In the beginning was the word

I love the English language; I love its beauty, its directness and its simplicity. There are wells of our language, sources where words and expressions were first drawn that people continue to use, often unconscious of their origin. The work of William Shakespeare is one of the most important; the other is the Authorised Version of the Bible, the King James Bible, the translation of which was completed in 1611, four hundred years ago.

So far as I am concerned the King James Bible is the Bible, though I have never known it used in worship: the Church of England has long favoured the modern translation. But I grew up in a literate household, one where I was introduced to a range of influences from an early age, including the translation of 1611, based on the earlier Bishop’s Bible of 1568 and William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525.

There is a marvel to it, a sacred marvel, if you like, lost in modern translation, a marvel that was to have a huge impact on the subsequent course of English literature. I am tempted to say that in abandoning the King James Bible the Church of England abandoned sacred language altogether, the beginning of a process of secularisation, disengagement and decline.

I suppose the argument was that it was too difficult, too archaic, too remote from common understanding and contemporary concerns. If so, it’s rubbish. An editorial in the Times made reference to Politics and the English Language, my favourite essay by George Orwell, where he offers his own up-to-date translation of one of the most moving passages in Ecclesiastes, of good usage into the worst usage imaginable. Ecclesiastes proceeds as follows;

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The imagery, the cadence, the simple poetry of these words is intense. Now consider the version suggested by Orwell;

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

It’s awful; it’s meant to be awful. Orwell admits it’s a parody, though not, as he says, a gross one. This essay was written over sixty years ago. If anything the problem has got worse since then, as meaningful, direct words are increasingly obscured in fog of abstraction. I’m ever mindful that the abuse of language and the abuse of meaning was part of the political horror that overtook humanity in the course of the last hundred years. There is nothing at all obscure or difficult in Ecclesiastes, nothing that could not be easily grasped and understood

So, in this anniversary year, it’s time to think again about the importance of the King James Bible, time to restore it in its full cultural significance. I leave you with some verses from The Song of Solomon, my favourite book of the Old Testament, a sublime hymn to love and renewal.

My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.

My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

 

Author: anatheimp

I'm a student, a horsewoman, a flyer and an all round wild child!

21 thoughts on “In the beginning was the word”

  1. Hi Ana

    Personally, a Presbyterian agnostic. Not particularly enamoured of Jamie Sax and Yin . That said, a great fan of his Bible and of what it did for our language.

    Thank you. for this post. A joy as ever.

  2. I’m a confirmed agnostic – but I had the fortune to be brought up with the KJV. The first time I heard a bit of the ‘modern version’ I wondered what I was listening to – so incredibly ugly.

    You’ve got my vote!

  3. As an atheist, I still realise the effect the King James version had on our language. For one who has decried often in these pages the effects of dumbing down the general standards of education and the effects on reasoning and understanding of the ‘politically correct,’ your point about the abuse of the language – though I would say particularly in the latter part of the 20th century – is well made. Orwell prophesied the decline, abuse and misuse also, did he not?

    As to comprehension, I am a working class boy and if my grandparents and parents could manage the King James version, (left school at 12, 14, 14 and 16 respectively,) I see no reason why the rest of us can’t. It seems that the perception amongst our ‘betters’ is that we are less bright than our forebears, on what evidence I have no idea.

    Excellent piece Ana.

  4. Good morning Ana, I sometimes wonder if there was a mis-print back at the time the KJV was conjured. Did someone miss the ‘S’ from “Sword”. So it should have been “In the beginning was the sword”. As history and achievements are shaped and littered with battles and struggles so it might make more sense to recognise that is with weapons that we fight to exist.

    Who among us can, hand on heart, can say they understand the meaning of “In the beginning was the Word”. Can anyone here have a go at this?

    Anyway, a timely piece Ana and I too love the lyricism and simple beauty of the KJV words you have used. (There had been a post on this subject before; perhaps Boadicea can identify it.)

