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Story of the King James Bible
January 5, 2011 1:27 AM   Subscribe

Story of the King James Bible. There are still a few things BBC Radio 4 does superbly well. Jim Naughtie's current three-part history of the King James Bible is one of them.
posted by Paul Slade (44 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was listening to one of the connected programs where they said that the King James "thee, thou, thine" usage was archaic at the time it was written, and was used to convey the different 'you' forms in Greek and Hebrew (presumably you plural, you singular and you ('one')).

Did anyone hear if they said which was which?
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 2:13 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding officer Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God.
posted by three blind mice at 2:53 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


It IS brilliant. Lovely use of background noise as well. Also v good in its way is Ian Hislop's investigation of the Three Kings, also on Iplayer History. He cuts down the irritatingness and lets the experts speak.
posted by runincircles at 3:15 AM on January 5, 2011


Thanks for the link! Listening to the first part (at 45m each, they are going to take some time to finish..)

On a related note, Shakespeare’s Globe in London will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. As a part of the celebration, they are planning a cover-to-cover reading of The Bible from the Globe stage over Easter weekend.
posted by baejoseph at 3:22 AM on January 5, 2011


There are many things that BBC Radio 4 does superbly well. It will outlast us all; even Tories who hate everything else about the BBC secretly love it.
posted by jaduncan at 3:30 AM on January 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


King James is a mixed bag, anyway you look at it. You can cherry pick the beautiful writing (which has rightfully become part of our common cultures) and convince yourself that it is the ultimate in English language bibles. But there are great swathes of King James that are pure gobbledy-gook, where you can tell the translators are on automatic pilot and just trying to get the job done and go home. Plus -- yes there's the phony archaic langauge, which supposedly is a feature of some of the original writing in the Hebrew bible. I like my old time religion in the New English translation (NEV). King James, like fruitcake, I save for the holidays.
posted by Faze at 4:10 AM on January 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


I agree with Faze. The KJV is my favourite translation because when it's good it's very good indeed, but we shouldn't forget there's plenty of dry, clumsy crud in there too. I've read that version through in its entirety twice, plus large chunks of the Oxford and the New English.

I really don't like the New English. Perhaps oddly I think this is because I first read it while I was still a Christian, and I hated the (to me) clunking, club-footed attempts to "modernise" the language, frequently at the expense of poetry and flow. I mean, just look at the opening of Genesis:

In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.

cf the KJV:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

I felt like I was being talked down to by the New English. You know, the way that even in the very first line they felt they had to explain to me what 'creation' was: "...that was when God made heaven and earth, right?", as opposed to the KJV's powerful, straight to the point "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth". POW. No messing. Man, I even hated the way they ditched the semi-colon. :-)

Anyway, I caught this programme when it was broadcast the other day and enjoyed it a lot. Glad to see it linked.
posted by Decani at 4:39 AM on January 5, 2011


I felt like I was being talked down to by the New English.

Same thing with the end of the verse too - instead of contemplating what the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters would be like, it explains it to you in little-kid terms: "a mighty wind swept over..."

I find that the New King James (NKJV) works pretty well for me:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

- doesn't start the second sentence with an "And"
- darkness is "on" the face of the deep rather than "upon" it (less uppity)
- still has the Spirit but here it "hover[s]" rather than "move[s]" (more Back to Future-ish)

In the end, no English version is ever going to get it spot on - there will always be something lost in translation from the Hebrew and Greek. Not something you can get too bunched up about though, just have to find what works best for you and chalk the rest up to trust.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:58 AM on January 5, 2011


Did anyone hear if they said which was which?

I believe it's actually you-formal and you-familiar (like German Sie and du) and that thee is the familiar form.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:18 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I felt like I was being talked down to by the New English

Ah, but the New English is actually much more closer to the Hebrew text than the KJV. The KJV did a good job in creating its own poetry at the expense of the Hebrew text. What many of the newer translations do (such as the NRSV) is to render the hebrew rather literally in english, causing the poetry inherent in the hebrew to vanish.

