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King James Bible became the English Word, scholar says at BYU

By Chase Larson

Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 15 2011 6:42 p.m. MST

PROVO — The King James Version of the Bible has become a standard of truth and language since its original publication, said David Norton, a scholar from New Zealand's Victoria University at a BYU forum on Tuesday.

In his lecture titled, "The English Word" — alluding to John 1:1 — Norton discussed the creation, evolution and influence of the King James Version of the Bible, now celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication this year.

Described as "at once traditional and new," Norton said King James — whose original edition of the Bible read so worshipfully that he gave a "special commandment" to revise the text — was indispensable in its creation.

"Without him, this version would not have been made nor would it have been so well made," Norton said. "It involved 50 translators from all sides of the Church working in the succession of orderly stages (which) reflected James' ambitions but also his experience."

Only two years previously, he said James had unsuccessfully attempted to create an official new version of the Bible in Scotland. By 1611, however, the king was a seasoned "academic administrator" who knew how to foster a working collaboration between those involved — whom Norton praised for their faithful and scholarly efforts in seeking the truth and gleaning the precise meaning of the original texts in as accurate a way as possible.

"Truly good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; but to make a good one better," Norton said, quoting Miles Smith, one of those involved in the original King James Bible's revisions.

To further illustrate the implications of the new Bible's initial publication, Norton described a potential reaction a priest at the time would have had when first examining the revised text — most likely one of reassuring familiarity with the biggest differences contained within the larger type or more spacious margins.

James didn't want doctrinal annotations in this Bible, which made the King James Version a largely neutral text, he said. That made the translation capable of being utilized by all Protestants without crippling dissent.

Norton also said a theoretical priest from that time period would have been familiar with multiple versions of the Bible — often studying them in Latin and Greek.

"It's worth remembering that our habit of quoting the English Bible exactly only became ingrained in the 18th century," Norton said. "It's a marker of how much we began to think of the King James [Version] as being exactly the text of the Bible rather than an approximation of the Bible."

The actual undertaking of the King James Bible began with William Tyndale translating and publishing the New Testament in 1526, he said. Tyndale's Bible — along with the Cloverdale Bible, Geneva Bible and others — all contributed words, phrases and understanding.

"I think of the creation of the King James as a long process of drafting and revision that was completed by the King James translators," Norton said. "Instead of a single author making a succession of drafts what we have here is multiple authors all engaged in the same grand enterprise and all driven by the same spirit and desire to bring the truth of the scriptures as accurately as possible."

He noted, however, that the collaborative nature of the King James translation does not detract from the efforts of those scholars involved. The translators examined every word of the text and often the decisions not to make changes were as painstaking as actually making them.

Additionally, the "mental world" of the translators was consumed by theology and scholarship with virtually no awareness they lived in a great age of English Literature — working and thinking primarily in Latin.

"Their mental world and their lifelong study of languages helped them communicate the grace and force of the original scriptures with comparable grace and force — and precision," Norton said.

The development and definitive nature of the King James Version took some time to take effect, however. Norton said when it was first published no one hailed it as a supreme translation or masterpiece of the English language — even Archbishop William Lord who was vital in its publication postponed using it as his sermon text until 18 years after its initial distribution.

Finally, after 50 years of attempts to revise or abolish the new text, the King James Bible monopolized the English reading of the Bible, providing a standard of truth and influencing the development of the language for entire generations.

"(It) remains the centerpiece of the Protestant English heritage … (and) deserves to be read because it's a great translation that is especially sensitive to the meaning and expression of the originals," Norton said. "It's well to be reminded that what is being read requires earnest engagement and better still to have a version that so richly rewards this engagement."

e-mail: clarson@desnews.com

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