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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The King (James) and I

(Editors note: The images in this article have been removed as permission to use was limited)

I am sixty-two years old and grew up in the churches where my father was a progressive and ecumenically active American Baptist pastor. This means that my regular exposure to the King James Version of the Bible ended when I was eleven and the KJV was two-hundred-and-eighty-two. The first Bible I got from my church school was the KJV, but the first Bible I got from my parents was the American Version, the Smith-Goodspeed Bible. This is a clue that while the King James was admired in my house it was hardly venerated, and my parents already suspected that the modern translation would be helpful when I not only wanted to memorize Scripture but to understand it.

I remember two events in our church when I was about eleven. One was the celebration of the publication of the Revised Standard Version and the other was a visit to our pulpit by Edgar J. Goodspeed, the New Testament scholar and translator, who served on the RSV Committee. I think the two events may have been connected. Whether that was the case or not, the RSV soon became the default Bible both at church and at home.

All this is to indicate that my interest in the King James Version is not driven either by nostalgia or by theological commitment. I am nostalgic, of all things, for the RSV, which I think (as my grandparents thought of the KJV) better captures the rhythm of admirable English than the NRSV. Having taught and studied Bible for many years I am well aware that Mark wrote more like Micky Spillane than like Shakespeare, but even as a boy I liked Shakespeare's English better than Spillane's.

I am also aware that the current attachment to the King James is often driven either by a doctrine of inspiration that I do not share or by a deep attachment to the Bible as literature. Since I have given my adult life to studying the Bible as a source both for faith and for historical investigation, and since I continue to read Shakespeare when I feel a need for Elizabethan English, I don't feel the loss as much as some of my fellow preachers, readers, and scholars.

My last memory of memorizing the KJV is not surprisingly a memory of a Christmas pageant at the First Baptist Church of Evanston, where I was the narrator and had the obligation of presenting the King James version of Luke's nativity story whose most memorable line was: "and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid" (Luke 2:9).

Years later as a preacher I discovered a particular richness of the King James text. Its combination of familiarity (at least for the geriatric generation like me) and oddness (for almost everyone) helps us attend to the word. There is nothing wrong with the RSV "they were filled with fear" and something quite direct about the NRSV "they were terrified," but neither one captures the mixture of awe and terror like "they were sore afraid." Of course the King James translators didn't mean by "sore" what we mean by "sore," but their translation feeds our word play. Sore afraid: so scared that we ache. Congregations know what that means; sore afraid of God and sore afraid of all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, too. That preaches at Christmas.

I can suggest another more frivolous example. "Suffer the little children to come unto me... " (Mark 10:14) of course has nothing to do with suffering, but every inclusive congregation sometimes has to suffer through the presence of little children in order to get through the worship. Maybe our loud complaints about their noisiness are just our NRSV version of the KJV annoyance of the disciples.

Here is a last instance. When I preach on the text of the prodigal son and I read from one of the newer translations, I find it impossible in the sermon when I get to an explication of Luke 15:13 not to revert to the King James as a commentary on the more prosaic readings: "and there wasted his substance with riotous living." No congregation I know fails to get that.

There is an exegetical principle here that I hesitate to say too clearly. Sometimes when given different translations as possible texts for preaching, there is a question only slightly less important than "What did the text really mean?" or "What is the theological implication of this text?" The question is: "What will preach?"

More central to my preaching than the deliberate use of King James archaisms to explore meaning is the use of the King James as the familiar text at times when familiarity breeds comfort.

There are reasons why many of us are still more comforted in Sunday worship when we say "Thy Kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10) instead of "Your kingdom come" (NRSV, NIV). It is not, as I thought in my childhood, that "thy" is more honorific than "your" and so is appropriate to use for God. Nor is it, as I learned when I got older, that "thy" is historically like the more intimate French tu bringing us closer to God than the formal vous. It is rather that (especially for creedless Baptists) the KJV words are the words that my parents and my grandparents said when the pastor gave the cue: "Now we are bold to pray" If the Church is a community that transcends time as well as space, once in a while it is good to say the words that English-speaking saints have said for all those years. I don't want it for the whole service, but for a moment, saints on earth join saints in heaven.

Closely related to this commitment to the communion of saints is my willingness, even eagerness, to preach the King James version of the Psalms, especially Psalm 23 and especially at funerals and memorial services. The reasons for this have already been hinted.

First, the King James version of the psalm is the text everybody knows. The words that brought comfort when a grandparent died still bring comfort when a parent dies, partly because the words are comforting and partly because they are the same words. Second, the King James reading of Psalm 23 provides one of those texts where the richness of interpretation depends in part on the (mis-?) translation of the text. It may well be that the writer of the Hebrew meant by this comforting phrase "even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil" (Ps. 23:4, NRSV). It is even possible that he had a particular valley in mind, whose name in Hebrew was something like "Deathly Dark Valley." But for comfort, accuracy cannot touch the traditional King James nuance: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil."

It is not death but the shadow of death that terrifies us. The shadow that death casts before itself: the long waiting for the inevitable end. The shadow that death casts behind itself; the long loneliness that does not ever go entirely away

Hermeneutically we Christian preachers can say we preach the history of effects, the working out of a text in the interpretations that follow after, in this case, the interpretation embodied in the King James version of Psalm 23. Pastorally we can say that we preach this version because it is the version people need to hear. Theologically we can say that the Spirit bears testimony through this text as she has for three hundred years.

Finally, though most Christian preachers dread the thought of being culture-Christians, Christians live in a culture. Culture consists in part of the language through which we intend the world, language that binds us together, however tenuously. The language that helps bind American and Canadian culture together is still in part Christian language and for the most part it is King James Christian language. "The tongues of men and of angels." "In my father's house are many mansions." "The far country." "From whence doth my help come?" "A house divided." "The Lord bless thee and keep thee." That is the linguistic soil in which North American culture is cultivated.

I do not think that cultivating that cultural garden is the main job either of the biblical scholar or the preacher. But community and culture are hard to come by, and historical perspective is in short supply. Sometimes the old words help.

David Bartlett is an SBL member and is the Lantz Professor of Preaching at Yale University Divinity School.

Citation: David Bartlett, " The King (James) and I," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=173

 
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