  5. Homer’s archaic language had a similar mesmerising effect on Greek sensibilities. ‘Classics’ in literature do that, innit? Remember: the best scholars worked for the church in them days – who else would feed them? I’m sure if the best scholars now translated the Bible they’d do a pretty attractive job – but without the sentimenta/familiar attachments of the KJV.

  6. Congratulations, Ana, on an excellent post. Thank you also for the Orwell quotation. How prescient that man was! For me the service of the Nine Lessons and Carols must use the KJV.

  7. A good post, Ana. good to see you again. I attended an Alumni Weekend at Kings College London over the weekend. One of the events was a lecture at the college’s Maugham Library on the beginnings of the King James Bible. Also, on display at an associated exhibition were quite a few bibles through the ages, some older than the KJ and some newer. There was also a very early, but not first edition of the KJV on display. All very interesting, but I still have trouble in believing a word of it.

  8. Janus

    Interesting comment – although I’m not sure that KJV English has a ‘mesmerising effect’!

    FEEG

    I think rather a lot of us here are in the position of having ‘trouble in believing a word of it’ – yet we all love the language in which the ideas are expressed.

  9. Do translations of the other gods’ holy books invoke similar musings?

    English, a great language for sure, but there’s many a better example of where is is used well in my humble opinion.

    Interesting blog though especially the Orwellian quote. I echo Bravo’s comments above in #4

  10. Boadicea :

    FEEG

    I think rather a lot of us here are in the position of having ‘trouble in believing a word of it’ – yet we all love the language in which the ideas are expressed.

    Yes, the language used is very expressive indeed, I was not trying to imply anything else. I have no problems with it at all, just the content.

  11. Thanks everyone. It’s super to see some old faces. Well, not old, but I’m sure you know what I mean. 🙂

    Like some of you I’m not a believer but that hardly matters. We have two old leather bound versions of the KJV at home but I bought the Oxford paperback edition recently with the intention of reading the whole thing through, not as a sacred text but simply as a work of literature. I like to underline and make marginal notes in the books I read but I have enough residual reverence not to do that in the older, holier editions!

    Papaguinea, in reference to your point about misprints the translation had an uneven history, with some early howlers. The very first edition had it that Jesus was crucified along with ‘other malefactors.’ A 1631 edition was so bad that it came to be known as the wicked bible, amongst other things missing out ‘not’ in the admonition against adultery. Worst still a reference to God’s greatness appeared as God’s great ass. I’m not joking!

  12. I’m delighted to see that one can still get a copy of the KJV.

    I think my reverence for the ‘old leather bound versions’ would have more to do with their age than with their ‘holiness’ !

  13. Boadicea :

    Janus

    Interesting comment – although I’m not sure that KJV English has a ‘mesmerising effect’!

    Boa, there must be something more than just familiarity. Let’s not forget that the original NT writings were in the vernacular of the time; relatively easy Greek in fact (you can borrow my copy!). The poetic translations we now admire akshully ADD a dimension which the originals don’t have. Take the Sermon on the Mount. A masterpiece of cadences and rhythmic phrasing. Why did the translators do that, when it is arguable they were not being true to the originals? (Discuss with scholarly references. 20 marks.)

  14. Janus

    I agree- it isn’t just ‘familiarity it is the ‘flowing language’ – as I would describe it – that makes it so beautiful.

    As to whether the KJV is true to the originals – I have no idea – and your offer of the original Greek version wouldn’t help one bit! I wanted to learn Greek, but, alas! had to take Physics instead…

  15. Pass on that one! I failed the O’ Level once – passed it the second time and failed it at A… I did tell them that I loathed the subject – I seem to have spent a fair amount of time outside the class-room door! 🙂

  16. I have a very old German bible and the language has the same flow and mellifluousness as the English of the KJV. Since I don’t suppose the two lots of translators got together, this beauty must stem from the original Aramaic or Greek.

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