As the King James Version of the Bible celebrates 400 years, scholars hope for a renaissance
By 1611 the new translation was published, and quickly spread throughout Europe, solidifying English, not French, as the dominant language and securing the ability of ordinary people to read, for themselves, God's words.
"Even with all the beauty of the KJV's language, there are passages in the book, especially in the Old Testament prophesies where the translation is wrong, clumsy, or just plain baffling," said James. "In addition, many of the KJV's readings of the source texts have been superseded in our day by greater knowledge or by better source texts."
These errors or awkward translations don't negate the King James Bible's influence, but they do make it less appealing to those in academia or some religious circles.
In Meyers' introductory Bible class at Duke, she relies on the 1989 New Revised Standard Version, which is a literal translation with increased clarity thanks to the discovery of earlier manuscripts than those available to the King James translators.
"As good as those 47 scholars were, sometimes they just didn't understand the Hebrew," she said. "The Hebrew in many biblical books is very difficult, and they tried, but sometimes got it wrong."
She cites the vision of the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel. One verse mentions "bone to his bone," yet the male pronoun makes no sense in the context. What the Hebrew word really means, Meyers says, is the bones came together.
It's a simple example, she said, but it makes her point that new discoveries, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, provide scholars with greater insights into the grammatical and linguistic structures of the time.
There's also the issue of gender, which appears "on the radar screen for virtually all Bible translations," Meyers said. When a word has been translated as "men," sometimes that's correct, whereas other times, the Hebrew word actually refers to a more inclusive group, meaning mankind or men and women.
"The King James didn't have that kind of sensitivity," she said. "I don't believe that the translation should change to suit feminist concerns and make things seem more egalitarian than they were, because they weren't, but I don't think translations should mask places in which a more inclusive term is there in the Hebrew."
"What was a wonderful translation, the right translation for 1611," Meyers continued, "is not the best translation for 2011."
Rev. Michael Imperiale, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City prefers a more modern translation when he teaches.
"It seems to me that God has always given his word in the language, the common language of the people," he said, explaining that the original Hebrew and Greek texts used a very simple, base form of the language. "Therefore, I prefer to use a contemporary translation, one that is closer to American, spoken English."
Though the King James was the standard for nearly four centuries, now Imperiale prefers newer versions, like the New International Version.
"There are obviously many passages that people still prefer to hear in the King James because of the beauty of the regal language," he said. "However, when it comes to reading God's words for oneself, or sharing it with others, it's best to put it in common language."
Deciding on the best "common-language" translation is nearly impossible, given the abundance of options and the differing viewpoints of readers.
Some translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, are literal translations from ancient texts, while others, like "The Message" are contemporary paraphrases, where verses have been reworked for increased clarity.
There are options like "The Story," a condensed 31-chapter book of the Bible aimed at teens, or the children's "Adventure Bible," published by Zonderkidz which, along with the NIV, includes 20 full-color pages of jungle-safari-themed activities, including "Who's Who?" "Did you Know?" trivia and "Let's Live it!" with suggestions to help kids remember Bible truths.
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