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Monday, September 25, 2006

KJV: Is there a reason why specialists esteem it?

Well down a comment thread on the post Scattered thoughts on the KJV, Anonymous wrote the following:
A more interesting question to ask is: is the elevated status of the KJV mere caprice or snobbery or herd-instinct, or is there a reason that so many people who specialize in studying literature esteem it so highly?
This is indeed an interesting question, and one which should not be lost in a long comment thread.

I would suggest (and already have in a further comment) that there are other non-literary factors here, not just "mere caprice or snobbery or herd-instinct" but also tradition, and originally royal and ecclesiastical sponsorship. But is there in fact any genuinely literary reason for the high esteem for KJV? Is there any objective sense in which it can be judged as having a high literary quality?

Indeed, are there any objective criteria, aside from technical ones of adherence to orthographical and grammatical norms, by which any work can be judged as of higher literary quality than any other? This question has been asked several times in recent comments on this blog, but no objective criteria of literary excellence have been put forward. So, should I conclude that in fact there are no such criteria, and therefore that the existing canon of supposedly excellent literature is defined by a combination of tradition and "mere caprice or snobbery or herd-instinct"?


At Mon Sep 25, 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

The "high esteem" in which the King James Version is supposed to be held by literary minds in general may indeed be something of an optical illusion.

From the later seventeenth century to nearly the end of the nineteenth century, it very nearly WAS the Bible in English, especially in public discourse, for all but a handful of Protestants. Catholics using the Douay-Rheims version would not find anything more obviously modern with which to contrast it, either. Significant change in this situation, in the form of commonly-available alternatives, would come only in the second part of the twentieth century. (See below for examples.)

So almost any praise of the Bible in literary terms, from writers and critics, either made reference to it, or was simply assumed to do so. (And, in fact, references to the Old Testament probably did, in most cases, real Hebrew literacy being much less common than facility in Greek.)

And, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in a 1950 lecture on "The Literary Influence of the Authorised Version" (readily available in pdf at, this type of praise was not as common as many now suppose. Indeed, he found it to be dependent on larger cultural trends, rather than an unmediated response to the special beauty of that one translation, and approved of what struck many as inappropriately modern language in new translations.

(In the course of researching "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)" for The Oxford History of English Literature, Lewis had become as familiar with the English of the period as anyone is ever likely to be, and must have had a very clear idea of how typical or atypical the language of the 1611 version really was.)

It is clear that by the nineteenth century the increasingly alien language of the KJV (and, especially in England, the Book of Common Prayer) had become fixed in the public mind as the "proper" and "reverent" sound for God's Word in English, rich with associations of Church and Family. And with the words of Shakespeare, the other readily-available example of late-Tudor English, who was sometimes, anachronistically, supposed to reflect its beauties. What it said might not be very clear, but it came with an emotional charge, combining awe and affection. And was assumed to be especially appropriate for conveying the nuances of Hebrew and Greek -- whether it actually did so or not was quite irrelevant.

The language of the KJV, especially its most obvious features, was deliberately imitated in the translation of other literatures, including (as the most obvious examples) the Lang-Leaf-Myers and Butcher-Lang versions of Homer, and in most translations from Sanskrit which had any literary ambitions. The Revised Version not only followed it as a model, it is said to have increased the level of archaism, particularly in the New Testament, as a matter of editorial policy.

And the Revised Version was imitated in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version, a decision imposed by Max Margolis on the grounds that it was more "suitable" and "dignified" than the example of the slightly more modern (although rather German-influenced) English of Isaac Leeser's 1845-1853 Jewish Translation, with which it would compete. The growing community of Jews speaking English as a primary language would be caught up in the same cycle for decades to come.

So it would be well into the twentieth century before obvious alternatives to its model became readily available. Outside of technical literature dealing with Hebrew and Greek, discussion of "the beauties of the Bible" was pretty much going to be a matter of talking about the features of just one translation, and a few of its close relatives.

At Mon Sep 25, 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Ian.

Thanks especially for the link to the CS Lewis article. Lewis makes some telling points, such as:

Except in a few passages where the translation is bad, the Authorised Version owes to the original its matter, its images, and its figures. Our aesthetic experience in reading any of the great Old Testament stories or, say, the liberation of St. Peter and the shipwreck of St. Paul, depends only to a small extent on the translator. - This presumably applies at least in principle to any accurate translation, and implies that aesthetic experience is independent of literary style.

