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When the King Saved God
July 14, 2011 3:08 AM   Subscribe

"A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare." -Christopher Hitchens stands up for the King James Bible
posted by beisny (70 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hitchens has been fairly consistent on this particular issue. And he's got a point: the KJV is up there with Shakespeare in terms of literature that has significantly influenced English-speaking culture. Even today, when we've got much more accurate translations, the KJV is hard to beat in terms of pure poetry, and no study is really complete without making reference to it.
posted by valkyryn at 3:20 AM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


hip-hop shakespeare
posted by LogicalDash at 3:25 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


So... To defend the inviolability of a work supposedly ghost-written by God itself, he needs to compare it to the work of a 16th century drunkard's baudy pop-trash?

God gots ta get paid, son.
posted by pla at 3:37 AM on July 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yes, the KJV is simultaneously a supreme achievement of English literature and a conduit for ancient, complex texts of tremendous depth and resonance. Our culture would lose depth without it.

And yet... The KJV is also palpably insane and amongst the good stuff it is suffused with a dark, pernicious, and dare I say false view of human nature and destiny. It is, for better and for worse, dangerously powerful. So I don't know that I can quite find it in my heart to say I think our culture should be conditioned by it for ever and ever.
posted by Segundus at 3:47 AM on July 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was raised Christian and eventually grew out of it, but I agree with Hitchens 100%. The Bible, despite its flaws and inconsistencies, is an invaluable source of poetry, metaphor, and moral philosophy. The Gospels alone provide a strong argument for modern progressive values: Render unto Caesar. Cast the first stone. Turn the other cheek. What you did for the least of these. Love one another. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Anybody who dispenses with religion entirely does themselves a disservice not being fluent in the language. Knowing what the Bible says and what it means makes it easier to understand and connect with people you might normally feel alienated by. It makes you more effective in debates couched in those terms (if they already think you're the devil, you might as well be able to cite scripture for your purposes). And it makes it easier to spot when people pervert it for their own ends or use it as a dog whistle -- see, for instance, Glenn Beck's daily invocation of Jesus' "Come, follow me." You can see this at work in great detail by checking out Slacktivist's dissections of modern evangelicalism, or J. Brad Hicks' illuminating articles on the intersection of religion, politics, and culture.

Not knowing the Bible is like not knowing Shakespeare or Aesop or the Constitution. It deprives you of vital cultural context. Of course, the same is true about any great work of religious writing, but the Bible is clearly most central to Western thought. Ignore it to your detriment.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:51 AM on July 14, 2011 [31 favorites]


"Ignore it to your detriment."

Will do.
posted by sutt at 4:12 AM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Bible is a valuable store of image and literature, no doubt. Great men and women have lived by and for it. Some, like Thomas Merton, have found in it a message of strength and tolerance.

The problem is actually with the people who use it for perverted ends, using it to justify hate and greed and all the other things that the book actually condemns...
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:16 AM on July 14, 2011


The BBC did a radio documentary on the KJV at the beginning of this year - it covers (in some depth) the history, the translation process and the lasting legacy of the language. It's a really worthwhile listen.

It was discussed on the blue in January, if you missed it first time round.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 4:31 AM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


A while ago I came across this book, Revelations: Personal Responses to the Bible, a collection of the prefaces to the Canongate edition of the King James Bible, with an introduction by Richard Halloway, former Archbishop of Edinburgh. Here's a review from the Observer. I've only read a couple of the chapters, and I have really enjoyed his own essay, which is partly reproduced here - just a few relevant quotes:
So here is an interesting paradox: we can still read those Ancient Greek myths today and find new depths of meaning in them; but we are unlikely to read Ancient Greek science with profit now, because their take on factual reality has been superseded by modern knowledge, which is truer to the “facts of the universe” than the Greeks could possibly have been in their time. In other words, the value of factual discourse turns out to be transient; while myth or imaginative discourse turns out to be enduringly useful.

