Like the Pledge of Allegiance or the taxonomic chart, the King James Bible is part of the soundtrack of my childhood.
You may think of those things as words on paper, but I when I think of them, I hear them in my mind and feel their beat, like music. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. That list I learned in ninth-grade biology runs through my brain like a train, clickety-clack, each word connected like a line of freight cars.
So it is with the KJV translation of the Bible, which celebrates its 400th birthday this year. Matters of faith aside, few books have had such a lasting impact on everyday language and culture.
Every U.S. president — every — has been sworn into office with his hand on a King James Bible. We hear its echoes in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. We use its expressions in daily conversations.
When Linus recites the story of the nativity in the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he stands in a spotlight and begins with these familiar words:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’ “
For me, Christmas begins for real each year on Christmas Eve morning, when I tune in to public radio for “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” broadcast live from Cambridge, England. When I hear the words of the KJV read by the English-accented voices for whom it was written in 1611, all the distractions of the season melt away. No single word better invokes the spirit of Christmas than: “Behold!”
The coincident decline of Latin and the rise of the printing press made the King James more available to more people than perhaps any edition before or since. It wasn’t the first English translation — in fact, it drew heavily on others — but it had a lot of firepower behind it, commissioned by a monarch.
It has been said the team assembled for the job in Westminster Abbey intended to make the language of the KJV memorable through its words and rhythms. In those days, its audience was mostly hearers, not readers. Its phrases were designed to stick in their heads, whether they could read or not, whether they could afford to buy a copy or not.
“There were poets in those rooms in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey, and they wanted the Bible to sing,” observed author Jon Sweeney on the PBS series “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.” Sweeney has a new book, “Verily, Verily: The KJV — 400 Years of Influence and Beauty” (Zondervan, 2011).
He notes many of us employ those poetic lines and their vivid mental imagery without knowing we’re quoting the KJV.
A labor of love. Salt of the earth. The apple of his eye. An eye for an eye. The skin of my teeth. Eat, drink and be merry. Fight the good fight. Vanity of vanities. How the mighty have fallen. Fell flat on his face. The powers that be. A man after his own heart. A house divided. Signs of the times. Can a leopard change his spots? Am I my brother’s keeper? Seek and ye shall find.
Some cling to the KJV and it alone. Others avoid it like a plague of locusts. As usual, extreme views are unhelpful to most of us. Yes, the long-ago language sometimes requires unraveling. I remember as a child being confused by the opening lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Shall not want? Wait a minute. I thought I was supposed to want the Good Shepherd? Eventually I understood. The fact the lesson was not immediate, but a process, makes it more meaningful to me.
Yet, the benefit of newer translations is not only their immediacy, but their scholarship. In many cases, they are products of deeper research than the KJV and truer to the original texts. Those seeking a greater understanding should welcome the best each translation has to offer.
Clarity and accuracy are vital. The KJV seems to reach for something more — language that suits its subject matter — expansive, respectful. As more of our speech is condensed to acronyms and 140-character text messages typed with our thumbs, I am glad to have some of that 400-year-old grace in my head.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.