The history of the English Bible from Tyndale to the Authorised Version should never for long be separated from that European, and by no means exclusively Protestant, movement of which it made part. ... For when we come to compare the versions we shall find that only a very small percentage of variants are made for stylistic or even doctrinal reasons. When men depart from their predecessors it is usually because they claim to be better Hebraists or better Grecians. The international advance of philology carries them on, and those who are divided by the bitterest theological hatreds gladly learn from one another. Tyndale accepts corrections from More: Rheims learns from Geneva: phrases travel through Rheims on their way from Geneva to Authorised. Willy-nilly all Christendom collaborates. The English Bible is the English branch of a European tree.

I believe that our embedded quotations from the Authorised Version ... are nearly always either solemn or facetious. Only because the surrounding prose is different―in other words, only in so far as our English is not influenced by the Authorised Version―do they achieve the effect the authors intended.

But then Anon can get some comfort from this: It contains good literature and bad literature.

Lewis ends with a predictive comment about "the believing minority who read it to be instructed and get literary enjoyment as a by-product." While I would be cautious about "minority", I agree that any literary enjoyment to be expected from any Bible translation should be simply a by-product.

At Mon Sep 25, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

...I agree that any literary enjoyment to be expected from any Bible translation should be simply a by-product.

If I understand this bit correctly then I would agree as well. In fact, if you are currently under conviction about something (assuming a real sense that God is Real) it can be the most uncomfortable and least enjoyable collection of Books to read in the entire world. Until you run into the Jesus bit, and things become far less grim (how could they, knowing who he is and what it is that he has done?).

A lot of people are put off by the fact that the Bible is not nearly as fun as they had hoped when they set about to read it. That is unfortunate because the Bible truly is the most fascinating collection of Books ever written, but not for the same reason that Tom Clancy novels are fun to read.

If God is real, and had ANYTHING to do with the Scripture we have in our hands, then it seems to me that it is the most fascinating collection of writings ever put between two covers for this fact alone. Even the "boring stuff" that people find dreadful takes on an oddly interesting light when understood that this had something to do with God.

This is probably part of the reason that people prefer easy reading Bibles or Bibles that they feel have a high level of "literary quality/beauty": lack of true conviction in the belief of God (a strange conclusion perhaps, though tenable).

But remember, God is not the "default" assumption now as he used to be. Now the "default" assumption is that of naturalism and politics.

At Mon Sep 25, 05:40:00 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

Whenever people talk about the beauty of the KJV, they always mention its cadences; I suppose they have the idea that it flows well when read aloud in a loud voice, i.e., when you thunder it from the pulpit. But this may be a reverse influence -- i.e., its cadences may strike the ear this way simply because they were used in sermons, one of the most common forms of oratory to which most of us are exposed, for centuries.

At Tue Sep 26, 02:54:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Brandon. I can see that this could be an objective measure by which KJV could be compared, and perhaps favourably, with modern translations. But I can also see that it could just be a matter of familiarity. So, if I am to take this one seriously, I would need to see some objective way of assessing "cadences".

I was hoping that our anonymous commenter would answer this. Instead, it seems, he has deleted his past comments and, at least for the moment, disappeared. It is not the first time he has responded to being put on the spot by disappearing.

At Tue Sep 26, 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Brandon makes a very good point about why people think the KJV "sounds good" when read aloud. Something besides centuries of conditioning may be involved, too, however.

Decades of sermons delivered under Elizabeth had trained a generation of educated men (and that is the group responsible for the 1611 text) in what was effective in pulpit oratory, and reading scripture aloud, and what wasn't. This may, consciously or not, influenced some decisions about choice of words, and structuring sentences.

I have seen it suggested that, so far as representing the literary quality of Hebrew goes, the results are, therefore, typically far better in "oratorical" books like Deuteronomy and Jeremiah than they are for, say, the ritual prescriptions or the specifications for the sanctuary in Exodus, Leviticus and Ezekiel. I will say that the KJV tends to flatten some stylistic distinctions which are evident in the Hebrew.

I can't judge for myself, but, according to the late Walter Kaufmann (an experienced translator from German, with training in Hebrew), Martin Luther's translation benefited from being far less uniform in style, and far more sensitive to the variations in the Hebrew. Partly a matter of personal literary genius, of course. But perhaps also due to his not having to satisfy a committee, which kept reminding him that someone was going to have to read it to a congregation.

At Tue Sep 26, 03:16:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Ian. It seems like we are getting somewhere here. I'm still not quite sure how objectively it is possible to say that one text sounds better when read aloud than another does, but it is at least likely to be a matter on which most people's subjective assessments would be similar.


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