The thing about Genesis 1.1-2 is that the very first word in Hebrew has been mistranslated since the KJV as "In the beginning" when it really should be translated as "In-Beginning"; there is no the in the text. The "the" comes from the beginning of the Gospel of John. The Hebrew text actually includes all these "little-kid" terms; to remove them is for the translator to make a decision that these words aren't necessary for the comprehension of the text. But I prefer my translations to have as much of the original language as possible and if I look for poetry, I turn to the Everett Fox's translation of the first five books of Moses which renders Genesis 1.1-2 as

At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters -

That translation makes God move and, in essence, removes God from time which is much closer to the hebrew text.
posted by Stynxno at 5:47 AM on January 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


He must really have been squirming when he messed up "Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion?" so badly.
posted by pracowity at 5:49 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I listened to the first segment. Will definitely listen to at least one more. Very well done. I had never heard the Jamaican fellow's piece about the Macabees for the black man, King James for the white man. Very nice.
posted by bukvich at 6:25 AM on January 5, 2011


There are still a few things BBC Radio 4 does superbly well.

Derail: the quality of BBC output has been up and down all over the place for years but I felt that R4 was one of the few quality constants. Hell, I'd pay the licence fee just for the Today programme and when you add Any Questions, The Now Show, the News Quiz, the Archers and Gardeners' Question Time to the list it's pretty impressive.

Seriously, how many other media outlets can you think of that are so totally at the top of their game in such a diverse range of genres?

Now: back to
posted by dmt at 6:28 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


In Hebrew, the same word means "wind" and "breath" and "spirit" (and, well, "Spirit"). In English translations, we have to make a judgment call as to which of our terms we use, since those are three distinct things to us, which they likely weren't to the ancient Hebrews. (Sometimes I like to imagine that their conception of the world was that all of us are awash in this sometimes-lively, sometimes-calm, sometimes-destructive wind/breath/spirit from God that enters us as we breathe and gives us life, but also can kill. There's a reason that God is depicted as speaking to Job from the whirlwind. But I really don't know if my mental picture is that accurate.) At any rate, whether the Hebrews were thinking "Spirit of God" or "mighty wind/storm sent by God" is a judgment call. I tend to think it was both, but that makes for awkward reading.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:35 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've loved Radio 4 since childhood, and I didn't mean to sound unduly churlish about it in my OP. I suppose the point I was really trying to make was that this programme represents the station at the absolute top of its game - right up there with In Our Time (previously) and a tiny handful of the very, very best stuff it broadcasts.
posted by Paul Slade at 6:48 AM on January 5, 2011


Ah, but the New English is actually much more closer to the Hebrew text than the KJV. The KJV did a good job in creating its own poetry at the expense of the Hebrew text.
posted by Stynxno at 1:47 PM


And for me, the poetry is more important, so long as the essence of the meaning is not lost. I feel the same way about actual literary translations too. It's far more important to capture the spirit and the poetry and flow than to be overly literal, for me. I think the KJV version is simply better writing.
posted by Decani at 7:02 AM on January 5, 2011


There are still a few things BBC Radio 4 does superbly well.

I LOVED 1989: Day by Day. If they licensed it I would buy all the omnibuses as I'm a sucker for that mix of music, archive, hard and soft news. I wish they'd done one for every year of the 1980s, even the dull, non-death of the Eastern Bloc ones.

I accidentally heard some of this last night, but just beforehand was a programme on a blinded policeman learning to adjust to everyday life. It wasn't intended to be moving, more matter of fact (as he was) but just interesting - this man carrying on as far as he could. That's why I like Radio 4.
posted by mippy at 7:10 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thank you. Of great interest to me, I'll have to give it a listen before it vanishes into the ether.
posted by blucevalo at 7:14 AM on January 5, 2011


Richard Dawkins is also a big fan.
posted by CaseyB at 7:55 AM on January 5, 2011


By way of complete derail, I would like to point out that this thread brings me great joy. Just the mere fact that it has been made and has gone well.

I joined over 5 years ago and lurked for a good while before that. MeFi was a different place back then, and like most things, has changed with time. I don't think a post like this would have gone back then like it went now - perhaps I'm completely off base on that, but that's what I think.

MeFi has made me reconsider a lot of things, changed some of my opinions to decidedly more liberal positions, and I think in general softened me to the world in a lot of ways. But it has also hardened me up - the earlier days toughened my skin.

I'm not sure any of that makes any sense at all, but what I'm getting at is that today, I think I can finally say I'm glad I stuck it out. I look forward to MeFi for a long time to come.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:00 AM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus it's good enough for me!
posted by fuq at 8:57 AM on January 5, 2011


(at 45m each, they are going to take some time to finish..)

