Only Which King James?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Not that the Bible ever claims simplicity for itself. Among those who make up their minds before seeing all the evidence, there’s a strong preference for the “King James Version” of the Bible. Many with that preference will claim that they don’t interpret the Good Book, they just read it. Reading itself is an act of interpretation and stakes tend to be pretty high when the claim for divine authorship is on the table. So I figured I’d better interpret something about the King James Bible myself. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version is an informative, authoritative, and often witty treatment of the topic. One of the immediate takeaways is that there is no single KJV.

Beginning in the beginning, Gordon tells the story of the Bible in English. There were translations before the King James, and its translation companies used these previous efforts and sometimes borrowed extensively from them. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. Once the King James was done in 1611 it had to be printed, and printing, being what it is, led to errors. Although these were of the secular, human kind, they nevertheless appear from the beginning and new typesettings led to corrections and other errors, some perhaps intentional. Then came the revisions. What readers buy—and some claim is an inspired translation—as the KJV is a revision of a revision. Of a revision. In other words, the inspiration seems to lie with the redactors rather than the translators themselves. There are many different “official” King James versions. Translations are never static.

King James Onlyists (a modern movement) may not realize that the New Revised Standard Version is the modern descendant of the King James. The Revised Version (RV), followed by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and its more recent, feared progeny (the NRSV) are all based on the King James translation. That is the version “Revised” in each of these efforts. They consult improved versions of ancient texts that have been discovered since the Jacobean era, but where they earn the ire of conservatives is in the updating of the modern language. A Bible with no thees or thous hardly seems sacred at all. The line of continuity is there, however. Other Bible translations “start over” but still consult the KJV, such is its stature. The real problem comes in supposing that any one translation is the original. No original Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts survive, and no original King James Version exists. How uncomfortable these facts are, everyone will have to interpret for her or himself.

Which Bible Again?

Which Bible? That’s a fair enough question. No matter how much you want to deny it, western culture always has been and always will have been biblically based. That being the case, it’s best to know which Bible we’re talking about. The Protestant Bible is America’s Good Book. Although there were Catholics before Protestants were a gleam in Luther’s eye, the latter laid early claim to the Bible. When a Bible appears in a social or civil religion context, it’s most likely Protestant. The Catholic Bible contains extra material—that which Protestants call The Apocrypha. Satisfied that Luther was right to leave the Deuterocanonical books out, their role as fake good news has never been questioned. If the King James was good enough for Jesus and Paul, they say, only half in jest.

Some Evangelicals belong to the King James only movement. They come up with alternative facts when faced with the reality that the King James translation includes the Apocrypha. Yes, it’s right there in black and white. The Authorized Version of the Bible included the “Catholic books.” I was reminded of this the other day when I was searching for a simple factoid—how many words are in the King James Bible? The vast majority of websites give the unquestioning answer of 783,137. They may then break it down into “Old Testament” and New. Almost always they leave out the Apocrypha. The word count there is 152,185, and if my math serves, that brings the total to 935,322—not quite a million words. The Good Book is a big book.

The King James Onlyists (yes, that’s a thing) have bigger problems than the Apocrypha. What King James is the onlyist? The KJV you buy in your Christian bookstore is one of the many 18th century revisions of the 1611 King James. You see, translations are hardly stable. They change over time. Even the Revised Standard Version isn’t completely standard. I noticed while reading it as a kid that words had been changed over time. If our beloved Onlyist friends want to be purists and go back to the 1611 then they’ll have the problem of the Apocrypha to deal with. So which Bible? It’s a fair question. Catholic Bibles are bigger. Some Orthodox traditions also include such exotic books as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. And, from this we should take a lesson. Where there’s 1 Enoch, there’s always another not far away.