The 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible does not pass without notice in the English-speaking world. David Crystal's book on the subject has received widespread media attention. The particular ways in which the famous translation has influenced the course of English are fascinating and well-documented by Crystal and others; this month, we'll look at some of the other features that give the KJV its enduring appeal.

Even if you're not a churchgoer, there is much to appreciate in the KJV. Beautiful language is beautiful wherever we may find it, even more when it is appropriate in tone to its subject. This is surely one of the great virtues of the KJV: it preserved a formal and elevated style that was already out of fashion when it was written, because its subject was intended to be formal and elevating. Descriptions of fried chicken as finger-lickin' good are entirely appropriate, but it is suitable for spiritual instruction to be delivered in a more elevated register, and for this, the KJV is hard to beat.

Biblegateway.com is an especially helpful site for poking around in the Bible — not only in English but in nearly every language it has been translated to or from. You can see the same verses side-by-side in multiple translations: a great tool for seeing what you get only in the KJV. Here's one of our favorite passages — Psalm 39:6 — in the KJV, and a handful of other English translations for comparison:

KJV

New Century

"The Message"

"God's Word"

"Good News"

Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

People are like shadows moving about.  All their work is for nothing; they collect things but don't know who will get them.

Oh! we're all puffs of air.
Oh! we're all shadows in a campfire. Oh! we're just spit in the wind. We make our pile, and then we leave it.

Indeed every living being is no more than a puff of wind,
 no more than a shadow. All we do is for nothing; we gather wealth, but don't know who will get it.

Each person who walks around is like a shadow. 

They are busy for no reason. They accumulate riches without knowing who will get them.

It may be just a personal prejudice, but we find that the KJV version of this verse gives us a great deal more to reflect on, edifyingly, than the other translations do. If one of our Facebook friends posted this quote in their status, we would immediately "like" it. But it would be hard to click on "like" for the same passage as rendered in The Message translation. We would look for the "Euuuw!" button instead.

The Bible does not want for scenes of terror, dread, and anguish. Indeed, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth are leitmotifs of the KJV and many other translations. But for those who fear an angry God, it is sometimes a little easier to absorb the KJV's high-flown descriptions of what he might do to you, than it is the no-holds-barred translations that come later. Take, for example, Deuteronomy 28:26:

KJV

New Century

"The Message"

"God's Word"

"Good News"

And thy carcase shall be meat unto all fowls of the air, and unto the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away.

Your dead bodies will be food for all the birds and wild animals, and there will be no one to scare them away.

Carrion birds and animals will boldly feast on your dead body with no one to chase them away.

When you die, birds and wild animals will come and eat your bodies, and there will be no one to scare them off.

Your dead bodies will be food for all the birds and wild animals. There will be no one to scare them away.

You may struggle to find the "Good News" in such tidings but we find them easier to contemplate from the distance that old-fashioned words like carcase, fowls, and beasts supply.

A frequent criticism of the KJV, in contrast to more recent translations, is the unbridled sexism displayed in the language its passages. Levelers of this criticism find easy targets in holy texts generally, as the canons of the world's most successful religions are mainly a guy thing: written by guys, about the wonderful exploits of guys. In our post-feminist world, in which the alpha male does not always find favor, this has grown to be viewed as something as a character defect in religion, and so modern translations often do what they can to soften the male-dominant view. Here, for example, is Mark 8:36, in the same group of translations we have been sampling:

KJV

New Century

"The Message"

"God's Word"

"Good News"

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

It is worthless to have the whole world if they lose their souls.

What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

What good does it do for people to win the whole world yet lose their lives?

Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!

As we can see here, the more modern renderings do away with the sexist taint of the KJV entirely, recasting the passage either to focus on "people" or on "you" — in one case, "the real you." But it is worth remembering that the KJV's translators were intent on doing just that — translating — rather than translating, interpreting, and modifying for current tastes.

Long before our modern age of brand awareness, product placements, and marketing channels, the KJV established another stream of its staying power by being the go-to text for a significant body of influential writers: librettists. Becoming available in 1611, the KJV was perfectly placed for the golden age of oratorio, which began around 1600. While the Bible translation industry has continued unabated since that time, the oratorio flourished for only a couple of centuries — but it flourished so gloriously that those who sing or listen to oratorios today are likely to enjoy a work from this period. The KJV provided the basis for nearly all original English-language oratorios, and its style set the tone for translated librettos, which follow it very closely. Here, for example, are side-by-side passages from one of the rollicking choruses from Mendelssohn's Elijah (original libretto in German) and the biblical passage that inspires it:

KJV 1 Kings 19:11-13

Mendelssohn's Elijah

And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:

 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

God the Lord passed by! And a mighty wind rent the mountains around, brake in pieces the rocks, brake them before the Lord: but yet the Lord was not in the tempest. Behold! God the Lord passed by! And the sea was upheaved, and the earth was shaken: but yet the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there came a fire: but yet the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there came a still small voice; and in that still voice onward came the Lord.