The episodes are 45 minutes, but the podcasts are only 28 minutes. What's missing?
posted by bentley at 8:58 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A note for posterity: the version available on iTunes is highly edited, with each episode being 27 minutes long as opposed to the 45 minute versions linked here (these full versions are only available another few days). I grabbed them on my iPhone and listened to the first two (the third isn't available yet) and then came back to the discussion here and was baffled at things that some of you are mentioning that didn't make the abridged version. I'm currently re-listening to episode one and marveling at how seamlessly various stories were snipped from what I had heard before.
posted by norm at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2011


Well it's kind if a nice derail! ت. Personally I have felt that no translation into any language of the Bible could ever be fully accurate. This is because at least for the New Testament often the scholars have had to deal with translations of translations. With the Old Testament, there us at least a better state of preservation to work with.
Also so much of how and when transltions of the Bible, both New and Old Testament involved political wrangling. The King James translation and it's story is only what happened in Britain. There were councils which decided which books in the Bible were even going to be included. That means some groups of Christians don't get the same book. Protestants don't get for example the wonderful and mysterious Book of Tobit. Catholics do. Not sure whether Orthodox Christians get the Book of Tobit, but they get a few books neither Catholic nor Protestsnts get.
That said, I never was a fan of making language archaic to convey that some event happened a long time ago. All that does is make for a miserable reading experience.
Translation is more than language anyway, it is knowing something of the culture of the people in the given stories at particular points in time. Knowing their customs of daily life, what they did to cure illness, what they wore, what they ate and what they drank. A tranlator may not wind up using the knowlege to directly translate something but it helps if only in a nice clarifying foot-note here or there. A lot of serious misunderstandings of the stories in the Bible come from even well informed people not knowing some of these things. The point of a good translation is to increase understanding and to be beautiful.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2011


As ships passing through the night, bentley. So far I've noticed mostly additional flavo(u)r-adding stories being snipped, such as an anecdote about the translation of the story of Hebrew midwives and the treatment that it received in the Geneva Bible versus the KJV about whether or not annotation would be part of the translation.
posted by norm at 9:04 AM on January 5, 2011


Ah Tories, when you ask them what there favourite ITV or Sky program is they can't answer "Only the help watches ITV"
posted by Damienmce at 9:04 AM on January 5, 2011


Thanks, norm.
posted by bentley at 9:11 AM on January 5, 2011


Those enjoying the BBC4 derail probably would also enjoy the discussion on podcasts that happened here; I mentioned a few BBC4 podcasts that I enjoy listening to. Thanks for subsidizing my iTunes habit, license payers!
posted by norm at 9:19 AM on January 5, 2011


In the end, no English version is ever going to get it spot on - there will always be something lost in translation from the Hebrew and Greek. Not something you can get too bunched up about though, just have to find what works best for you and chalk the rest up to trust.

Except you don't have to settle for a single translation.

Back when I was high on Jebus, I had two different Parallel Bibles, one with four versions (KJV, Living, NIV, RSV), and one with EIGHT versions (I can't remember what they all were off the top of my head.)

There's something pretty great about having multiple translations of a work like the Bible all laid out before you in parallel, so you can cross reference between different translating teams' work, or even look at a quality paraphrase or two... It helps the non-ancient-languages-scholar reader tease out some of the more subtle meanings which can be lost when only one word is relied upon to convey meaning.
posted by hippybear at 9:24 AM on January 5, 2011


If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus it's good enough for me!

fuq -- you may be making a joke, but I actually had a pastor at a Baptist church in north Texas tell me that once, after he picked up my NIV bible off my lap during sunday school and looked at it when I remarked that a certain passage had shades of meaning which weren't necessarily captured by his well-work KJV.

That was the last time I went to that church.
posted by hippybear at 9:26 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like a lot of Radio 4 programmes in that 9:00am slot, the full 45 minute version gets edited down to 27 or 28 minutes for the evening repeat - and that's evidently the version they've used in the podcasts. The Beeb does a good job with this editing process, but you really need to hear the full 45 minutes for maximum satisfaction.

Oh, and Norm? Forgive me for being pedantic, but BBC 4 is actually a satellite/digital television channel, and quite different from the BBC's Radio 4. Confusing, I know, but there it is.
posted by Paul Slade at 9:28 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Norm? Forgive me for being pedantic, but BBC 4 is actually a satellite/digital television channel, and quite different from the BBC's Radio 4. Confusing, I know, but there it is.

