Holy Bible, King James Version

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Saxony, and the Protestant Reformation was born. According to Luther, it was faith alone that would bring salvation and he believed that people of faith could commune directly with the Most High through prayer and by reading the Bible. The Roman church’s version of the Bible (Vulgate) was in Latin, which most churchgoers did not understand, and the reformers made it a priority to make the Bible accessible to everybody.

In the 1380s, Englishman John Wycliffe had argued that the Good Book should be made accessible to people in their own tongue, an undertaking that landed him in court, and led to laws making translating or even reading the Bible in the vernacular a capital transgression (laws under which Wycliffe’s own body was dug up and burnt), and even though Henry VIII had broken away from Rome, he was outraged by the ideas of Luther. It was in other words still dangerous to  engage in Bible translations when William Tyndale began his project in the early 1520s. Tyndale knew eight languages, notably Greek and Hebrew, which were virtually unknown in England at the time. He also had a strong sense for wonderful phrases and knew the Bible inside out. And, as he saw it, Henry VIII’s divorce of Katherine was not sanctioned by the Bible – a notion that he made public. And that was his death sentence.

But the work outlived the man. In 1604, King James decided that one uniform translation should be produced, and well over 80 percent of the King James Version’s New Testament was in fact the work of Tyndale.

The Bible translation was built on a spare and simple vocabulary, and it was a Bible to be read out and listened to. The King James Version’s impact on the English language and literature is simply awe-inspiring – it has, e.g., contributed 257 idioms to English, more than any other single source – but as in any translation, there are aspects of the sources that are not captured (a fact the translators of 1611 recognized).

The challenges that come with a Bible translation are enormous. For one thing, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but his words were saved in Greek. Furthermore, the Tyndale translation was based on a rendering by Dutchman Erasmus, who in his turn partly used a single twelfth century manuscript that is one of the worst manuscripts available. Erasmus also turned to the Latin Bible of the Roman church, and thus translated that text back into Greek, thereby creating some textual readings that cannot be found in any surviving Greek manuscripts.

But none of this devalues the poetic power of the King James Version. And as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican Communion, has pointed out, “a good translation will be an invitation to read again, and to probe, and reflect, and imagine with the text. Rather than letting me say: ‘Now I understand,’ it prompts the response: ‘Now the work begins.’ ”

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