name of God. It is a testimony against them and a voice crying out to them to repent. They do not reach for the ESV, for the NIV, or the NASB. They reach for the King James.
They know: a book that claims to be the Words of God ought to sound like it was written by a God who (like the catechism teaches) is a spirit, infinite, glorious, blessed, perfect, all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, holy, just, merciful, gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.
This is why I read the King James Bible. Because, like those translators warned in the preface to its readers:
We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar…but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when He setteth His Word before us, to read it; when He stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, Here I am; here we are to do thy will, O God.
I pray the Lord would always give us a Scripture fitting to the majesty of His glory.