The holy books of religion, including the Bible, clearly belong in the category of muthos rather than logos. Unfortunately, many religious leaders ignore or misunderstand that distinction today. They want their scripture to have the status not of myth and poetry but of science; they want it packed not with meaning but with fact.Tragically, they fail to realise that a community’s myths are more enduringly useful than its science. More significantly, they fail to realise that the endless reiteration of brute fact, unseasoned by colour or sorrow, is deeply boring to the average listener. (...) when we read, as an ancient myth, the account of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden we continue to be impressed by its contemporary validity as a picture of the power of discontent to destroy human happiness. But if we are told we have to understand it as a description of a historical event, we know immediately the claim is false and are likely to dismiss the story’s importance: and we miss the depths of meaning that a different reading of the text will afford us. Like thousands of preachers before me, in the years when I was expounding the Bible I preferred modern translations because they gave it the false gloss of factual discourse; whereas the majesty of the King James version would have been a far better way of introducing my listeners to the dark beauty and tragic depth of ancient myth.

Ironically, we have reached a stage when it is unbelievers who are more likely to champion the great traditional versions of the Bible, such as the King James, while believers are more likely to resort to the banalities of modern translation. This is because unbelievers, if they read the Bible at all, are likely to read it as a constellation of myths that continue to express the height and depth of human existence, while believers are more likely to try to read it as an information manual, a sort of users’ guide to the universe. In my experience, when you let go of the Bible as explanatory logos, you get it back as depthless myth. That is why, when I quote it in my writing and lecturing now, it is the King James version I use.
posted by bitteschoen at 4:39 AM on July 14, 2011 [49 favorites]


sorry, Richard Holloway, not Halloway
posted by bitteschoen at 4:40 AM on July 14, 2011


We get some rules to follow
That and this
These and those
No one knows
posted by bwg at 4:42 AM on July 14, 2011


For the first 1,500 years of the Christian epoch, this problem of “authority,” in both senses of that term, was solved by having the divine mandate wrapped up in languages that the majority of the congregation could not understand, and by having it presented to them by a special caste or class who alone possessed the mystery of celestial decoding.

Sounds also much like economics to me.
posted by three blind mice at 4:44 AM on July 14, 2011


Fascinating article, thank you for the post; thanks also to bitteschoen for the quotes a few posts up which added a lot to my reflection on the OP.
posted by protorp at 4:49 AM on July 14, 2011


Comfort me with apples: for I am sick of snark.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:58 AM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


For once I am in agreement with Hitchens. For the Bible as literature, there is really only the King James version. Read any number of modernized, dumbned- down versions of the 23rd Psalm which is familiar to most, compare to the King James version, and you will see what I mean. The poetry is sucked right out of it.
posted by mermayd at 4:59 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


so:
1. The KJV was written specifically to solve the problems of the times in which it was written.
2. Therefore it is beautiful and should not be replaced
3. With something written to solve the problems of the times in which it is written.


did I get that right?
posted by rebent at 4:59 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm in a pedantic mood today, so forgive me if I correct one of the well-worn anecdotes that Hitchens tells:

Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Stirring stuff .. and completely fictitious. The story has its origin not in a cable sent by a 'British officer' from 'the stricken beach at Dunkirk', but in a morale-boosting talk by A.D. Lindsay, Master of Balliol College, Oxford (Hitchens's college, as it happens), broadcast on the BBC in June 1940. Lindsay describes a conversation with 'an Army Chaplain just home from Dunkirk' who had praised the quiet courage of the soldiers. This reminds him of 'a sermon of my father's of which we, his children, were very fond .. The sermon had a short and arresting title: 'But if not'. You will find it in the eighteenth verse of the third chapter of the Book of Daniel.'

It's amusing to find Hitchens the atheist unconsciously referring to a sermon by Thomas Martin Lindsay, minister of the Free Church of Scotland. Unfortunately the anecdote doesn't make the point he wants it to make. I find it hard to believe that many people in the 1940s, on hearing the words 'but if not', would have instantly recognised it as a Biblical phrase. The King James Bible may have been well known, but it was never that well known.
posted by verstegan at 5:03 AM on July 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


The King James Bible in 1611 was a terrible translation in hokey language. It still is.
posted by Jehan at 5:11 AM on July 14, 2011


did I get that right?

