Understandest thou what thou readest? Acts 8. 30b 1
When people read the above text from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, they often react in at least two different ways. Some accept that this is an accurate translation of the original Greek text even though the form of the receptor language is not modern English. Conversely, there are those who think that a later translation would be more helpful, because they find that the form of English in the KJV is somewhat obscure and difficult to understand in parts.
These differing views divide readers into two distinct camps, i.e., those who think that a literal or word-for-word translation of the Bible is more important than a translation that seeks to reproduce the meaning of the original text in idiomatic or more natural English. The main criticism of the KJV by many modern readers is that it contains archaic language and is outdated. But these objections are, surprisingly, nothing new. In fact, until Benjamin Blayney modernized the English text of the KJV in 1769, this was the general complaint of most readers of the KJV at that time! The intention of this article is not, however, to weigh up the differences in translational approaches, but, as our title suggests, to demonstrate the linguistic heritage of the King James Bible. One point that should be made at the outset is to correct the notion that the KJV translation had a great influence on the writings of William Shakespeare. In fact, the Biblical texts that appear in his writings are, in the main, taken from the Geneva Bible, since he produced most of his literary work between 1589 and 1613.
C. S. Lewis once said of the Bible, and he specifically meant the KJV, that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure-house of English prose.2 Why then should this version of the Bible have such an influence on the English language more than any other in history? Put another way, what made this translation so critical to the development and enrichment of our native tongue? The answer to this question is both simple and complex. Europe’s lingua franca up to the middle of the sixteenth century was Latin, but the Reformation, and other political changes, provided an opportunity for countries to reassert their own unique national identities. An important part of this process was the standardization of the national language. In many countries, this led to the creation of national academies that were specifically tasked to establish and define the vernacular language of the nation. Providentially, this did not happen in England, where the development of English became dependent on printed literature, especially the KJV. In hindsight, this might be considered as a perfect example of how God plans in history, Gal. 4. 4. Thus, the KJV helped to create a standardized English language that excluded local dialects but, at the same time, enabled the absorption of foreign words and phrases. English is particularly adept at borrowing words from other cultures – it has a certain elasticity of mind.
How far the Bible, and this translation in particular, has impacted on our lives can be seen by the vast number of references that are made to it on a daily basis. According to David Crystal, Biblical expressions are found in all contexts in which language is used, but the most popular domains are politics, economics, football, advertising, and the titles of books, films, pop songs, and works of art.3 So whether we like it or not, the KJV has thoroughly imbued the English language with its pentameters, and the cadences of its sentences. The text of the KJV flows like a river in flood, and is firmly imprinted on the English psyche, so much so that it caused F. W. Faber to write that it was part of the national mind and the anchor of the national seriousness. Without the influence of the KJV, the English language would be bereft of its beauty, its poetic greatness, and, ultimately, its power to communicate the gospel of Christ. May this influence long continue!
Perhaps the last word should be left to Bruce Metzger who states that this version owes its authority and popularity not to royal favour or legal enactments, but – what is far better – to its intrinsic merit and the verdict of English readers in general.4