of days ago I happened to look up at a Bible website various translations of the scene in chapter two of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus eats with the publicans and sinners, and I was appalled at every translation other than the King James (the New International Version, which is the most widely used today, is also the worst). I was going to post something about it. But the below
, sent by a reader, gives a full picture of the horror.
Bottom line: notwithstanding the problems with the Authorized (King James) Version, every modern Christian translation of the Bible in English is not just inadequate, but disastrous. There simply is no substitute for the King James, other than for purposes of reference.
Also, I would point out that Peter Mullen gives the impression that the New English Bible which he criticizes is recent; in fact it was published in 1961-1970, and was updated as the Revised English Bible in 1989. The other modern translations of the Bible he quotes have also been around for a long time, with the Revised Standard Version going back to the early 20th century. The modern habit of going beyond translation and rewriting the Bible goes back to the supposedly respectable RSV. So for example, Psalm 17, verse 10, which in the King James is rendered literally and with unsurpassable metaphorical power as “They are enclosed in their own fat,” in the RSV is re-written as “Their hearts are closed to pity.”
The king of the bibles
As the Queen prepares to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, Peter Mullen pours scorn on some of its modern rivals.
By Peter Mullen
14 Nov 2011
We enjoyed a parish visit recently to St George’s Chapel, Windsor: the Queen’s Chapel. In there was a big sign saying, “Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible”. I must say, it was a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance. For at Choral Evensong, the lessons were both from some illiterate, godforsaken modern version. I knew we were in for trouble from the start when, in the Old Testament lesson, King Solomon addressed the Almighty as, “You God … “—as if the deity were some miscreant fourth-former in the back row. Of course it went from bad to worse.
On Wednesday, the Queen will attend a service of celebration at Westminster Abbey to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The address will be given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who earlier this year urged us to read the King James Bible in order to get a glimpse of what he called “the big picture”. Perhaps this was meant to go with Dave’s idea of “the big society”? This is a strange injunction, coming as it did from a man who has been in positions of power and influence in the church for decades. For in that time the same church hierarchy has ruthlessly suppressed the King James Bible, along with the Book of Common Prayer.
I can add a personal note on this subject. When I came to the City in 1998 I discovered that St Sepulchre’s did not have a lectern Bible in the King James Version (KJV). So I asked St Paul’s if they would lend me one of theirs.
They replied, “Oh yes, and you can keep it. We never use it at St Paul’s, only when the Royal Family comes—awkward people like that.”
The King James Bible is a work of literary and spiritual genius. It is the religious register in English and its words and phrases have penetrated deeply into English literature. You cannot read 10 pages of Dickens or Arnold, George Eliot or the Brontës without coming across wholly integrated resonances of the King James Version. And, of course, English poetry is saturated with it. W H Auden said, as he witnessed the sidelining of the King James Bible: “It was our luck to have that translation made when English was at its strongest and most robust. Why spit on our luck?”
CH Sisson said that all we really know is what he called “the reluctant deposit on the mind’s floor”. That is to say, what you remember when you’ve forgotten everything else. For centuries, people of all walks of life have carried around with them echoes of the King James Version. So to throw it out as the church hierarchy has done amounts to a savage act of deprivation and, as this deprivation is of the Word of God in English, it is vicious iconoclasm. Sidelining the King James Version especially deprives our children and is therefore a notable case of child abuse.
There is no such thing as noble truth expressed in ignoble words. The choice of words determines what is being said. Therefore, we should choose the best.
“Strips of cloth” is no substitute for “swaddling clothes”. And Mary was “with child”—we think of the Madonna and Child—and she had not “fallen pregnant” as it says in one of the modern versions. You cannot satisfactorily replace “through a glass darkly” with the crass literalism “puzzling reflections in a mirror” or “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” with “noisy gong and clanging cymbal”. The King James Bible was designed to be read aloud in churches. All the modern versions sound as if they have been written by tone-deaf people with tin ears and no rhythm.
What level of vacuity is reached when “Son of Belial” (i.e. the devil himself) is rendered by the New English Bible (NEB) as “a good-for-nothing”? As if the son of the devil is only a truant from the fourth form who has been stealing from the housemaster’s orchard.
