Monday, June 13, 2011

Bible: The Story of the King James Version - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

On the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, I thought I would read a book that discussed how it came together. Bible: The Story of the King James Version was written by Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester in England. Parts of this book are interesting and informative, and ministers might want to use information gleaned from certain chapters if they are doing a history series in their church. Other parts, however, are very dry and tedious, which the author even admits at one point.

In general, the first four chapters on how the King James Version came about and the last four chapters on the KJV in America and modern times are worth a read to expand your knowledge on what many do not know about this translation. The middle contains details about various versions of the KJV, what passages were changed throughout the years in revisions, which printers got the rights to print the Bible, and various intricate details. The most important take away from this section is that the KJV you read today is not the original 1611 version. Revisions and different editions reflect the modernization of the English language and different interpretations of the original Hebrew and Greek that came about over the years.

The chapters on how the KJV came to be are fascinating. King James called a conference in 1604. The proposition of a new biblical translation came about, which pleased King James for several reasons. First, he could have an alternative to the Geneva Bible, which espoused criticism against the monarchy. Second, an authoritative translation dedicated to himself would reinforce the idea that he was the leader of a national church. Instructions, procedures, and translators were procured, and Campbell details the translation and production of the 1611 KJV.

One of the most interesting chapters is entitled “The Bible in America.” The British author discusses how the Unites States missed the rationalist movement that occurred in Europe due to the First and Second Great Awakenings. He appears to take the establishment side in the argument between Charles Chauncy (a rationalist) and George Whitefield, who argues for a personal conversion experience. The same day I read this chapter, I watched God in America, a PBS documentary where American religious historians discuss religious history. They side with Whitefield, because they link him to the champions against the establishment of religion (like the Virginia Baptists who would later implore Thomas Jefferson to fight with them for the separation of church and state). It is interesting to see the argument from both sides—American historians as the benefactors of the separation of church and state, and a British historian, who has no problem with the wedding of the two in England, where the queen is the head of the Anglican church.

Campbell catalogues later translations like the RSV and NRSV, as well as different editions and the motivations for their printing (The Green Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible). He also laments the decline in classes on the King James Version and literature. While the KJV was seen as being out of date linguistically at the time, it is now appreciated for its almost poetic prose. Campbell regrets our loss in understanding the effect it has had on the English language and our many idioms and sayings.

All in all, it was a fairly interesting read but very tedious in parts due to the high level of research and cataloguing of errors and misprints (especially the middle), but a more thorough reading of the first four and last four chapters with a brief skim of the middle should garner some interesting topics for any series on the KJV or the history of the Bible for educational purposes within the church.

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