The KJV and the Nobility of Homeliness

Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent, and while I haven’t yet been able to savor the rich pageantry of liturgical worship anywhere, to Bethlehem’s credit, they did darken the sanctuary and have a youth in a white gown solemnly process to the stage to deposit a brilliantly burning candle on the season’s first Sunday. That’s monumentally more than you can expect from most Baptists, so yeah, I’ll take what I can get! As for me and my house, we’ve been enjoying daily readings from Piper’s Advent devotional Good News of Great Joy, and I’ve been delighted to see Owen’s eyes light up as he begins to recognize the sinews and ligaments of biblical theology tying the canon together. For instance, as I finish the Magnificat with Mary’s words, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:54-55), Owen suddenly stood in his seat and intoned, “God made a covenant [okay, it sounded more like cunnant, but come on, you know what the lad’s saying] with Abraham! He would have lotsa, lotsa kids!” That right there is what makes me ecstatic, and is one of the things liturgy is singularly gifted in inculcating. As we approached the accounts of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ births, I found a deeper resonance to one of my readings from my History of Global Christianity class. Lamin Sanneh has written much on sacred Scripture and the common idiom, and with good reason- the discovery that the Bible could be translated into his mother tongue, whereas the Islam he had grown up with diffused Arabic principles and language and flattened his ethnic identity. Christianity, he came to see, freed him to be Gambian in a way Islam demanded he never be. Translation has been a dominant theme in Sanneh’s work for some time, and in the following passage he highlights the achievement that is the- yes, I’m repeating it- the King James Version. How so?

The appeal of the KJV lies in part in the harmony it achieved between the oral and aural, between speaking and hearing. It is dignified without being labored; devout with being sanctimonious; simple without being frivolous; restrained without being inhibiting; and elevated while remaining accessible. Perhaps the reason for such broadband resonance lies in the wide-angle, collective view the translators took of their charge…

As Bruce Metzger observed (2001), Bible translation has become rather commonplace in contemporary times, and so something of the mystique of the craft has been lost. The great variety of translations that now exists makes it hard to see anything new in Scripture, and the commercial and market forces deployed to drive translation have eviscerated any notion of transcendent truth in Scripture. Translations have become less exalted, more matter of fact and utilitarian, and thus more wooden. In many modern translations there is little of the sense of tangible solidity, of home truths loaded with new possibility, of life’s dynamic impulse and its connectedness with the experiential dimension…

The contrast with the KJV cannot be starker. In speaking, for example, of the imminent births Elizabeth and Mary were about to give, the KJV employs the language of the home to paint a picture that is direct and modest, concrete and expectant, but without any of the sense of the trivial, dull, and busy practicality that reduces language to offhand convenience. The birth of John the Baptist is described in the KJV thus: “Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son” (Luke 1:57). The New English Bible rendered it as: “Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son” [editorial aside: the ESV sort of drunkenly straddles the two, eh?]. The sense of panorama and process resonant in the words “full time came” and “should be delivered” was lost completely with the NEB’s version, “the time came.” The reader is given a pinched, strangled view of time as something without agency, and stripped of the mood of expectancy and of a purposeful unfolding of events. In these circumstances, it is understandable for the NEB’s version to be criticized as “a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality below Tyndale’s” (Nicolson 2003, 153). The NEB paid the price of swift obsolescence.

In contrast, the version of the KJV is “irreproachably English, simple, accessible, conceptually rich, as full of potent and resonant meanings as Elizabeth was with child” (Nicolson 2003, 153). With the great turnover in current Bible translations the modern world has acquired habits it can ill afford- habits, that is, of language and culture as trivial, dull, uprooted, and deletable, of language and culture as free-floating, ephemeral space of a commitment-free, future-negating, mood-enhancing existence. We have become virtual hunter-gatherers for whom hunting has no borders, kinship, mystery, purpose, or trophies worth inheriting, and for whom gathering is simply self-enhancement.

In their translation, the authors of the KJV demonstrated an organic, integrated sense of the fullness of life, and an imaginative capacity to penetrate mystery in order to participate fully in the brimming depth, wonder, and adventure of life such as the Bible describes. The translators were rooted in a narrative-rich culture in which language and image shared a common, cherished legacy, and faith an unbroken bond with experience. If we envy them today it must be because of habits long since acquired from the influence of their achievement. It is not simply an old-fashioned spirit that intermittently drives us back to the KJV, but a sacred impulse, what Chesterton describes as the song of the sirens, that throbs with the reality of a God who speaks to all humanity in the tones and accents of birth and a living hope.
(Lamin Sanneh, “The Witness of God and the Vocation of Nations: The Authorized (“King James”) Bible and the Vernacular Ethos,” from Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed. [Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2009 (orig. 1989)], pp. 118-119.)

Well, shucks. While I’d never advocate its return to the pulpit for preaching or for catechesis, I see more clearly how remarkable an achievement the Authorized Version really was and applaud the synthesis of semantic and conceptual fidelity and what Archbishop Donald Coggan called “nobility of homeliness.” Would that such a translation principle held more weight with contemporary committees than literal vs. dynamic equivalence- blech!



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