No, the KJV isn't beautiful because it was written to solve the problems of the times in which it was written. It's beautiful because of the language used. More recent translations are far more accurate in their rendering of the meaning of the text, but far less beautifully written; and as Hitchens is primarily interested in the cultural usage of the Bible than the theological usage of the Bible, his argument is that the beauty of the KJV supersedes its troubles with inaccuracy, which is a valid argument.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:12 AM on July 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


Man known for ill-defining religion by deriding a small subset of expressions thereof tells religious people that subset has an exclusive claim on beauty. Cognitive dissonance abounds.
posted by Apropos of Something at 5:44 AM on July 14, 2011


Is anybody seriously saying that we should dispense with the KJV completely? I am a writer and I'm not a Christian, so the KJV is my version of choice. I understand entirely why Hitchens, who is in the same boat, prefers it. But, if I were a Christian, I would certainly be thankful that there are newer more accurate and straightforward translation available so that I not need to learn Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic just to have access to the documents of my faith.
posted by 256 at 5:48 AM on July 14, 2011


If I was a Christian I would learn Greek.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 6:16 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The KJV is beautiful in the way of the guillotine. Lest you draw your finger along the sharp slant and be lost in admiration, pause and recollect what the construction is for.
posted by adipocere at 6:50 AM on July 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


A few years ago I embarked on a task to get a good family bible. I wanted something that would be read and enjoyed in the present, but also passed down for generations. One of the harder parts was choosing the translation. At times I tipped toward the purist scale and thought I might learn greek and hebrew (realizing that my family members likely didn't share my enthusiasm for this) and considered Latin as a readable alternative. I quickly abandoned that route because choosing a copy text for Greek made me indecisive and before I knew I would be reading Metzger's critical text along with the Bible. This was, after all, a family Bible, not a scholarly project.

In the end it was the King James Version and I pinched my nose as to whether it was the 1611 version or any myriad of past edits. It is today a beautiful heirloom and I think I made the best choice given the options.

I'm just lucky that I'm not well versed in typography or I would have had a whole additional vertex in an already complicated decision.
posted by dgran at 6:54 AM on July 14, 2011


If I was a Christian I would learn Greek.

I know people who did that. Down that road lies a certain madness even beyond what an atheist may think of as the madness of religion.

adipocere summed up my feeling. I love the beauty and the poetry of the KJV, and it is, having grown up Southern, what I learnt religion from as a child. I admire its beauty, but generally prefer to do so from a distance, and in small doses.
posted by immlass at 7:04 AM on July 14, 2011


One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the outraged snarkitude of metafilter abideth for ever.
posted by blucevalo at 7:31 AM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yes, the King James is often beautiful, and there are places where the rhythm is unparalleled, but I suspect that the main thing it has going for it now is that it is old. As the first English Bible to achieve enduring use, it feels like "the real Bible" to many people.

If you are an educated atheist interest in maintaining a common store of mythic references, then of course the King James is the obvious choice, and I agree that all English-speakers, regardless of their views on religion, ought to be familiar with the KJV in order to be fully conversant with their own literary history. The KJV stands beside Shakespeare as the great shapers of our language (or tongue, as they would say.)

But practicing Christians are going to want not necessary the most beautiful or the most established translation, but the one that best conveys the meaning of the original writers. And there is no good argument that the KJV does that. We have better, older manuscripts than the KJV committee had, and much more work has been put into collating them and preparing critical editions. There's really no question that if you want to know "what is Paul (or whomever) is saying here" there are much better choices than the KJV. And what the authors were actually saying is something that Christians obviously want to know.

