The English poet and critic, C.H. Sisson, wrote a scathing review some years ago of the then new English prayer book called the Alternative Services Book (ASB). The lessons in the ASB were taken from a wide variety of modern Bible translations, but not from the Authorized Version, the so-called King James Version. Sisson’s acid comment on that decision was that the readings were taken from every translation but the best.
Since the first, great need in the matter of the Bible is to get people actually to read it, there is a place for modern translations. Archbishop Cahoon used to use the very simple, readable Good News Bible, whose formal name, I believe, is the Today’s English Version, for that reason. For people who may be frustrated by 16th and 17th century vocabulary and verb endings, there is a place for modern translations and, especially, for the Revised Standard Version. But that place is limited: a starting point to initiate Bible reading and basic Bible knowledge. Personal Bible study can be encouraged by a sturdy, modern translation. Public Bible reading, and especially Bible reading in the context of public worship, should be from the best translation, which still is the KJV.
The desirability of the KJV of course includes its literary superiority and historical influence. I also have been interested to see evidence of revival of scholarly preference for the KJV. First, I would mention the redoubtable Robert Alter. Alter is Jewish in background, but I do not know if he has any religious faith at all. He is nonetheless a brilliant reader and interpreter of the Hebrew Bible, as can be seen in such books as The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The World of Biblical Literature (1992) and then in a series of translations with commentaries on large chunks of the Hebrew Bible. In the mid-1990s a whole spate of books appeared on and about Genesis, and they included a translation and commentary by Alter called simply Genesis (Norton, 1996). In an extended preface to the reader Alter discusses the translation of Biblical Hebrew and agrees with the English scholar, Gerald Hammond, in arguing that the KJV remains the best translation.
Alter’s – and Hammond’s – reasons for this judgement are many. While the KJV is sometimes based on shaky Hebrew texts or imperfect understandings of the Hebrew, Alter points out that most modern translations have ‘a shaky sense of English’. Furthermore, modern translations tend to try to explain and interpret in the course of translation: what Alter calls ‘the heresy of explanation’. While translations are always something of an interpretation, the modern translations seem to embrace this fact as an opportunity rather than be aware of it as a danger. The KJV tends to be more literal, more earthy, more concrete, and less prettified than modern translations, all of which facts render it closer to the Hebrew. In fact the modern translations often place ‘readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language.’ (p. x) Alter provides many examples. One example here will have to suffice. The Hebrew word zera‘, ‘seed’, can refer both to plant seeds or to semen. It is used by extension to mean ‘offspring’, ‘progeny’, ‘descendants’. But the Hebrew, when meaning ‘progeny’, still always retains the direct connection to the more basic meanings of ‘seed’. The KJV consistently renders zera‘ with its basic Hebrew meaning, ‘seed’. Modern versions are liable to render the word with the derived, secondary, and less literal meanings of ‘offspring’ or ‘descendants’. This makes the text less literal, less concrete, and further from the Hebrew meaning and mind.
Alter also argues that Biblical Hebrew was a somewhat stylized, decorous language, not everyday speech, so ‘there is no good reason to render biblical Hebrew as contemporary English’. A fussily old-fashioned language also is inappropriate, ‘but a limited degree of archaizing coloration is entirely appropriate, employed with other strategies for creating a language that is stylized yet simple and direct, free of the overtones of contemporary colloquial usage but with a certain timeless homespun quality.’ (xxv-xxvi) And for that ‘the right direction…was hit on by the King James Version’.
Another writer, Calum M. Carmichael, also prefers the KJV. In The Story of Creation: Its Origin and Its Interpretation in Philo and the Fourth Gospel (Cornell, 1996), Carmichael writes that : ‘In quoting biblical texts I have relied on the King James Authorized Version of 1611 but have made changes where called for. I have used the AV because it is in almost all cases a more literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than any other translation. It also has the merit of reminding the reader of something I consider to be very important, namely, that biblical literature is a product of the past and hence of a culture quite different from our own.’
In recent years those of us who prefer the KJV have often been made to feel that we are benighted obscurantists, ignorant yahoos. How nice to know that professors at the University of California-Berkeley and Cornell think that we fuddy-duddies were right all along.