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Q&A: King James Bible has strengths that many other translations lack, prof says

WHEATON, Ill. (BP)–Leland Ryken is a Christian and an English professor, so perhaps it’s a given that he would love the richness of the King James Version Bible translation — so much so that he wrote a book to mark the 400th anniversary of its publication.

But Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, isn’t a King James-only believer, and his service on the translation oversight committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) puts him in a unique position to critique the King James Bible, the most printed book in history. (He was a literary stylist for the ESV committee.)

Much has been gained by having new translations, Ryken says, but much has also been lost. Scripture memorization, for instance, took a hit when multiple translations came on the scene, he believes.

Ryken, author of “The Legacy of the King James Bible” (Crossway, 2011), spoke with Baptist Press about the King James Version. Following is a partial transcript:

BAPTIST PRESS: The King James Bible was not the first English Bible. Why, then, was it far more popular than its predecessors such as the Tyndale Bible and the Geneva Bible?

LELAND RYKEN: Starting with Tyndale, there were six English Bibles that preceded the King James Bible of 1611. I would describe those six translations as a single communal effort. Yes, they were carried on by distinct committees and individuals, but each one of those translations built upon its predecessors. There was a process of refinement going on, so that the King James Bible reaped the benefit of those earlier translations. And I would have to credit the King James translators with having what one scholar called “a sure instinct for betterment” — that is, they did the tweaks that really brought it to its climax. So the King James Bible was great because of what preceded it.

BP: I have read that it took several decades for it to catch on in popularity. Is that true?

RYKEN: We live in a day of debunking. The main opinion is that the King James Version was unsuccessful upon its publication. That is not what my research uncovered. It was not an immediate sensation, but it was, in my view, an immediate success. It went through 182 editions in its first 35 years. That’s a success story in my view.

BP: It was written, at least partially, for public use for oral reading. What does that involve, and how was it successful?

RYKEN: First of all, it said on the first page, “This Bible was intended for reading in the church.” What it means is that the translators lived in what we would call an oral culture. It was in the process of becoming a print culture, but wasn’t quite there. That means that they just had ears that were tuned to rhythm and cadence and flow so that, to this day, I think the King James Bible is matchless in its cadence and its flow. It just reads well, and modern translations that follow in the lineage of the King James Version can also partake of that quality.

BP: You already partially answered this question: What are some ways you think the King James Bible remains superior to modern translations, and maybe some ways that you think it is inferior.

RYKEN: It is supreme in its fluency, first of all. Secondly, we just have to praise the King James Bible for its language and style. It’s not easy to find the adjectives to describe it, but it’s elegant and it is dignified…. The language is beautiful. Quite often the language is quite simple, but the effect is majestic and moving.

BP: What do you mean by fluency?

RYKEN: It flows smoothly when read aloud. If we take a modern colloquial Bible, the moment someone starts reading it in public, it does not flow well; it’s flat. It particularly comes out when a whole congregation starts to read it.

BP: Are there any ways that you think modern translations are superior to the King James Bible?

RYKEN: Yes, the language of the King James is archaic. I say that even as someone who teaches Renaissance literature. It is a really difficult read for me. And, secondly, I think we have to acknowledge that scholarship has advanced a lot in the last four centuries; the King James is not the most accurate translation.

BP: Was it written in the language of the day?

RYKEN: Yes, I think it was, but given a continuum that always exists in a culture, it was on the more formal end of the continuum. Certainly it was not in the idiom of spoken or conversational English. But in the register of written English of the day? Yes.

BP: What impact did the King James Bible have on succeeding English translations?

RYKEN: It had the playing field to itself until the mid-20th century. Beginning then, there have been three English translations that have consciously tried to retain all that was good in the King James Bible while updating the scholarship, grammar and language. The first of those was the Revised Standard Version, then the New King James Version and then more recently the English Standard Version. All of those retained the essentially literal philosophy of the King James translators, and they consciously appropriated what is excellent in the style of the King James Version.

BP: What do you mean by the style?

RYKEN: I mean the register of language — that it remains elegant and not colloquial, not dressed down, not reduced to a sixth-grade level, which is very common in the easy-reading modern translations. It is possible to retain the phraseology, the sentence flow, the rhythm of the King James Bible in a modern translation. It can be done.

BP: What has been lost by having multiple translations and not having a common English Bible?

RYKEN: Everything has been lost by our loss of a common English Bible. Christians and the public at large no longer know what it means when we speak of the “the” Bible, whereas for three centuries everyone knew what that meant. I think it has taken away the incentive to determine what an accurate translation is. If we look around a group and we have six different translations, the sentiment readily sets in, “Well who is to say which one is right?” And we finally give up the quest to find out which is the right one. Also, Bible memorization became very difficult, and in many churches became a lost cause.

BP: So Bible memorization was assisted by having a common Bible?

RYKEN: Absolutely. It comes back to this matter of fluency. The King James is filled with memorable phrases.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Join Baptist Press’ Facebook page or Twitter feed to comment on this and other articles. Visit facebook.com/baptistpress or Twitter.com/Baptist Press.

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  • Michael Foust