Although it would seem to make sense that having the Bible in ancient (to our ears) language might make it easier for a person who hear it as mythic rather than historical, the reality that the most hard nosed, unwavering fundamentalists are the people most likely to cling to the King James Bible. Some of them have built doctrines around the bad translation choices made therein, not least of which is the mistranslated "virgin" in Isaiah. There are numerous other places where the KJV committee got it right, but language changes over four centuries have obscured their meaning. I don't know how many sermons I've heard that mentioned "abstain from all appearance of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and took it to mean "avoid all situations where it might appear to another person that you are doing something wrong"--primarily applied to keep teenagers out of parties where there is alcohol, whether or not they indulge--when what the verse actually means is wherever evil appears, whatever form it takes, avoid it. Jesus himself was known for associating with the notorious "sinners" of his day, and had a reputation as for overindulgence because of the crowd he was seen with. But he did something harder than avoiding situations where someone might misjudge him, actually maintaining his own integrity regardless of who he was with or what the religious folks thought about his associations.

What Hitchens doesn't appreciate (in either sense--he doesn't get it and he isn't interested in getting it) is the extent to which replacing the KJV as the primary text in worship has been motivated by a desire to place accurate understanding above flawed tradition, by a willingness to re-evaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information, and by an impulse to let Christianity reshape itself into a form that fits our time and our culture. I guess for some atheists, one religionist is a bad as another, but I rather appreciate those who have said that we will not be restricted to the traditional forms and traditional doctrines handed down by our great-great-grandparents, because we realize that they didn't have a lock on truth, and neither do we.

Modern KJV advocates within the faith tend to be the sort who think that truth was codified in 1611 and there's no need to rethink it now. "I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks, give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:37 AM on July 14, 2011 [21 favorites]


King James Onlyism is an at-times bizarre subculture of Christian fundamentalism. Some strands even believe that the KJV is itself divinely inspired and supercedes the original Greek and Aramaic versions. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church is a famous KJV "Onlyist".
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:41 AM on July 14, 2011


"I am a writer and I'm not a Christian, so the KJV is my version of choice."

Not to pick on the person that wrote this, but it illustrates an issue. The farther I get from my Christian upbringing, the more I see that we still carry a widespread belief that our society is somehow dependent on the Bible, or that it's a foundational document that will someday explain everything, if only we learn how to read it.

Sorry, but I don't think this is a useful way to structure knowledge or build a civilization. Keeping a shrine to a set of ancient texts that's filled with half-truths, inconsistencies and historical revisions (I know! Let's argue about which version is TRUE!), while claiming that there's no relation between church and state, creates a contradiction of ummm, unwieldy proportions. Never mind the fact that a significant demographic believes that this book is the inerrant word of god that takes precedence over the laws of man, and never misses an opportunity to argue that it's the cornerstone of civilization.

What would be wrong with gently setting the Bible aside, and looking to modern thought and the state of the world as it is for our understanding?
posted by sneebler at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2011


> I know people who did that. Down that road lies a certain madness even beyond what an atheist may think of as the madness of religion.

What's mad about it? Jews learn Hebrew. Non-Arab Muslims learn enough Arabic to read the Qur'an. Many Buddhists learn some Sanskrit. Why not embark on a bit more adventurous version of one's faith rather than settle for someone's old translation?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 7:46 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What would be wrong with gently setting the Bible aside, and looking to modern thought and the state of the world as it is for our understanding?

There are perfectly good reasons to keep common cultural myths and stories and language around that have nothing to do with 'modern thought and the state of the world'-- think about what we'd lose of our understanding of literature, or our ability to create meaningful allusions, if we discarded all our memories of Greek and Roman mythology. The same goes for the Bible, but moreso.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:50 AM on July 14, 2011


> What would be wrong with gently setting the Bible aside, and looking to modern thought and the state of the world as it is for our understanding?

Sure! Let me also just toss out all this Tchaikovsky and Bach since we know have Kenny G and Lady Gaga for modern consumption.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 7:51 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


What would be wrong with gently setting the Bible aside, and looking to modern thought and the state of the world as it is for our understanding?

