Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

The language of the Authorized Version of the Bible

Note: In this and future posts, I will refer to the 1611 English translation of the Bible as the Authorized Version, or AV, as this is the name by which it is known in most of the English-speaking world.  In the USA, and to some extent in Canada, it is referred to as the King James Version, or KJV.  Neither name is official, both refer to the fact that King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland) authorized the establishment of a committee to create a new translation.

The aim of the translators was to provide a faithful reading of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and to do it in words that would be easily understood by young and old, the learned and the unlearned.  They knew that most people of their time would not be able to buy a copy of the Bible to read at home.  They knew, in a way that modern translators do not seem to grasp, that the power of the English language is in the short words.  They produced a Bible that, when it was read from the pulpit, would echo in the memories of the people for days and years to follow.  There is no other English translation that lends itself so readily to memorization.

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.”  From The Translators to the Reader, the Preface to the English translation of 1611.

This translation is written at a Grade 5 reading level.  Newer translations which claim to be easier to read are actually more difficult.  Some English words have changed meaning since 1611, but these are fewer than is often claimed.  I will provide a glossary in a future post.

But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No.  And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.  Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.  John 21:4-7

Adam Nicolson makes this comment on these verses: “Every rhetorical decision is right here.  The first sentence — afloat on ‘now’ — brings an effortless immediacy; we are with the apostles in the boat, with the dawn and the exhaustions of a fruitless night around us. . . . This is a form of writing that is consistently alert to its many purposes.  It translates an alien moment through intelligible description.  It makes that moment quiveringly alive, folding up the space of sixteen or twenty-one centuries.  It is ever conscious of the miraculous nature of what is happening.”

He then quotes a modern translation of the same passage and says, “This is dead, there is no immediacy to it, nothing vibrant. . . . It is a description of an inert normality, mundane, tensionless and mystery-free.  The atmosphere is of a 1930s bathing party.”  © 2003 by Adam Nicolson, from the book entitled Power and Glory (in Great Britain) or God’s Secretaries (in the USA), published by HarperCollins.

The above passage from the Gospel of John contains 112 words, of which 84 are words of one syllable.  Henry Fowler wrote: “But it is a general truth that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase vigour.  This is particularly so in English, where the native words are short, and the long words are foreign.”  H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, Second Edition, © 1965, Oxford University Press, page 344.  Here are a few more passages that illustrate the power of the simple language of the AV translation.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Psalm 23:4.  (30 words, 26 are words of one syllable)

 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  John 18:37.  (52 words, 42 are words of one syllable.)

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.  Matthew 6:9-13.  (66 words, 49 are words of one syllable.)

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