Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mark Noll on the King James Bible

Mark Noll, ‘Long Live the King: The 400th Anniversary of the KJV’, Books & Culture (28 October 2011).

Mark Noll notes that the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible ‘has produced a magnificent harvest of exhibitions, conferences, and scholarship’. In comparison with the 300th anniversary celebrations in 1911, he points out, ‘most commemorations have resulted from local initiatives under local sponsorship’.

The substance of his piece reflects on six books and one video published around the 400th anniversary. Leaving aside the literary influence of the KJB, the accuracy or otherwise of its translation, and the nature of its influence on English vocabulary, he explores the books under review via four questions.

(1) What were the circumstances in which the KJB was created, and what implications should be drawn from understanding those circumstances?

In a word, politics.

(2) What is the relationship of the KJB to its predecessor translations, and how did this one new translation win out so decisively over all its competitors?

In a sense, again, politics! Readers recognised its dependence on previous versions, and the good work of those who had prepared a revised version. ‘Yet it was not this recognition as such that won the day. It was rather that those who controlled the monopoly for publishing Bibles in England stopped producing the Bishops’ Bible, supported the regime’s effort to keep the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation as far away as possible, and maneuvered to freeze out publication of the Geneva Bible.’

(3) What kind of translation is the KJB, and why should we care?

In two words, ‘essentially literal’.

Among other interesting points here, Noll refers to Myles Smith’s prefatory ‘note to the reader’, claiming that ‘the very meanest translation of the Bible in English... containeth the word of God, yea, is the word of God’.

Noll himself comments:

‘Even as Smith was taking pains to explain why the Bible he had worked on was a good translation, he contended that “the word of God” was what any even half-way adequate translation communicated. For Smith, “the word of God” was of utmost importance since, as he wrote in another part of the prefatory note: “But now what piety without truth? What truth, what saving truth, without the word of God? What word of God whereof we may be sure, without the Scripture?”’

He also says a few things about the relationship between the KJB as a literary masterpiece and the KJB as the word of God:

‘What, in particular, should be said about those readers who esteem the literary qualities of the KJB but pay no heed to its spiritual message? T.S. Eliot’s dictum in response was unequivocal: “Those who talk of the Bible as a ‘monument of English prose’ are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity.”’

(4) The most complicated questions, both historically and theologically, arise from combining the circumstances of the KJB’s origins (question 1), its cultural dominance from the early 17th century until the recent past (question 2), and the interplay of spiritual purpose and literary excellence in its history (question 3). These questions ask what studying the history of the KJB reveals about the relationship between divine revelation and its human reception, about words on a page and the message of salvation, about the use of secondary means and the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit.

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