As another writer, a lot of writers like the KJV as literature, and look to it for understanding in the same way they'd look at any poetry.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:52 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


JINX

But yeah, atheist poets love the KJV, because it's beautiful.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:54 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's only beautiful because it's [i]old[/i]. In two hundred years, hipster slang will be beautiful too.
posted by rebent at 8:05 AM on July 14, 2011


My point is that we don't look to either Tchaikovsky and Bach or Lady Gaga for explanations of how reality works, or where knowledge comes from. I'm not suggesting that we can expunge the Bible from the world's library, just that it doesn't have to be on a pedestal in the foyer.
posted by sneebler at 8:05 AM on July 14, 2011


"...a desire to place accurate understanding above flawed tradition, by a willingness to re-evaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information..."
posted by sneebler at 8:06 AM on July 14, 2011


> I'm not suggesting that we can expunge the Bible from the world's library, just that it doesn't have to be on a pedestal in the foyer.

Well, in that case you're pretty much pushing that tired internet argument of "let's do away with religion".
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:09 AM on July 14, 2011


So... To defend the inviolability of a work supposedly ghost-written by God itself, he needs to compare it to the work of a 16th century drunkard's baudy pop-trash?

God gots ta get paid, son.


He's talking about the King James version. Translators gotta get paid.

Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall Comandement.
posted by ersatz at 8:10 AM on July 14, 2011


If hipster slang is beautiful in two hundred years, great. I like beautiful things.

I could get all Serious Business and talk about why it's beautiful, with an example passage, but I'm sure some other better poet has done a better job of it somewhere else.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:11 AM on July 14, 2011


King James Onlyism is an at-times bizarre subculture of Christian fundamentalism. Some strands even believe that the KJV is itself divinely inspired and supercedes the original Greek and Aramaic versions. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church is a famous KJV "Onlyist".

Jack Chick, too, in case you'd like to get that point of view in easy-to-read comic form.
posted by Copronymus at 8:15 AM on July 14, 2011


"Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew."

Robert Alter, “The Five Books of Moses,” quoted in John Updike, The Great I Am: Robert Alter’s new translation of the Pentateuch, The New Yorker, Nov. 1, 2004.
posted by hhc5 at 8:21 AM on July 14, 2011


What's mad about it? [learning biblical Greek]

Aside from learning the language, the hard part is deciding which texts you'll read. There are thousands of documentary witnesses in the New Testament. You can safely narrow it down to a dozen or so widely accepted editions, mostly in the Nestle-Aland versions, but the closer you get to the source less it feels like a cohesive body of work. This makes you second guess every choice you make about what to read, let alone interpret it. It isn't that maddening if take you approach it as a literary critic performing text analysis but if you bring a shred of faith intention along it can be very frustrating.
posted by dgran at 8:22 AM on July 14, 2011


It isn't that maddening if take you approach it as a literary critic performing text analysis but if you bring a shred of faith intention along it can be very frustrating.

I would agree with this statement based on the folks I knew who went that way. But the other thing is that really getting into the text seems to lead away from organized, hierarchical Christianity as we know it, and into small groups like the early Christians. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but, for example, the folks I knew who got involved in discerning $DEITY's will by reading it in the original language started with Berachah Church (which has some interesting theology) and literally ended up in a compound in Colorado. (I don't know where they are now; I lost touch with them when I split with my ex 15 years ago.)

I'm not saying that's the inevitable end for anyone who studies the testaments in the Greek--I took two semesters of Greek in college and the Gospels were our basic text, and I'm not in a compound somewhere--but a serious study of the Bible in the earliest texts tells you how much of what we think of as Christianity is later accretions. Bringing that realization into spiritual practice seems likely to drag a believer out of the mainstream of religion.
posted by immlass at 8:37 AM on July 14, 2011


> I'm not saying that's the inevitable end for anyone who studies the testaments in the Greek

Well, I'd probably end up in some old cliffside hut overlooking the ocean on Mt. Athos if I started chasing rabbits down the hole. Hmmm.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:39 AM on July 14, 2011


"Well, in that case you're pretty much pushing that tired internet argument of "let's do away with religion"."

