The King James Bible turns 400 this year

I see a 340 year old bible was found in Wisconsin recently.

Some might argue that a 340-year-old Bible wouldn’t have a significant difference from a Bible printed today. But Martin Luther was translating Latin into German. Neither language phrases things the same way as English.

Some of the issues between then and now have also shifted, in significance if not in vocabulary. Translating a Bible printed in 1670 into modern English might give a few shades of meaning not found in today’s editions.

Perspective from 340 years ago, Biblical or otherwise, isn’t always easy to find. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to compare and contrast the texts to see if Martin Luther’s Bible agrees with yours?

Every new translation tweaks meaning and language to better “speak” to whoever the intended audience might be. I don’t have a clue why there have to be so many translations of that book, although I’m sure profit off the prophet has something to do with it. No wonder people can’t agree on anything. They can’t even agree on the exact phrases Jesus might have uttered, assuming it could be proven he uttered any of them at all.

BBC News has an article about the KJV and its impact on language, specifically the common turns of phrase we’re in the habit of using that originate from it.

while a 2009 survey by Durham University found that only 38% of us know the parable of prodigal son, a recent book by the linguist David Crystal, appropriately called Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, counts 257 phrases from the King James Bible in contemporary English idiom.

Such statistics take us back to days of old when this Bible was the daily reading of millions of people throughout the English speaking world, from Northamptonshire cobblers to US presidents – though not perhaps so far distant in the latter case.

Readers absorbed its language both directly and through other reading. Tennyson considered Bible reading “an education in itself”, while Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”

I’d rather read Tennyson or Dickens.

Awareness of biblical influence is useful when reading, though, since many authors – especially in the past – would make inferences to various bible bits that would only get caught by people familiar with the source. But writers have a habit of doing that anyway. Poets often referred to the work of their peers in their own writing, taking it as a given that their readers would catch the clues. Philosophers, essayists, probably everyone was doing it to some extent. We are a product of our experiences, after all, so in the past when everyone was experiencing the bible on a daily basis, it was inconceivable that authors wouldn’t make reference to it in one way or another. If hundreds of biblical phrases wound up in the secular vernacular, it’s because the writing itself was good and clever enough to remember and quote verbatim, just like Shakespeare’s work has been.

Crystal discovered that only a small minority of those phrases were original to the KJB, most of them being copied from earlier translators, above all William Tyndale.

“Only 18 of that total were unique to the King James Bible. It didn’t originate these usages, it acted as a kind of conduit through which they became popular. Tyndale was the number one influence.”

He also found that the Bible coined few new words. Shakespeare by comparison, introduced about 100 phrases into our idiom, to the Bible’s 257, but something like 1,000 new words. The English Bible introduced only 40 or so, including “battering ram” and “backsliding”.

Crystal points out that part of the reason for the lack of ingenuity came from the determination to keep the translation as close to the original phrasing as they could manage, which is how some odd Hebrew idioms became cliché.

“The translators seem to have taken the view that the best translation was a literal one, so instead of adapting Hebrew and Greek to English forms of speaking they simply translated it literally. The result wouldn’t have made all that much sense to readers, but they got used to it, and so these fundamentally foreign ways of expressing yourself became accepted as normal English through the influence of this major public text.”

So I guess in terms of bible reading, those who torture their eyeballs (a word credited to Shakespeare) with the flowery scripture found in the KJV are much closer to the source material than those who take the easier roads to heaven, the ones who don’t feel like explaining the references to dragons and unicorns.

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