If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, you know this month is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Celebrations and media coverage proliferate, some of it quite thoughtful. The New York Times points out some of the cultural impact of the translation:
The influence of the King James Bible is so great that the list of idioms from it that have slipped into everyday speech, taking such deep root that we use them all the time without any awareness of their biblical origin, is practically endless: sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one’s teeth; apple of one’s eye; girded loins; feet of clay; whited sepulchers; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry.
But what we also love about this Bible is its strangeness—its weird punctuation, odd pronouns (as in “Our Father, which art in heaven”), all those verbs that end in “eth”: “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the euening it is cut downe, and withereth.” As Robert Alter has demonstrated in his startling and revealing translations of the Psalms and the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Bible is even stranger, and in ways that the King James translators may not have entirely comprehended, and yet their text performs the great trick of being at once recognizably English and also a little bit foreign. You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy.
And More Intelligent Life, the culture magazine of The Economist, further reflected on the resonance and poetry of the translation:
Everywhere modern translations are more specific, doubtless more accurate, but always less melodious. The King James, deeply scholarly as it is, displaying the best learning of the day, never forgets that the word of God must be heard, understood and retained by the simple. For them—children repeating after the teacher, workers fidgeting in their best clothes, Tyndale’s own whistling ploughboy-rhythm and music are the best aids to remembering. This is language not for silent study but for reading and declaiming aloud. It needs to work like poetry, and poetry it is.
Of course, to help expand the poetry and artistry of the original into the visual, there’s Makoto Fujimura’s Four Holy Gospels project (full disclosure: I appear in the video), which has been making the rounds in the U.S. and will be in New York at the Museum of Biblical Art this summer (July 8 – September 18) in an exhibition celebrating the anniversary called On Eagles’ Wings: The King James Bible Turns 400.
The poetry of the English version is, of course, an echo of the poetry of the original language, in a different cultural context. But that might mean it’s a good year to take out the old KJV and read it again, reveling in what we are beginning to remember this anniversary year: the beauty of the Bible not just for the truths it holds, but the language in which it expresses them.