This is what I'm talking about.
posted by sneebler at 8:57 AM on July 14, 2011


Ok, Chairman.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:59 AM on July 14, 2011


What I would love to see is a contemporary attempt to create a literary Bible to match the KJV in linguistic splendor, but in updated language and with better & more accurate translation. I'm thinking here of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf and Lydia Davis's Swann's Way, both attempts to accurately capture both the meaning and the beauty of their respective original texts.

Given the sheer volume of text in the Bible, it would be best to have multiple authors/translators, which would also lend to the project, I think, given that the text itself has multiple original authors. Think of a Scott Cairns or Li-Young Lee version of the Psalms, a Carolyn Forché Ezekiel, or a Michael Chabon Genesis.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shakespeare apparently wrote what is commonly regarded as his last play, The Tempest, in 1610-11.

If Shakespeare was indeed one of the collaborators of the KJV, I'd expect to find some hint of that in The Tempest.
posted by jamjam at 9:47 AM on July 14, 2011


A reading from the Hipster Bible (Mt 11:21):
Fuck you, Chorazin, and fuck you, too, Bethsaida: if Tyre and Sidon had seen the funky shit I just laid down for you, they’d be kissing my sweet Nazarene ass right fucking now.
posted by No Robots at 9:52 AM on July 14, 2011


Stephen Prickett's Words and The Word: Language, Poetics and Biblical Interpretation has an interesting discussion of the project of modern translations. He contrasts Samuel Taylor Coleridge's approach to the Bible with that of the translators of the 1976 Good News Bible.

From Coleridge's Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit:
I take up this work with the purpose to read it for the first time as I should read any other work, as far at least as I can or dare. For I neither can, nor dare, throw off a strong and awful prepossession in its favour—certain as I am that a large part of the light and life, in and by which I see, love, and embrace the truths and the strengths co-organised into a living body of faith and knowledge ... has been directly or indirectly derived to me from this sacred volume— and unable to determine what I do not owe to its influences...

In the Bible, there is more that finds me than in all other books put together.


From the Preface to the Good News for Modern Man:
The primary concern of the translators has been to provide a faithful translation of the meaning of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Their first task was to understand correctly the meaning of the original...the translators' next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers...Every effort has been made to use language that is natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous.

Prickett:
[Coleridge] was uncomfortably aware how many of his basic cultural assumptions might be derived from the Bible in ways that, by definition, were inaccessible to impartial investigation...

By contrast, the translators of the Good News Bible appear to be afflicted by no such inhibiting doubts...How is it possible "to use language that is natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous," when the Bible is not about things that are natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous?

The modern translators, confident of understanding 'correctly the meaning of the original' text, have in fact shown very little interest in the literal sense of the Bible with its attendant complexity and resonances.

posted by straight at 11:01 AM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm having trouble sourcing this atm, but I read a long time ago that the very word "beautiful" originated from Tynsdale's translation which, as mentioned in the article, formed the basis of the King James text.
posted by spinchange at 11:53 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not suggesting that we can expunge the Bible from the world's library, just that it doesn't have to be on a pedestal in the foyer.

I agree. In my library, it is in the reference section, along with Bartlett, Roget, Gibbon, French-English Dictionary, The Western Garden Book, Smithsonian Taxonomy of Mammals etc.
posted by binturong at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2011


Hip-hop Shakespeare (Shatner style).
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 12:58 PM on July 14, 2011


The KJV's beauty is extremely patchy. Sometimes the writing/translation is indeed beautiful, sometimes it's clunkingly awful. But compared to every other translation I've read (and as an atheist, I've read a few), it's easily my favourite. I hate the numerous attempts to dumb down or "modernise" the text. Not because I'm against modernisation, but simply because I've yet to see an attempt at it that hasn't been largely crass, clumsy, unlovely and/or agenda-driven. And yes, I fully realise the irony of criticising any Bible translation for being agenda-driven.
posted by Decani at 1:23 PM on July 14, 2011


As pointed out above, though, most newer translations aren't simply attempts to 'modernize' the text, but rather to get a closer & more faithful translation. The KJV is pretty shoddy as far as translation goes.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:33 PM on July 14, 2011


The other day, I wished I had an NIV around so that I could search for and quote the funny parts. I tried to find the text on Gutenberg. It wasn't there. I was shocked to learn that the NIV is not in the public domain! Apparently, you can copyright translations. It makes a lot of sense now that I think about it. But still, I thought that people who made bibles wanted to spread the word far and wide.

Well, my mind was boggled. I thought, "the NIV *must* be in the public domain. Or at least there's a low-cost text file I can buy." I went on to #christians or something like that on IRC and asked about it. Y'know what they told me to do? Torrent it!

That's right: The Christians wanted me to steal the bible!

And, since I didn't have one yet, how was I to know that this was wrong?
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:40 PM on July 14, 2011


What I would love to see is a contemporary attempt to create a literary Bible to match the KJV in linguistic splendor, but in updated language and with better & more accurate translation...

There actually have been a few cracks at this. Richmond Lattimore, the Homeric translator, did a New Testament that hews closely to Koine sense and syntax while remaining an impeccable bit of English prose. His best innovation was to remove the chapter and verse markings to a discreet heading at the top of the page, leaving the words to flow unimpeded—as God intended, perhaps.

In his A Literary Bible (reviewed here and here), David Rosenberg, a poet, strived particularly to distinguish the voices of the Bible's authors: Jeremiah as oracular bard, for instance, or the main author of the Pentateuch as a lady scholar in the court of Rehoboam. (This last is a development of an argument first advanced in a collaboration with Harold Bloom called The Book of J). Here's a snip from Rosenbaum's Genesis:
Out of Eden flows a river; it waters the garden, then outside, branches into four: one, Pishon, winds through the whole of Havila, lands with gold—excellent gold, where the bdellium is, the lapis lazuli. The second, named Gihon, moves through the length of Cush; Tigris, the third, travels east of Asshur; and Euphrates is the fourth. Yahweh lifts the man, brings him to rest in the garden of Eden, to tend it and watch. "From all trees in the garden you are free to eat"—so Yahweh desires the man to know—"but the tree of knowing good and bad you will no touch. Eat from it," said Yahweh, "and on that day death touches you."
posted by Iridic at 2:00 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


shakespeherian: "Think of a Scott Cairns or Li-Young Lee version of the Psalms, a Carolyn Forché Ezekiel, or a Michael Chabon Genesis."

Hardly modern, but 17th century English author Mary Sidney created a non-literal translation of the psalms (some of which are here) in rhyming verse toward the end you describe.
posted by Apropos of Something at 2:11 PM on July 14, 2011



So... To defend the inviolability of a work supposedly ghost-written by God itself, he needs to compare it to the work of a 16th century drunkard's baudy pop-trash?


This is a masterpiece. I know MeFi was snarky and snobby, but this judgement on Shakespeare should be framed as a perfect example.

As always, I agree with Hitchens. I'm not religious, but I love the language of the KJV, and its enriched everything from music to literature. 'Through a glass darkly' is such a perfect phrase, and the Bible has a million of them.
I prefer elevated religious-style language to most styles, actually. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:16 PM on July 14, 2011


I took a course where we read the great holy books, and it was instructive. That sense of authority, of dry desert poetry, is amazing. What should replace it? Foo Fighters lyrics, as above?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:18 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At least not without making sure there are some bulrushes in the vicinity.
posted by jamjam at 6:46 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The particular anglophone preference to the King James translation blows my mind. Regardless of its literary merit the tenacity with which its proponents reject modern translations smacks of wanting to keep the religious scriptures arcane and separate from mundane language. It's idolatry, especially in the case of fundamentalist claims that this translation is divinely inspired and impeccable. I presume the qualifications of preachers differs widely from church to church, but it seems a very basic demand to ask that the original texts in Hebrew and Greek is given some sort of study. This should also enlighten the student as to how much dogma is the result of educated guess work rather than divine inspiration.

