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The King James Bible, like the new Mass translation, would have been condemned as ‘inaccessible’

Both translations seek to avoid “Gas Board English” and create a suitable language to express transcendent truths

By on Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, poses with the 400-year-old King James Bible (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, poses with the 400-year-old King James Bible (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)

This year we are all supposed to be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, otherwise known as the Authorised Version. It is four centuries since King James VI and I (as he should properly be called) commissioned what was to become the standard English translation of the Bible. Of course the King James Bible is a Protestant Bible, and its publication stirred the Catholic Church into producing the Douai Bible for English Catholics, or so the story goes, but in fact the Douai Bible precedes the Authorised Version by several years, and may well have been an influence on it. Again, while the King James Bible dates from 1611, it drew on the work of Miles Coverdale and William Tyndale, who had worked about 80 years earlier. Moreover, as I have discovered through reading an excellent book produced to mark the anniversary, this drawing on older sources was done quite deliberately. In other words, the translators of the King James Bible did not want to use up-to-date English, but deliberately chose archaic language.

The book I have been reading is called Celebrating the King James Version and consists of a series of devotional readings and commentary by Rachel Boulding, who is the deputy editor of the Church Times. The book makes a good case for the idea that the King James anniversary is more than just a matter of Anglican celebration; insofar as the King Kames Version is a masterpiece of English prose, it is to be celebrated by everyone who speaks the language. The King James Version shows us to what heights language can rise. It is the opposite of what Ms Boulding calls “Gas Board English”.

Ironically, though of course he would not see it that way, even Professor Dawkins is celebrating, though he does warn us that “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource”.

The mention of Gas Board English is particularly significant for Catholics right now, facing as we do the imminent new translation of the Roman Missal. As the bishops’ recent pastoral letter made clear, the new translation is trying to do what the King James translators did so well, namely create a suitable language that will express transcendent truths. This is by no means easy, but it can be done. It is interesting to note that those who seemingly oppose the new translation would presumably also have opposed the King James Version as archaic and no doubt “inaccessible”: but, and here is the key point, the King James Version, which has lasted 400 years, is anything but inaccessible. It has been a huge success, and opened up the Bible to countless generations.

Let us hope that the new translation of the Roman Missal may do the same and open up the transcendent mystery that is the Mass to people of our own time, as well as to many generations to come.

  • Stewart Griffin

    “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource [The Bible]”.

    If I did not know better I would have thought this satire.

  • Annie

    Did Dawkins really say that? ROFL!

  • Oliver Goldsmith

    Of course the big difference is that those who produced the KJB were scholars and accomplished men of letters who understood the nature of translation and sought to express the original texts in English, not produce a paraphrase from Latin. Hence the KJB is a masterpiece of English prose, while the new tr. of the Mass is an ugly abortion.
    Is it not time we dropped the nonsense of Protestant Bibles and Catholic Bibles? Many Catholics I know prefer the KJB to “Catholic” Bibles. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Good points! Tyndale I gather translated the Roman Canon into English…. I know that Dr Oddie once spoke of it.

  • Lee

    It is this kind of English which should be in everyday English as it it fully conveys the feelings, emotions and nuances which are now mising from our once beautiful language. God Bless England and the UK.

  • Archon1

    Father Lucy Smith rightly points out the little known fact that the AV borrowed from the earlier Catholic Douai/Rheims version. This was admitted y the editors of the RSV version, the spiritual heir of the AV. Having acknowledged the various protestant versions that preceeded the AV they go on:
    “In 1582 a translation of the New Testament, made from the Latin Vulgate by Roman Catholic scholars, was published at Rheims.The translators who made the King James Version took into account all of these preceeding versions; and comparison shows that it owes something to each of them.”

    Michael Masterson

  • Oliver Goldsmith

    I believe it was Miles Coverdale who translated the Roman Canon. Dr. Oddie’s book ‘The Roman Option’ included the text of it.

  • Anonymous

    If you were to tell Ian Paisley that the KJV was based on the Douai-Reims, he’d die just so he could turn in his grave.

  • Donald951

    Actually, it’s the Rheims New Testament (1609) that preceded and influenced the King James; the Douay Old
    Testament came later. (BothTestament translations taken together are known as the Douay-Rheims.)  

  • Parasum

    It may be worth pointing out that the Authorised Version – is it really necessary to adopt the American name for it ? – was not universally welcomed when published; & it was sufficiently unintelligible, or otherwise unsatisfactory, to be preceded by a considerable number of private translations before the Revised Version of the NT was published 270 years after the AV was first printed. The RV was itself soon followed by translations into less archaic English.

  • Parasum

    This may be of interest, from archiveDOTorg – The part of Rheims in the making of the English Bible – James G. Carleton (1902):

  • Parasum
  • Michelle Eves

    The KJV is translated from the original Greek / Aramaic records. Nothing to do with Latin bibles which itself is a translation from the orginal text. 

    There is no contemporary evidence the CD was ever used in our KJ translations and every evidence tjhe former was totally rejected.

  • Mctalbert

    What I have seen of the new (most of ot harks back to the translation in my 1962 St. Joseph Missal) the changes seem to be mostly change for the sake of change. Some I love, like returning to the Biblical phrasing, “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, bust say the word and thy servant shall be healed.” But there are some that leave me totally confused. The older r has the father and the Son as “one being” becomes a words that I with 90 post-graduate hours of study including a MPS from Loyola New Orleans never encountered before. That one word serves to make the faith less accessible. The other words, or even the words “one substance) would have served. It reminds me of the liturgical chan ge from the christmas Liturgay yearts back from “There was no room at the inn,” to “There was no room at the place where traqvelers lodged.” We need to be communicative, as Christ was.