In the case of original English librettos, as in Handel's Messiah, larger passages from the KJV survive intact. You can almost start tapping your foot to the fugue playing in your head when you read the KJV's Isaiah 9:6:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Readers of the KJV in future centuries will probably find its English as remote as Chaucer's English is to us; but we expect that they'll still be reading it. Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, said this of the King James Version: "To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity."

The destination site for all things KJV, including some interesting accounts of music that it has inspired is here:

http://www.kingjamesbibletrust.org/

When the KJV meets SGML, there are some fantastic searching opportunities:

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/kjv/

And finally, here is an entertaining minute on the language of the KJV, as part of the Open University's "The History of English in Ten Minutes" series.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 1st 2011, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I would like to suggest that the immediate impression one obtains from the alternative translations is that they are clumsy because they strive to be different. Perhaps KJV words flow more comfortably, even if they may be archaic, because of the very formality of the literary style in which they were written.
Friday July 1st 2011, 7:04 AM
Comment by: Ruth
As one who works in the 'Bible translation industry' I was interested in your comment about "Biblegateway.com ... — not only in English but in nearly every language it has been translated to or from". There are nearly 7,000 languages in the earth today. Certainly ever newer translations appear in English, but I must wave the flag for over 340 million people in 2000+ languages worldwide* who still don't have a single word of Scripture in their own language, very often because their language is not yet written down. Wycliffe Bible Translators (www.wycliffe.org.uk) works with many organisations worldwide to make a difference for these people, supporting their own national translators, and often bringing health and education benefits in the wake of the language work that is done within these communities.

Here in the UK we've been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the KJV through the Biblefresh movement (www.biblefresh.com), along with many other Christian organisations and festivals. Readers may be interested in John Macaulay's presentation on 'So many to choose from! - English Bibles and study resources' given as part of our series Understanding the Scriptures. www.wycliffe.org.uk/live/forchurches/biblefresh-eveclasses-resources.html#John18052011

For a more comprehensive resource of Scripture and scripture products in the many languages where it has been translated, I would recommend the official global index of Scripture resources provided by the Forum of Bible Agencies International www.forum-intl.org/find_a_bible/.

Thanks so much for sharing the Open University clip - yes, it 'went to the ends of the earth, well, at least to ends of Britain.' We're hoping to take it a little further than that...

*(http://www.wycliffe.net/ScriptureAccessStatistics/tabid/73/language/en-US/Default.aspx)
Friday July 1st 2011, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Orin, I appreciate your work here. I could wish however that you had included at least one modern translation (ESV, NASB, for examples)in your comparisons and not relied on paraphrases alone.
Friday July 1st 2011, 9:41 AM
Comment by: MAry M. (Saint Paul, MN)
I agree with Gordon's comment, but I can't agree with your belief that old words, long gone from most English speakers' language, are somehow better than those in wide use today. In you, they may denote reverence; for many they yield only incomprehension. I also object to the idea that sexist language is acceptable. The greatest misuse of religion across the world is using it to promote the power of males over females in all aspects of life.
Friday July 1st 2011, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Timothy W.
Thanks Orin, that was a refreshing reminder that new does not per se equal better.

I completely agree with your points about the KJV, and as to 'sexist' indications in the bible, I think anyone who really appreciates it for what it was intended would not be caught up by the choice of pronouns; and for those who have misused the gender distinction, I'm sure the bible was not the source of their bias.

Definitely an old source to learn from--the KJV--and not to be corrected.
Friday July 1st 2011, 3:46 PM
Comment by: ML
Thanks! I really enjoyed your article and how you compared different versions of Scripture.
Friday July 1st 2011, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Alfred W. (Wolverhampton United Kingdom)
Sexist language, well, well! I wonder if Jesus and the other originators of the speeches used the words that some are now uncomfortable with? Their linguistic surgery on the texts reminds me of Uzzah who stretched 'forth' his hand and caught the Ark of the Covenant as it fell. God slew him! His crime was both disobedience and presumptuousness, a common 21 Centuary disease!

