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Happy (400th) Birthday KJV!

February 5, 2011

The “King James Version/Bible” (AKA the “Authorized Version”) was published in 1611, and so this year marks the 400th anniversary of this, the most widely-read version of the Bible.  On 02 February, I delivered the 2011 Ethel Wood Lecture in King’s College London:  “The King James Bible and Biblical Scholarship,” my own modest contribution to the observance of this anniversary.

I laid out three main points.  First, the KJV was the product of biblical scholarship of its time.  Although it is prized as a work of English literature, and as the form in which countless people have pondered, preached, prayed over, and puzzled about biblical texts, it is also an impressive scholarly work in its own right.  The translators were told to compare numerous previous versions (especially English versions), but also to make every effort to render accurately the Greek and Hebrew “original” texts available to them.

Second, I propose that the KJV was a major medium of, and contributor to, the spread of popular knowledge of the Bible among English-speaking people, and also the spread of popular interest in the work of biblical scholars.  Especially in the 19th century, people were fascinated with scholarly information emerging about the lands of the Bible, and about biblical manuscripts earlier than had been known previously.  I contend that this popular interest in the Bible was a major factor in the emergence of Biblical Studies as a discrete discipline.  (And I propose further, that the continuing readiness of colleges & universities to invest resources in teaching posts in the discipline will depend heavily on whether this popular interest continues.)

Finally, I discussed the irony that developments in biblical scholarship, especially in the 19th century, led to a growing realization of the scholarly shortcomings of the KJV.  As a major example, the development of New Testament textual criticism in the 19th century produced incontrovertible evidence that the Greek editions on which the KJV translators had relied on were based on late manuscripts whose texts included numerous readings that were secondary (some of them major, such as the “long ending” of Mark, and the episode of the Adulterous Woman found in John 8).  In sum, the KJV contributed to the rise and spread of biblical scholarship, which in turn revealed problems in the KJV.

But, though based on late and inferior manuscripts, and though its language is now seriously archaic (and so can be easily misinterpreted by modern English speakers), the KJV is a great monument to biblical learning and to the commendable aim of making the Bible available to people in their own language.  It has also contributed numerous expressions used in everyday English, some 60 or so from the KJV translation of the Gospel of Matthew alone.  So, Happy Birthday, KJV!

For information on the KJV and on the many events being held as part of the 400th anniversary (especially in the UK), see the following site:

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  1. Isn’t historical work part of a feed into hermeneutics, eg as archaeology and research on the lexical range of words on papyri also contributes?

    • Well, I guess it’s all what you mean by “hermeneutics/hermeneutical”. In the case of the Bible, I take these terms to refer to the questions about engaging the text for meaning today. Hopefully, knowledge of language, historical situation of the text, etc. would feed into this, but the effort to identify the earliest stages of the NT text isn’t a “hermeneutical” question as I use the term.

  2. Dear Larry
    This is really interesting. Do you think there is any sense in which the move KJV–>biblical scholarship–>textual criticism–>dissatisfaction with KJV could be seen as an example of the ‘hermeneutical spiral’?

    • Hmm. I don’t think so. It’s not an instance of *hermeneutical* work, but of plain old historical/scientific discovery, and then taking stock of results.

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