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The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible exposes the banality of the version we are stuck with

Do we really have to continue reading the tone-deaf, flat-footed Jerusalem Bible at Mass?

By on Monday, 10 January 2011

A first edition of the King James Bible (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

A first edition of the King James Bible (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

The 400th anniversary of the King James, or “Authorised”, version of the Bible is currently being voluminously celebrated by the BBC (apart from the buildings, the delight of hearing it occasionally read in Church is the only thing about the Church of England that I miss).

Yesterday, throughout the day, lengthy (and glorious) passages from both Old Testament and New were read out; and James Naughtie did several programmes last week about how it came into existence. I don’t remember anything being said about the possible influence of the original version of the Douai-Rheims New Testament (which appeared some 20 years before it) on the King James translation. Despite the fact that the Douai-Rheims was explicitly forbidden as a version to be consulted, there are scholars who maintain that its influence can be detected. The later Challenor version of the Douai-Rheims is the one we know today: and the King James Bible was undoubtedly, in its turn, a major influence on that: one scholar even calls it Challenor’s “base text”. Consider this wonderfully taut and sonorous translation of Matthew 3: 13-17, in the Authorised version:

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptised of him.
But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus, when he was baptised, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

All the drama of this cosmic event is powerfully and with great simplicity conveyed by the King James version: and it is maintained in the Douai-Rheims version, which in some of its most beautiful passages is identical:

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptised by him.  But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptised by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfill all justice. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus being baptised, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

“Forbad” becomes “stayed”; “righteousness” becomes “justice”: but those wondrous words spoken by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, are preserved.  The passage I have chosen to quote is, of course, the gospel from this week’s Sunday Mass, and if you didn’t recognise it, there is a good reason: we, of course, have to suffer in Church under the ghastly, tone-deaf, flat-footed mediocrity of the Jerusalem Bible. So, that last sentence is gawkily and prosaically rendered: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.” Even worse, surely unpardonably, the sentence rendered by King James [Douai-Rheims] as “But John forbad [stayed] him, saying: I ought to be baptised by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now”, appears in the Jerusalem Bible as “John tried to dissuade him. ‘It is I who need baptism from you,’ he said, ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being’. I am not making this up: “Leave it like this for the time being” is how this wretched travesty renders what ought to be memorable words, as though our Lord were a car salesman with a special offer, or a politician suggesting some murky compromise. “Leave it like this for the time being”. Strewth! It would be comic if it were not so serious.  The whole of yesterday’s gospel, in all its heartbreaking bureaucratic flatness bathetically runs as follows:

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him. “It is I who need baptism from you,” he said, “and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being: it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” At this, John gave in to him.
As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.”

Some time in the next year or two, the bishops will run out of delaying tactics, and we will be allowed at last to begin using the new translation of the Mass. But if nothing is done, our liturgy will still be disfigured by the Jerusalem Bible. I have a suggestion: that any recognised Catholic translation should be permitted as an alternative. Why not? Why would the bishops want to hang on to the control-freak policy which allows only one version, and that the flattest and clumsiest of all? It’s a real question, and I think we deserve an answer. I would like some bishop to give us one. Why not after this blog? Disqus awaits.

  • Venyanamore

    Exactly. As ever, the (London) Oratory are on the ball here. Some priests use the Jerusalem, some use a more..worthy…translation. Let us bit farewell forever to the happytudes, among other monstrosities.

  • Anthony

    I couldn’t agree more and would personally prefer a Douai-Rheims Challoner-based (re)version that takes on board the latest Catholic scholarship on the Vulgate. I occasionally refer to the Clementine Vulgate Project at but cannot vouch for its provenance. Can anybody out their validate this?

  • Anonymous

    I think we should use the Douai-Rheims, absolutely.

  • John

    I quite like the Knox translation; probably quite an apporpriate version for our times.

  • HyacinthClare

    If you think the Jerusalem Bible is bad, you ought to have to listen to the translation we get on our side of the pond. Paul says in Phillippians 4:11, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, there to be self-reliant.” That’s not bad translation. That’s heresy.

  • jp

    Amen! Well said!

  • Anthony Jordan

    I believe that the Douai-Rheims (Challoner), Knox and RSV were all at one time accepted by the hierarchy for reading in churches; any combination of these would, I think, make for an improvement on the Jerusalem Bible which, as a sometime reader, I agree can be awful. I found that some of the Pauline epistles, for example, required reading through three times or more before I could grasp the meaning sufficiently to be comfortable reading them aloud.

  • Anthony

    Sorry, the site for the Clementine Vulgate Project should read:

  • Sonny

    The NRSV is better than both the KJV and the Jerusalem Bible as far as accessibility and accuracy go.

  • David Lindsay

    Peter Hitchens has been doing some work recently on making the case for the Book of Common Prayer based on its theology rather than on its poetry, but I can only wish him good luck. Where the BCP is concerned, its lobby is in no small measure made up of those who are particularly attached to the later musical settings of it which have not recently become confined to cathedrals and to the chapels of Oxbridge colleges, but which have always been so. (There are particularly naive cradle Catholics who imagine that that is the sort of thing that will be be going on in the Ordinariate. It is not.)

