The enduring power of the King James Bible


First aired on Tapestry (17/5/13)


The Bible, with its numerous translations and editions, is the bestselling book of all time. But one version stands about them all: the King James translation. First published in 1611, the King James translation has become the go-to version for church sermons, weddings and funerals. It's also given the English language dozens of clichés like "land of milk and honey," "an eye for an eye" and "salt of the earth." But why? What does this translation have that others don't?

Gordon Campbell, a biblical scholar and author of Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611- 2011 says it comes down to one thing: the King James Bible is designed to be read out loud. Its language is simple and colloquial, but also dignified and majestic. "Modern translations, many of which are very scholarly and commendable in lots of ways...are all meant to be read silently, privately," he told Tapestry host Mary Hynes in a recent interview. "They don't have a kind of public presence and the key characteristics of the King James Bible."

The committee responsible for the King James version wanted their translation to be pleasing orally for a simple reason: they wanted to be accessible to as many people as possible. In 1611, many people couldn't read; the only way to access the Bible was by having it read to them. "It had to be understood orally and that's where lots of its power comes from," Campbell said. Short words took precedence over long ones and iambic pentameter even appears in some verses (most famously in Adam's line "She gave me of the fruit and I did eat" which also appears in Milton's Paradise Lost). There was a conscious decision to make the King James version memorable and engaging through its rhythm and cadence. "It's in fact that pulse, that rhythm makes it easy to remember and easy to read aloud is what makes it so distinctive amongst translations."

The use of simple words allowed people to have a better understanding of the text and made it much easier to memorize. Campbell points to the line "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" as a prime example. In the translation the King James was based on (known as the Bishops' Bible) this line read as "God is my shepherd, so nothing I shall want." The meaning is exactly the same, but it lacks the power of "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." With changes such as this, the Bible now had "precisely that rhythm that makes it so effective when it comes to reading aloud, and makes it so easy to memorize."

So why, if accessibility was important, was the King James filled with terms like "cometh" and "hath" and "thou" and "thy" — words that were archaic even in 1611? (According to Campbell, these terms fell out of fashion approximately 50 years earlier.) Campbell says this was done because these terms gave the book a stronger connection to Jesus. Jesus didn't speak English, but this throwback evokes a different, more romantic era and it's easy to imagine the son of God using this "reverential" language.

The King James Bible, and its influential and intimate language, has persisted for more than 400 years. But, as culture becomes increasingly secular, what is going to happen to this sacred text? Campbell isn't sure. He knows literature and history professors are reluctant to include the Bible on their course reading lists and fewer people are turning to the Bible for powerful passages for weddings, funerals and other gatherings. "There may well be a 500th anniversary of the King James Bible, but it will be interesting to know who will be attending and whether there still is a passion for it," he said. He does know one thing: if we want the Bible to stick around for another 100 years, we can't just wish for it.

"You can't simply sit round wringing your hands and saying, 'You know, this is a great cultural icon that's being lost,'" he said. "You have to do something about it."

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