The other day in a Bible study group I help to lead, I was noting that none of the modern English translations of the Bible -- though in many ways easier to understand -- has achieved anything close to the influence and the soaring poetic language of the King James Version, first published in 1611.
To read the King James today often requires some kind of scholarly help to understand what this or that Elizabethan-era word meant then, compared with what it means now. And it also helps to have a more modern translation available for comparison given that the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts from which translations into English are made are much more reliable today than the ones used by the King James translators.
Just a day or two later, I found that someone who had not participated in that study group discussion left in my church folder this New Republic piece by the excellent author and scholar Robert Alter. In it he reviews volumes 1 and 2 of the new Norton Critical Editions annotated King James Version of the Bible.
Volume 1, containing the Hebrew Scriptures, was edited by Herbert Marks, while volume 2, containing the New Testament, was edited by Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch. When I say "edited," I don't mean they have changed the text. Rather, they have provided all kinds of helpful footnotes and commentary about what the reader finds in the KJV text.
Alter is smitten with the work these scholars have done to produce the Norton Critical Editions, though he still has a few nits to pick.
As he writes:
"The framework of the Norton Critical Editions, a series that has provided a valuable college classroom resource for decades, becomes in the hands of these three extremely able editors the occasion for rescuing the King James Version for general use and for serious study."
Now, there are some branches of Christianity (they would mostly identify themselves as fundamentalist or very conservative) that have never given up use of the KJV, somehow imagining that it must have been the version of the Bible Jesus used. Or something.
More reasonable Christians have moved to more modern translations in the interests of actually understanding what the words in the Bible mean.
And yet Alter, in his review, makes a persuasive case for reading the KJV again, but with the considerable help of wise and careful editors.
(By the way, the last time I wrote about the KJV was here when my friend Doug Hundley gave a talk about it at the KC Public Library. Doug and I will be teaching a weekend retreat in late April on forgiveness at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. Check it out here and join us.)
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GET OUTTA HERE
There's no second item here today because I've taken up enough of your time. Quit reading this and go vote. People died so you'd have that right. Now exercise it.