Is the King James out of date?

David Norton explains why he has produced a new edition of the iconic translation.

Why would anyone want to edit the King James Bible? Some people would say it’s out of date: we can’t understand its language and its scholarship has been superseded by 400 years of new work. We have much better versions. Others would say it is absolutely perfect as it is; the divinely given word of God in English. Nothing in it, not the tiniest jot or tittle, should be changed.

To the first group I would say, give the King James a chance. Don’t throw away your modern versions: they have their own qualities. But try the King James. It may surprise you. It isn’t as difficult as it usually appears to be, but its traditional presentation is reader-hostile, getting in the way of reading with understanding and pleasure. 

One of the things I wanted to do was to get rid of that reader-hostility, the little things that make it seem as if we are seeing through a glass, darkly. Some of the spelling is antiquated – “musick”, “bason” and so on. So too with the punctuation. One of the more confusing things is the lack of speech marks, making it much more difficult than it needs to be to tell who is speaking and where speech begins and ends. So too also with the paragraphing. This is rough because the original translators did not have time to do it properly (there are no paragraph marks after Acts 20, only one in the Psalms and, if you want to include it, six in the entire Apocrypha). Such things make it unnecessarily difficult to see how the writing is organised and so to understand it properly.

Some of this is easy to sort out, some not. If you can do it, the text not only looks more friendly, but it begins to flow and connect in ways that can surprise even the reader who knows the King James well. It can be a reader’s text while remaining a study text.

The opportunity to do such things, and to present the result in a good modern type, made me want to edit the King James. It was an opportunity to clean the glass and serve anyone who wants to look into it.

I wanted to do all this without changing the text. I wanted the real King James Bible, not a new King James Bible. So old fashioned words are still there, as are the old fashioned grammatical forms; “thou art” and so on. If you cannot cope with sentences like, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”, then the King James is not for you. Neither is Shakespeare.

But leaving things unchanged presents problems. What is it that should be kept unchanged? A lot of the spelling and punctuation in standard copies belong not to the 1611 original but to the text as it was printed in the eighteenth century. Editors and printers had changed the text, sometimes perhaps for the better, sometimes not. I wanted to give readers the text the translators decided on; that is, the first edition without its printing errors.

The work took 10 years. I think it was worth the effort because many readers have testified, both privately and publicly, how effective the result is.

This is part of my answer to those who say the King James is out of date. If it can still speak to the heart and soul, it is not out of date. Another part of the answer is this: the more I study it, looking at it in relation to the original language texts, the more I am impressed with its fidelity to those texts. It is a quite remarkably literal translation, and more often than not gives the sense and wording of the originals more closely than modern translations.

The people who believe that the King James should not be edited because it is perfect as it is need no convincing to read it. But to them I would say this: if what I have done is faithful to the work of the translators and makes that work speak more clearly, then the editing was worthwhile. If, moreover, it brings more readers to the Bible, it was very worthwhile.

David Norton is Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (2005), and the Penguin Classics Bible (2006), and written A Textual History of the King James Bible (2005).

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