The real Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The NEB gives us instead, “The first step to find wisdom.” But that is only the way in which babyish primary school teachers speak to their charges. The first step to find wisdom—and then, if you are ever so good little children, I’ll show you the second step. This is infantilisation. Sometimes the New Jerusalem Bible’s (NJB) pedantry, this pseudo-scholarly fascination with all that is merely foreign and obscure, is just silly, as in “You, Yahweh examine me.” But occasionally it is mindlessly un-poetic and banal, as in the substitution of “Acclaim Yahweh” for the mesmerisingly beautiful and timelessly familiar “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. But in one example of supreme idiocy the meaning becomes impenetrable: The King James Version says, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord …” In the New Jerusalem Bible this degenerates into tasteless obscurantism: “If you live in the shelter of Elyon and make your home in the shadow of Shaddai, you can say to Yahweh …” The Revised Standard Version (RSV) loves to parade the translators’ acquaintance with the slightest nuances in the ancient languages but their utter ignorance of what will go into ordinary English. It renders the “giants” of Genesis as “nephilim”—to the confusion, one supposes, of elderly ladies everywhere. And the “two pence” that the Good Samaritan gave to the innkeeper as “two denarii”—lest we should imagine that the currency of the Roman Empire was the same as that of England, pre-decimalisation.
The RSV makes a habit of iconoclasm, as for instance in its destruction of that very familiar phrase: “Arise, take up thy bed and walk.” The RSV says, “Take up your pallet and go home.” Because we must on no account be allowed to imagine that the poor paralytic slunk off carrying his four-poster, we have forced upon us the literalism pallet: and the result sounds like instructions to a sloppy painter.
The NEB also cannot tell the difference between speech that is poetic and metaphorical and speech that is literal and descriptive. That is why for “wolves in sheep’s clothing” we are given instead the pantomime howler “men dressed up as sheep”. We recall perhaps Ulysses’ escape from the Cyclops or that pejorative expression “mutton dressed up as lamb”. In the KJV men are “at meat” or they “sup”; but the RSV mentions a Pharisee who “asked Jesus to dine”—where, at The Garrick or White’s? Likewise, his rebuke to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O fools and slow of heart” is emasculated to become “How dull you are!” How dull indeed. Can you imagine for one minute Our Lord Jesus Christ on the evening of his day of resurrection using such language? “How dull!”
The KJV’s “pearl of great price” is exhibited in more of that infantilised Blue Peter language as “a pearl of very special value”. And then the end of the world itself is described as if it were only an exceptionally hot afternoon at Goodwood: “My dear friends … ” (that is the voice of the NEB’s urbane, housetrained St Peter) ” … do not be bewildered by the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you, as though it were something extraordinary.” The end of the world not extraordinary?
There is a sort of discreet charm about the KJV’s saying, “It ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” This is marvellous. It seems to reach up the underclothes of words, as that other great admirer of biblical prose, Dylan Thomas, said. But the Jerusalem Bible was written in the era of sex education, so it can confidently come straight out with “ceased to have her monthly periods”. And the KJV’s “great whore of Babylon” seems to have lost what is left of her character when the New Jerusalem Bible refers to her only as “the famous prostitute”. Who is this—Eskimo Nell?
With studied pedantry, the New Jerusalem Bible replaces “inn” with “living space”—I suppose because they imagined readers to be so literal-minded that we might think St Luke meant the Rose and Crown. A similar pedantry removes the KJV’s lovely “coat of many colours” and offers us “a decorated tunic”. The KJV translates Psalm 139: 16—a beautiful poem in which the Psalmist declares that God knew him “while he was yet in his mother’s womb—as thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect.” This is allusive, evocative, tender. Unbelievably, the NJB gives us instead, “Your eyes could see my embryo”—as if God were a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
There is a pervading irreverence bordering on blasphemy. The translation of the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer is by Miles Coverdale and he renders the Hebrew, “O let thine ears consider well …” The NJB gives this as “Listen attentively Yahweh”. But is that the way to speak to God? What more is there to be said when we notice that the NJB renders “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” as “Sheer futility. Everything is futile.” That phrase will serve as the motto for all the modern translations: “Sheer futility”.
How hypocritical and sordid of the church authorities relentlessly to suppress the KJV, only to take it out and gawp at it in an anniversary year, as if it were a museum piece and we were all blundering tourists. The proper place for the KJV is on the lectern in every parish church—to be read, marked, learnt and inwardly digested, week in, week out.
The Rev Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael, Cornhill, and St Sepulchre in the City of London.
Matthew H. writes: