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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The King James Bible: 400 Years and Counting

As many of you know, the King James Version of the Bible turns 400 this year. NPR had an excellent story on it a few weeks ago ("Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns") that explored both its history and the impact it has had on the English Language.

Briefly, in January of 1604, King James I convened a meeting of Puritans and Bishops with the intent of working out differences concerning church liturgy. At least that was the official reason. James's real reason was to get the two groups to agree to craft a new English translation of the Bible that both the Bishops and Puritans could embrace. Evidently, at the time England was divided over two English translations: (1) The Bishops' Bible, which was read in churches but was clunky and inelegant; and (2) the Geneva Bible, which used more accessible language and, as such, was the choice of the Puritans and the laity.

Unfortunately (at least from James's point of view), the Geneva Bible included marginal notes, some of which challenged authority and referred to kings as tyrants, and that simply wouldn't do. So, James brought the Bishops and Puritans together, and as he hoped, they decided that a new English translation of the Bible was in order, and over the next seven years, 47 scholars and theologians worked through the Bible line by line. The result is what we now know as the Authorized or King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

The impact that the King James Version of the Bible has had is profound, not just on theological reflection and church liturgy, but also on the English language. Consider the following sayings, all of which are from the KJV (a longer sample taken from the NPR website appears at the end of this post):
  • A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)
  • A man after his own heart (Samuel 13:14 or Acts 13:22)
  • Apple of your eye (Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8)
  • At their wits' end (Psalms 107:27)
  • Bite the dust (adapted from Psalms 72 -- eat your heart out Freddie Mercury)
  • By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)
  • By the sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:19)
  • Eat drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
  • He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword (Matthew 26:52)
  • Holier than thou (Isaiah 65:5)
  • Out of the mouths of babes (Psalms 8:2, Matthew 21:16)
  • Tender mercies (Psalms 25:6)
  • Writing is on the wall (Daniel 5: 5/6)
Moreover, the language of the KJV is absolutely stunning. I have yet to find a modern translation (even though most are more accurate than the KJV) that when read aloud, sounds so good. This fact was first driven home to me when I heard Prime Minister Tony Blair read from the KJV at Princess Diana's funeral. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when Kate Middleton's (sorry, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) brother James read from Romans 12: 1–2, 9–18 at Kate and Prince William's wedding. It simply can't be beat even though many have tried (although it doesn't hurt when it's read by someone who has an English accent). Here's the rest of the sayings listed on the NPR website (prepare to be amazed):
  • A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)
  • A wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15)
  • An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Matthew 5:38)
  • Baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11)
  • Bite the dust (adapted from Psalms 72)
  • Broken heart (Psalms 34:18)
  • Can a leopard change its spots? (Jeremiah 13:23)
  • Cast the first stone (John 8:7)
  • Chariots of Fire (2 Kings 6:17)
  • Cross to bear (Luke 14:27)
  • Don't cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6)
  • Fall by the wayside (Matthew 13:4)
  • Fall from grace (Galatians 5:4)
  • Fat of the land (Genesis 45:18)
  • Feet of clay (Daniel 2:31-33)
  • Fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12)
  • Fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:24-26)
  • Flesh and blood (Matthew 16:17)
  • Fly in the ointment (adapted from Ecclesiastes 10:1)
  • Forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:9)
  • From strength to strength (Psalms 84:7)
  • Give up the ghost (Mark 15:37)
  • Heart's desire (Psalms 21:2)
  • How the mighty are fallen (Samuel 1:19)
  • In the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52)
  • It's better to give than receive (Acts 20:35)
  • Labour of love (Hebrews 6:10)
  • Lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7)
  • Land of Nod (Genesis 4:16)
  • Law unto themselves (Romans 2:14)
  • Letter of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6)
  • Living off the fat of the land (Genesis 45:18)
  • Love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10)
  • Manna from heaven (Exodus 16:15)
  • Many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14)
  • My cup runneth over (Psalms 23:5)
  • No rest for the wicked (adapted from Isaiah 57:20)
  • Nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
  • O ye of little faith (Luke 12:28)
  • Peace offering (Leviticus 3:6)
  • Pride goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Put words in her mouth (2 Samuel 14:3)
  • Put your house in order (2 Kings 20:1)
  • Reap what you sow (adapted from Galatians 6:7)
  • See eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)
  • Set your teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31:30)
  • Sign of the times (Matthew 16:3)
  • Sour grapes (Jeremiah 31:30)
  • Sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:19)
  • The blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)
  • The ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10)
  • The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
  • The powers that be (Romans 13:1)
  • The salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)
  • The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41)
  • The straight and narrow (Matthew 7:13/14)
  • There's nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
  • Two edged sword (Proverbs 5:4)
  • Voice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23)
  • Wages of sin (Romans 6:23)
  • Wash your hands of the matter (Matthew 27:24)
  • White as snow (Daniel 7:9)
  • Woe is me (Job 10:15)

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