I wonder, too, how much of the praise for the prose and poetry of the King James translation isn't just a matter of what you've grown accustomed to. You have to accept that King James isn't the authoritative translation, and with that in mind, without any such bias, is it really that much better than all the other translations through the ages? I bet it is in some places, but I'd also bet you that in many other places it's poetry and prose are easily equalled.
posted by cx at 7:00 PM on July 14, 2011


The particular anglophone preference to the King James translation blows my mind. Regardless of its literary merit the tenacity with which its proponents reject modern translations smacks of wanting to keep the religious scriptures arcane and separate from mundane language.

There needs to be SOMETHING that's separate from mundane language.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:03 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lovecraft In Brooklyn: "There needs to be SOMETHING that's separate from mundane language."

God's Secretaries, which Hitchens mentions, makes this point at some length. The language of the KJV doesn't seem different solely because of its age-the translators explicitly were trying to create a grandiloquent sound.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The other day, I wished I had an NIV around so that I could search for and quote the funny parts. I tried to find the text on Gutenberg. It wasn't there. I was shocked to learn that the NIV is not in the public domain!


Go Here:
biblegateway.com

They have:

New International Version
New International Version - 1984
New International Version - UK
Today's New International Version
New International Readers Version

...and an impressive selection of other versions in many languages.
posted by Krapulous at 11:45 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


That site comes in handy if you want to, say, figure out the exact Bible verse each song on The Mountain Goats' 'The Life of the World To Come' is named after. But you'd have to be pretty nerdy to do that!


I used to carry around a physical Bible in my pre-iPhone English major days. Most of what I read referenced the Bible so much it was pretty handy.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:53 PM on July 14, 2011


I used to carry around a physical Bible in my pre-iPhone English major days. Most of what I read referenced the Bible so much it was pretty handy.

Huh? Isn't that like saying you keep a DVD of Star Wars in your laptop because there's so many Star Wars references on the net?

If someone makes a Star Wars reference, you don't go look it up in Star Wars to figure it out. You get it because you've seen Star Wars.
posted by straight at 9:06 AM on July 15, 2011


I presume the qualifications of preachers differs widely from church to church, but it seems a very basic demand to ask that the original texts in Hebrew and Greek is given some sort of study.

Yes, the majority of seminary degrees require some Greek and Hebrew.

I wonder, too, how much of the praise for the prose and poetry of the King James translation isn't just a matter of what you've grown accustomed to.

What an amazing understatement. It's not that individuals have grown accustomed to the prose and poetry of the KJV. The entire English language and literature has grown accustomed to the prose and poetry of the KJV.

If you love language, if you have opinions about what counts as beautiful English prose or poetry, you almost certainly owe some of your standards to the KJV. Part of Coleridge's point in the passage I quoted above is that he realized that the problem of trying to evaluate the Bible is that so many of his standards have already been shaped by the Bible. I think he was talking more from an ethical standpoint, but in the case of the KJV I think it's true from an aesthetic one as well.
posted by straight at 9:17 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What an amazing understatement. It's not that individuals have grown accustomed to the prose and poetry of the KJV. The entire English language and literature has grown accustomed to the prose and poetry of the KJV.

I think, you're right. But that still doesn't make it an especially authoritative or definitive translation. It just makes it a very old and popular one. And the English language has moved on since then. The language of the King James authors isn't the language of the vast majority of anglophones any more.

It's not like the King James translation ceases to exist, just because people use another translation of the bible if they think it's more true to the original. It'll still be exactly the same as it's always been, for people to enjoy.
posted by cx at 7:49 PM on July 16, 2011


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