Friday, March 4, 2011

The AV at 400

This year marks the quadricentennial anniversary of the Authorized Version of the English Bible, otherwise commonly called the King James Version (KJV). Already last year several essays, books, editorials, and conference presentations were devoted to this important milestone. The celebration continues. Valparaiso University, for example, has invited the renowned historian, Mark Noll (professor of American religious history at Notre Dame), to give two lectures this fall on the cultural significance of the KJV in its American context. When Prof. Noll was here a few weeks ago to give another public lecture, I was able to talk with him and my colleague, George Heider, about the fall lectures. Based on that conversation, Prof. Noll's lectures should be very fascinating. The committee that selected him, on which I am also serving, is working closely with our library staff to develop an exhibit on the KJV in our library. For my own part, I plan to talk up the KJV more than I normally do in my intro-to-theology course. Throughout the year many of us will be thinking about the KJV, its history, its cultural influence, and its abiding use as a sacred text for many. Last fall, Martin Marty offered commentary ("Sightings," Nov. 29, 2010) on the then-upcoming celebration. He rightly stressed that this event "merits observance far beyond the circles of librarians, antiquarians and classicists."

To commemorate the anniversary, Oxford University Press, one of the three printers that was originally authorized to print the KJV, published last year an excellent history of this Bible. This study is by Gordon Campbell, professor of renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, and is titled, Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). I highly recommend the book, not merely as a great introduction to the history of the KJV and the key individuals behind its origin, printing, and transmission, but as a perceptive account of the debates and controversies surrounding it, as a marvelous summary of its historic, cultural importance, and as an encomium (but not eulogy!) for its on-going importance in the English-speaking world of Christianity.

While there are indeed English translations that are more faithful to the most approximate of original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts (our theology department recommends that students use the New Revised Standard Version), no other English translation of the Bible has proved to be "the most enduring embodiment of Scripture in the English language" (p. 275). Indeed, as Campbell also notes, the KJV is "the fountainhead of Bible translation into English," and even the most recent edition of the NRSV stands in continuity with it.

While I haven't used the KJV much in my university teaching or pastoral ministry over the past two decades--I spent too many years learning Hebrew and Greek not to take advantage of the best scholarly editions of the Bible in these languages, and I mostly use the NRSV whenever quoting the Bible in English translation--nevertheless, I have decided to work more with the KJV this year in honor of its anniversary.

In my library is the edition of the KVJ that my Grandfather used during his pastoral ministry, at least between 1934 and his death in 1980. While he was educated in German and Latin (and learned Hebrew and Greek), and while preached regularly in German between 1924 and 1980, the main English Bible that he used was the third edition of Thompson's New Chain-Reference Bible, an edition of the KJV that Campbell neglected to examine. I suspect that in the wake of the First World War, many German Lutheran pastors, like my Grandfather, utilized the KJV in their ministry because it was the Bible that was used by most mainstream Protestant clergy in America at that time. While he had other English translations in his library, none is as marked and weathered as that edition of the KJV. Could it be that this was one way in which this German Lutheran in America could demonstrate his American cultural Protestantism to a society that was often suspicious of its German-speaking citizens?

Many U. S. Presidents have used the KJV at occasions of public import, most recently at President Obama's inauguration when he took the oath of office on the same KJV Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used in 1861. One hundred and fifty years after that Lincoln inauguration the KJV is still the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world. How will you commemorate its anniversary this year?

1 comment:

  1. Since the beginning of the year, I've been using the KJV for personal morning and evening prayer, five to six chapters daily.

    At times, I completely understand the comment that the KJV is "Anglican Church Slavonic." But there have been other times, especially when reading it aloud, that it's compact use of language has completely moved me.

    Now three months in, I'm wondering about next year and perhaps reading it again in conjunction with the 350th Anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.