I am choosing an unusual Lenten discipline this year. In addition to acts of abstinence and dipping back into some Marcus Borg, I am once again embarking on “the Bible Challenge” (reading the Bible through from cover to cover). But this time I am daily reading three chapters of the Hebrew Bible, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament — in the King James’ Version!
Why in the world would I do such a thing? Well, after decades of reading only the most recent translations of the Bible — The Revised Standard Version, The Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, The New Revised Standard, etc. — I felt the need to immerse myself once again in the elegance of the English poetry and prose of the KJV. Certainly I am aware of the fact that more recent translations are more accurate in the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts and that recent scholarship is reflected in these editions which was simply not available to the translators of King James.
Yet I am thoroughly (or should I say “throughly!”) enjoying the melodic rhythms of this classic text and remembering that one of the reasons it seems so ponderous and downright difficult to follow in places is because the translators of the KJV followed pretty much the order of the Hebrew and Greek words of the manuscripts they had available. Sometimes, new (or rather old) meaning can be gleaned from this original word order — or at least, so it seems to me.
Undoubtedly some of the pleasure I am receiving from this exercise hearkens back to the fact that I was an English literature major in college and remember with pleasure reading Shakespeare, John Donne, Spencer and Swift marveling at the sheer beauty of their use of the English language. It is a joy once again for me to relish in, and wrestle with, such literature.
I would never recommend the King James Version (or even Rite One, for that matter) for regular liturgical worship these days. Clarity of thought and contemporary theology is best understood in the language “understanded of the people.” That was the whole reason for translating the Holy Scriptures from their original languages into Latin and eventually, by the Reformers, from Latin into English. People need to be confronted with the “Word of God” in language they understand easily.
But, like browsing through an old photo album and thus immersing oneself in one’s history, from time to time it may well be worth meditating on the words of the venerable King James’ Version of the Bible. Or, at least, this Lent, so it seems to me.