By Raymond F. Person, Jr.
Ohio Northern University
Professor of Religion; Chair
Department of Religion & Philosophy
In November, I attended a roundtable on the significance of the King James Version hosted at Rhodes College as a part of its celebration of the 400th anniversary of what has been described as “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language” [http://www.rhodes.edu/shakespeare/19894.asp]. The roundtable participants were an interdisciplinary group that included Brian Cummings, Hannibal Hamlin, Naomi Tadmor, Ena Heller, Vincent Wimbush, and Robert Alter. Also, the Rhodes College library hosted the traveling exhibition “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Version” organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the American Library Association [http://www. manifoldgreatness.org]. The roundtable and ex-
hibition were excellent opportunities to reflect on the significance of the Kings James Version and of translations in general.
There is certainly no question that the Authorized Version was one of the most scholarly English translations of the Bible when it was published in 1611 and that of all of the English translations it has had the greatest impact on literature, political rhetoric, film, and other cultural expressions. Moreover, given the fact that no single English translation will likely ever have the kind of monopoly that the KJV had, I suspect that no other English translation will ever have a greater impact on culture.
The fact that no current English translation has such a monopoly (and my hunch that no future English translation will either) is in my opinion a good thing for the study of the Bible, even though it may be a bad thing for the influence of the Bible in other cultural expressions.
The fact that the KJV had such a monopoly has had some unfortunate consequences. The translators understood themselves as being in a long line of translators, both drawing from early translations such as the Bishops’ Bible and assuming that there would be a need for future translations as historical and linguistic circumstances and our knowledge about the biblical languages and texts change. Therefore, they would have been surprised that their translation was dominant for so long. Nevertheless, the extended dominance that the KJV had has led to some ideas that they would certainly find objectionable—for example, it does not take one long to search the Internet for fundamentalist churches and individuals who advocate that the KJV is the “inerrant word of God” or at least the only English translation that “preserves” the “inerrant word of God” in translation. Even, if the following quote is apocryphal—“If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me”—it nevertheless characterizes a way of thinking about the language of God that is not inconsistent with the notion that the KJV is the “inerrant word of God.” Such absurdly indefensible positions would be significantly less common (if not altogether lacking), if the KJV had not had such a dominant influence in the English-speaking world. I also suspect that, as time goes by, due to the popularity of other English versions, even among fundamentalist Christians, such positions will diminish, even if they do not disappear completely before the 500th anniversary.
Sometimes I bemoan the fact that Christians have a different relationship to their scripture than Jews and Muslims. For example, English translations of the Quran are not considered to be scripture because they understand that every translation is an interpretation and they insist that devout Muslims learn to read the language of Allah—that is, Arabic. In Jewish synagogues, thirteen-year-olds generally learn at least enough Hebrew to read aloud the text in worship. It seems to me that, if more Christians could read their Bibles in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (or even just one biblical language), they would have a better understanding of value of Bible translations. Unlike Muslims, I’m not willing to assume that the biblical languages are in some way more so God’s language and I think such thoughts about scripture too often lead to literal interpretations of scripture that distorts the truth about God’s word. In fact, if more Christians could read the biblical languages, they would be able to see firsthand how difficult it is for anyone to claim that they know exactly what God’s specific words are and what those very words mean. Christians would also have a better understanding that some translations are better for some purposes versus others—for example, translations using inclusive language may be better for worship and those that preserve the patriarchal biases of the text may be better for academic study.
Admittedly, with no particular English translation being dominant now, allusions to and quotations of the biblical text are less likely to occur in literature, film, etc. At the same time, since fewer Americans are practicing Christians and fewer practicing Christians know much about the biblical text, such a decline in biblical allusions in culture would likely continue even if one translation becomes dominant. But even this decline in influence may nevertheless be positive, in that a greater percentage of Americans might learn more about, for example, Moses from actually reading the Book of Exodus (even in translation) than from Charlton Heston or Steven Spielberg.