    Even beyond that, the argument is about the language. But the whole point of it at the time was that it was in ordinary speech, specifically designed to be universally understood down to every last word. Peter seems to grasp that point. But, to the best of my knowledge, no other partisan of the BCP does. Quite the reverse, in fact. Made all the odder by the fact that many of us, even in childhood, never did have much difficulty understanding the language of parochial Evensong, which is not remotely like the cathedral or the college chapel kind’s omitted confession and absolution, no sermon, almost no concession to the presence of the congregation in the room, and deliberately unpastoral timing in the mid-afternoon, although it is telling that a collection is still taken. Nor understanding the BCP Communion Services of early Sunday mornings or of mid-weeks. That it was practically Slavonic, which we should sit back and enjoy for the rhythm if we did not understand the words, was always as lost on us as it was, and was intended to be, on the original hearers.

    Bringing us to the King James Bible, rarely read even at parochial Evensongs: the Psalms in the BCP are not the King James, but an earlier translation; whereas the readings for Communion Services, which are King James, are printed in full in the BCP, those for Mattins and Evensong are not, only the Bible references are given. But, again, the King James Bible was specifically designed to be universally understood at the time, and in fact has a history of fostering popular religion. John Wesley changed parts of the BCP to suit his theology, but did not alter the language; his Prayer Book was still in widespread use among Methodists until fairly recently, and may still be in parts of the world, while the Authorised Version was universal, as it was in Nonconformity generally, and as it still is in much of the American Bible Belt and elsewhere.

    Yet in the country of its origin, the argument advanced for it, even for its use in church, is that it is the text preferred by atheist aesthetes. What does it say about it, that that is the case? Is its literary impact even that great, certainly compared to Shakespeare, and no one suggests that he should be read in church? Yes, many modern translations are heavily politicised both theologically and in a wider sense, as are certain lectionary arrangements of their material. So was, and is, the King James. So will any translation always be. All translation is exegetical, whether of the Bible or of anything else. Again I appeal for someone, somewhere to reissue the Missal’s RSV Edition, using by far the most edifying translation of the Bible into modern English. “The Bible as literature” is always, ultimately, a refusal to engage with the Bible as the Bible, at least if one allows oneself to stop there.

    There are theological arguments to be made for the King James Bible, based on its design specifically for liturgical use and in order to aid theological scholarship within the eclessial community as such, based on the authority that Authorised it, and based on fidelity to the Textus Receptus, a position which, whatever else may be said of it, also has adherents in several other language-groups, including a particularly strong following among the Finns. The first of those points is a very good one indeed, to which the answer is the affirmed superiority of other meetings of that same need. The second and third are also theological points, the answers to which are likewise theological. And that, alas, is why they are not the points being made all over Radio Four and the better newspapers at the moment. They do these things much better in America.

  • David Lindsay

    The RSV is better than the NRSV, in that the NRSV has had the masculine pronuns taken out and so forth. But if the Bible is that bad, then why bother with it at all?

  • Fr Bill

    KJV is a bit hard to understand at times. I like the NEB in its non-revised state. It maketh sense.

  • Anthony Jordan

    With respect to the comment regarding a reissue of the RSV edition of the Missal, might it be a project in which the CTS would have an interest? I believe that they issued a Catholicised (if that is a word) edition of the RSV in the 1960s and may retain some rights over it, and they are I think the approved English publisher for the new Missal also.

  • Mmiguel960

    All the fuss about KJV just illustrate how we Europe Catholics naively think that the Catholic Church is located only in Europe! The Jerusalem Bible and the RVS version are rendered in the language that is understandable to all Catholics in the entire world. If you are obsessed with poetic and musical tones of the KJV, it is not too late to convert to Anglicanism. After all, the Church is in the period of weeding out those who do not belong to it in truth and in essence!! Cathy Tendeel

  • Neill

    The RSV 2nd Catholic Edition fits the bill: accurate, intelligible to a modern ear, yet classical in style avoiding political correctness.

  • Mjhobbis

    The question should not be: what sounds nice: Rather where is the Word which God has preserved authentical for the Church. All modern versions viz. RSV, Jerusalem, NSV;are based on five manuscripts rejected by both Erasmus 1516 and Cardinal Ximenes 1514 in their translations as being corrupt. The King James Bible is the only translation to be founded upon the Textus Receptus (received text) in which is contained the vast majority of extant manuscripts (99%) and has been used for over 1700 years right up to the 18th century heretical work of Griesbach et al in Germany, and Westcott and Hort in 19th century England. God only wrote one inspired Word. An evolving Bible like an evolving creation is a contradiction in terms. Proverbs 30:5 says: Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.’ that can only apply to God’s Word; not man’s. The King James Bible was a masterpiece of translation because it was providentially superintended by its Author. The ‘new’ versions today are mostly as one said rather like a letter from the plumber! When we leave this world and swing out over the abyss of eternity we need to depend upon the Word of one who said: ‘Hime that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ Not maybe might be but certainty is what men need, and woe unto them who cast doubt upon the true Word of the Living God.
    Michael Hobbis

  • ryan

    …leave it like this for the time being… You could not make it up! I might buy a copy. And no doubt that sentence was pondered over by its author—I loled. My favourite is the RSV partly because we were given a copy with great illustrations in it, at school.

  • Anonymous

    ” ghastly, tone-deaf, flat-footed mediocrity of the Jerusalem Bible”
    My goodness – you’ll not be on Henry Wansbrough’s Christmas card list! I have to agree though.

  • Terry

    Oh,dear! In my local (Anglican) church we are stuck with the NIV !

  • mags

    The reason for celebrating the 400th. Anniversary of the King James Bible is that the Bible was available for everyone in English for the first time 400 years ago, written in 18th.century language for 18th. century people. I came to faith 50 years ago because of that Bible but the wording is incomprehensible to young people today, nobody speaks in 18th. century language, it’s not taught in English classes at schools, to bring people to faith in the 21st.century we need 21st.century language. Praise God for modern translations.