New York Times, January 8, 2011
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Sometime in 1611, a new English Bible was published. It was the work of an almost impossibly learned team of men laboring since 1604 under royal mandate. Their purpose, they wrote, was not to make a new translation of the Bible but “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” What was published, 400 years ago, was indeed one principal good one: the King James Version of the Bible.
It’s barely possible to overstate the significance of this Bible. Hundreds of millions have been sold. In 1611, it found a critical balance in a world of theological conflict, and it has been beloved since of Protestant churches and congregations of every stripe. By the end of the 17th century it was, simply, the Bible. It has been superseded by translations in more modern English, translations based on sources the King James translators couldn’t have known. But to Christians all around the world, it is still the ancestral language of faith.
To modern readers, the English of the King James Version sounds archaic, much as Shakespeare does. But there would have been an archaism for readers even in 1611 because the King James Bible draws heavily from a version of William Tyndale’s New Testament published in 1534 and from translations by Miles Coverdale also published in the 1530s.
Tyndale’s aspiration was to make his New Testament accessible to “the boy that driveth the plough.” Though readers often talk about the majesty of the King James Bible, what has made it live is in fact the simplicity of its language.
Scholars have often debated just how much the King James Bible has influenced the English language. They count the number of idioms — “the powers that be,” for instance — that entered the language from the Bible. They look at how often it’s cited in the Oxford English Dictionary.
T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis deplored the idea of considering the secular literary or linguistic influence of the King James Bible. Eliot said it had such a profound effect because it was “the Word of God.” Lewis went further. He argued that the King James Bible had little influence on the rhythms of English and that many of the Bible’s characteristic rhythms were simply “unavoidable in the English language.”
But Lewis missed the point. The King James Bible has had an enormous impact on English for the very reason that it captures and preserves — and communicates down through the centuries — the unavoidable rhythms of good English. Its words are almost never Latinate, and its rhythms are never hampered by the literalism that afflicts other translations.
It would have been so easy to get that wrong, to let scholarship overwhelm common sense, to let theology engulf plainness. We owe an enormous debt to William Tyndale’s imaginary plowboy. All who speak this wonderful language still speak in the shadow of the King James Bible.
And from the KingJamesBibleTrust.org:
Christopher Howse gets Bible fever in his article " The global phenomenon that will never be lost in translation":
The Daily Mail reports on how the King James Bible has provided the English Language with hundreds of well-known phrases:
Robert McCrum wrote in the The Observer about how the King James Bible shaped the English language:
Editor's note: For a postcolonial interpretation of the translation of the Bible into English and why the KJV triumphed over other versions, consult RS Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford 2002), ch 5.