s080 Occasional Note King James / Authorised Version

"First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2 Peter 1:20-21).

There is an interesting article in "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" (2nd Ed edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone) about the translation of the King James Version of the Bible - the so-called "Authorised Version" of 1611. It notes that on the Title Page the words say: ""Appointed to be read in Churches" but it has never been otherwise officially "authorised"". (p114).

The article tells us that about 50 scholars in six groups worked on specific parts, and their results were sent to all the other groups for criticism and later came to a final settlement at a general meeting of the chief members of each group. "The work ... took two years and nine months to prepare for the press, and was paid for at 30 shillings each man per week, and by preferment".

Interestingly, it included a translation of the Apocrypha, or the Deuterocanonical books. These came to be not generally included by decision of the early Bible Societies (on the grounds of convenience and / or cost?) (ibid p71).

Most modern translators of the scriptures go through a similar process to the KJV. Translation is done by a panel, not an individual. Indeed the translations which command the most authority are those where scholars across the denominations are employed on the work.

My own experience of preaching from the KJV however is that the text of the KJV is read and the exercise of preaching boils down to what is essentially a further translation into today's language. English is not a dead language, its meaning changes over time. The preface to the RSV has a useful paragraph on how the English language has changed (paragraph 21).

This process of translation into modern idiom and usage means however that the "corporate" intention of the translators is thwarted. Scripture becomes a matter of one person's interpretation - the person translating from the old English language to the modern English language. In all my years I have never encountered a course in the old forms of the English language in any standard theological training. They certainly do exist in Universities, I am told, but I doubt whether those who so confidently say this word in the 15th century means this in the 20th, have actually done a course setting out the authority for their assumptions. So there is an element of dishonesty here, and certainly contravenes what I understand to be the plain meaning of the text from 1 Peter, which is my opening text, and the spirit in which the KJV itself came to be.

Increasingly, recently, I have been realising the depth of the divide between lay and ordained. I wonder if the insistence on the use of the KJV is to assert the authority of lay people to interpret scripture without reference to ordained expertise. Lest I be taken to be critical of lay people here, I feel sure that this is a reaction to a clericalism of the past ...

Some people like the language and poetry which they find missing in the modern translations. I think there is an element of truth in this. Some popular translations deliberately set out to make the language as plain as possible so that "unlettered" people can readily understand the words - and this surely is not an ignoble aim. I think that this was a common gripe about new liturgies about twenty years ago too. However modern translation panels have literary advisors - notably J. R. R. Tolkein for the Jerusalem Bible. I feel sure that I read somewhere that T. S. Eliot was literary editor for the New English Bible, but I cannot now locate the reference.

Bible translation is not an idle exercise - it is done with the utmost seriousness - and to dismiss modern translations is to treat a number of contemporary scholars with cavalier disdain, which they hardly deserve.

I commend the prefaces of the various translations to the attention of interested persons - along with another article in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church under the heading "the Bible".

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