Your socialist moon language is so foreign to me. Thanks for the correction, in all seriousness.
posted by norm at 9:31 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


As long as we're talking about the BBC Radio 4 generally, may I just add that (as a huge In Our Time fan), part 1 of the recent Industrial Revolution show was a little shocking. Bragg and one of his guests, an emerita professor of history, really went at it hammer and tongs. I thought they both had good points but they clearly couldn't bear each other almost immediately.

Bragg's voice when he thinks he's being called racist for emphasizing the role of invention is now my icon for "biting back one's choking anger."
posted by Jorus at 9:41 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love the King James Version. I read Hebrew fluently, but it adds a lot, both to my appreciation of the original and to my pleasure in English language literature, to read passages in the KJV after reading them in Hebrew. I get more out of it now after having read some Shakespeare and in that way gotten somewhat familiar with Elizabethan usages. I use the Cambridge Paragraph Bible, which eliminates two unfortunate features that standardly tag-along with the KJV --the use of italics (which modern readers assume mean emphasis) to mark words supplied by the translators but not strictly corresponding to any word in the original, and the formatting of each verse as a separate paragraph. Beyond that, the Cambridge Paragraph Bible also prints the poetry as poetry, i.e., with line breaks, which is beautiful.
posted by Paquda at 10:45 AM on January 5, 2011


I'm reading through the Old Testament right now (KJV of course), just finished Leviticus and am now well into Numbers. Leviticus was a bit of a slog, glad that's over with (though I'm sure it's an invaluable reference for understanding the complexities of Mosaic law).

Genesis is strange and wonderful, and Exodus is quite epic. Isaiah is absolutely beautiful poetry, though often difficult to parse, and the New Testament is full of all kinds of wonderful language and quotes.

Here's one of my absolute favorites (from James Chapter 1, verse 27):

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

posted by jnrussell at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


My church uses the New King James version, which I have grown to love. Thanks for posting this. I'm looking forward to listening to it later.
posted by janepanic at 11:10 AM on January 5, 2011


There are still a few things BBC Radio 4 does superbly well.

Rural Melodrama!!!
posted by squalor at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2011


Part of the problem with nitpicking translations is that it helps readers gloss over the lousy writing in the source material as well. As Nietzsche quipped: It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he wished to become an author--and not to learn it better.
posted by Hylas at 12:08 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


sodium lights: In early Genesis, thou/thee/thy/thine corresponds to Hebrew singulars, and ye/you/your/yours corresponds to Hebrew plurals, rigorously. I believe that is true straight through the KJV Old Testament, since King James's scholars were fairly literal translators. I haven't looked at the translation of the Greek in any detail, either in the Apocrypha or in the New Testament. If you wanted to check, you could put the KJV next to either Greene's literal translation or Young's literal translation (Young's is out of copyright), both of which are, as their names suggest, more literal yet.

Paquda: Call me contrarian, but I like the italics. They are an elegant way to give a window onto the underlying original without compromising the fluency of the English.
posted by eritain at 12:37 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jorus:

I usually listen to In Our Time as I'm going to bed...sometimes I fall asleep but then I'll just listen to the remainder the next night. That Industrial Revolution episode actually woke me up as the argument played -- I thought somehow the podcast had ended and some crazy talk US AM station had taken over, until I heard the accents.

Shocking.
posted by ltracey at 1:10 PM on January 5, 2011


OK I finished listening to all three segments. I goofed above in implying the Jamaican guy was in Episode 1; he was in Episode 3 which I inadvertently listened to first. If you listened to the short version and missed the thing about the midwives, that was one of the best things in there. I still did not hear an answer to my ask.metafilter question, which I later riffed off into a blog post.
posted by bukvich at 6:36 PM on January 5, 2011


It's nice to read a spiritually and even Biblically-oriented post and not see any snark (yet). The era of of mutual respect from MeFites may indeed not be over. I am very encouraged, considering the various spiritually minded members, such as some posters above and myself, who visit here daily. Thanks. That is all.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 8:00 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


In some meaningful ways, the snark is kind of inherent in the story. "If you had a wife, you'd be happy to worship her with your body, [wink wink nudge nudge say no more]" -- King James The First/Sixth
posted by norm at 11:25 AM on January 6, 2011


IN case anyone is still listening, a good doco is Testament by John Romer. Does the whole thing rather than just the translation, but interesting.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:51 PM on January 8, 2011


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