(And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. 2 Samuel 6:6 KJV

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. 2 Samuel 6:7 KJV

And David was displeased, because the LORD had made a breach upon Uzzah: and he called the name of the place Perezuzzah to this day. 2 Samuel 6:8 KJV)

I am striving to walk with confidence in the presence of the Almighty and that makes me fearful of trespassing into territories where I have no authority. If what was said was said, let it still be said! The people who are being politically correct, in this context, are but imposing their own sensitivities upon Ancient Texts!
Friday July 1st 2011, 5:18 PM
Comment by: MAry M. (Saint Paul, MN)
The comments on my previous post are examples of males' assuming power over females. Christian views of the Bible (KJV or not) as literal truth lead to various forms of abuse of women from ignoring to punishing. They are also evident in other religious that depend on a Book.
Friday July 1st 2011, 9:23 PM
Comment by: Christ*
Enjoyed it.
Friday July 1st 2011, 9:37 PM
Comment by: Doc (Chicago, IL)
One of my favorite translators, Stephen Mitchell, has said that the KJV is "the best translation of anything into English." I know of nothing to say him nay.
Saturday July 2nd 2011, 6:22 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
May I say that Christ himself respected women, as do most decent men. The Bible makes that abundantly clear. To make abusive use of the fact that some words have to be taken in context is illogical moreover, it is a pity. One might as well complain that males do not have their own unique word (could it be 'Taman' as compared with 'Woman' and "Man" reserved for mankind?) and are therefore suppressed and not heard.
Mary M is absolutely right that women in some communities are oppressed but in my view the cause is culture, not religion; religion, properly applied is a way out.
I'm a disabled old man dependent on a woman. I have reason to be grateful that, equality before the Law accepted, women are not the same as men but wonderfully different in thought and action.
I've said more than I meant to say. I will accept the moderators decision, however she decides!
Saturday July 2nd 2011, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Mary L. A.
I so appreciate Geoffrey BH's CLARITY on the subject of "sexist". Intuitively, I have always felt that there was no subjugation of women as a biblical mandate, but that those looking for an excuse to legitimize the behavior quoted a skewed "out of context" from the Bible. How easy to believe that, in so doing, facilitation of cultural male dominance could be accomplished, but how misguided that view is.
Clearly, no male truly wishing to be Christ-like thinks that way. Hopefully, the females pursuing clarity will offer a better perspective.
Change the culture!
Saturday July 2nd 2011, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The King James Bible is a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas, both about life and writing, for all writers. How its simple but elegant writing works, I couldn't say, but it speaks with a voice of true wisdom. Not only for Christians, but for all people seeking guidance through life.
Saturday July 2nd 2011, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Peggy C. (San Diego, CA)
I enjoyed this site and comments above. I love the language of the KJV, and of Shakespeare, for its beauty and flow. As a 1. old, 2. woman, I believe God made us, male and female, each with our own gifts. Today's feminists' efforts at equality with men predominantly translate into delusions of superiority over men - to the detriment of all. Women have physical and emotional characteristics which lend themselves to nurturing the next generation. It is the chemical interventions since 1960 plus the favorable economic system in the West that has made possible the career equalities the feminists enjoy.
Saturday July 2nd 2011, 4:12 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I appreciate the comments, from which I infer that the KJV speaks as deeply to many as it does to me. I don’t think we’ll sort out the battle of the sexes in this forum, and rereading what I said about the apparent sexism of the language in the KJV, I don’t have anything further to say about that.

Gordon W: I purposely chose renderings to compare with the KJV that differed sharply from it; ESV and NASB do not. In fact, they both owe a great deal to the KJV, and like it, I think their main intention is to translate, not to interpret and recast. Both are on biblegateway.com, along with many others, for those who wish to look at them.

An element of the deep appeal of the KJV that occurs to me, having read through the comments, is how comforting it is to read and to listen to – like the foods we ate as children and still love. For anyone over a certain age who was raised in a church, the KJV echoes so many texts – hymns, prayers, litanies, blessings – that we associate with places and feelings of safety and security. These associations have far outlived my connection with the faith community of my childhood, and they still resonate strongly.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 11:08 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
I agree that the KJV reads beautifully and poetically, especially to those of us who have grown up with it but it is difficult for many modern people, especially young people, to read and it has many examples of translations that were meant to further biases of the time rather than be accurate depictions of what was originally meant or written. The Bible is meant for the benefit of man, not man for the Bible. Its translation should be easily understandable, accurate as far as it is possible to make it, and as free of bias as we can make it. The KJV is a fine piece of literature but it doesn't measure up to those criteria any more than the old Latin texts would in today's world. I love the old Book but I study a more modern version for my religious edification.

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David Crystal's latest book traces the idioms we owe to the King James Bible.
Modern Bible translations still prefer "shall," no doubt for its authoritative tone.
The KJV makes regular use of adverbs that we now think of as formal, literary or poetic.