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King James Bible Symposium: Intended for public reading

1611 Bible translation 'sounds' authoritative

When the King James Bible was introduced in 1611, it carried these words on its title page: "Appointed to be read in churches." It was clear the new version was intended for public reading and worship, more so than private devotion.

Opening page of Genesis in copy of 1828 edition of the King James Bible was displayed in connection with symposium. It is the same edition used by the Prophet Joseph Smith in producing his New Translation of the Bible.
Opening page of Genesis in copy of 1828 edition of the King James Bible was displayed in connection with symposium. It is the same edition used by the Prophet Joseph Smith in producing his New Translation of the Bible. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

"Today, I shall focus on what virtually all English speakers recognize about the King James Bible, namely that the language sounds authoritatively scriptural," said John S. Tanner, BYU professor of English, in his presentation for the Feb. 23-25 symposium on "The King James Bible and the Restoration."

"Over time, the King James Version has come to establish the idiom of scripture for English," he said. "This is true for admirers and detractors alike. All recognize this aural authority, this scripture-like sound."

This 1834 copy of the Bible, which was owned by Hyrum Smith, is open to the "Family Record" containing records of his marriage to Jerusha Bardon; after her death, he married Mary Fielding.
This 1834 copy of the Bible, which was owned by Hyrum Smith, is open to the "Family Record" containing records of his marriage to Jerusha Bardon; after her death, he married Mary Fielding. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In a humorous vein, he cited the old saw: "If King James English was good enough for Jesus and St. Paul, it's good enough for me."

Brother Tanner said he believes the text was intended and designed to sound authoritative.

"To be sure, the translators wanted, first and foremost, to be accurate, and they produced the most accurate English translation of its day. Yet, although sense was paramount, sound was important too. The translators wanted their translation to sound scriptural."

John S. Tanner says the KJV was originally made for the pulpit, to be read as part of public, communal worship.
John S. Tanner says the KJV was originally made for the pulpit, to be read as part of public, communal worship. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

As other speakers at the symposium had affirmed, Brother Tanner said the King James Version came forth in 1611 already with an "antique veneer" for its day, phrasing that harkened back to an earlier time.

"It was meant for the ear and not simply for the eye," Brother Tanner said. "The King James was originally a lectern Bible, made for the pulpit, to be read as part of public, communal worship." He contrasted it with Tyndale's earlier New Testament, written primarily as a study Bible.

"The ecclesiastical function of the new translation would have been immediately obvious," Brother Tanner said. Speaking of a first-edition copy he had seen and hefted, he said, "What strikes one first is the size of the thing. It's huge. It's heavy. It's imposing."

King James translators were commissioned to follow the Bishops Bible, the one previously used in the Anglican services, as closely as possible, Brother Tanner said. "The translators were provided with unbound copies of the Bishops Bible to work from, so they knew they were replacing the church Bible. And when the new translation was published, the printer made sure the 1611 KJV looked very much like the old Bishops Bible: It was printed in folio size, in similar black-letter type and double-column format, in many cases even with the identical decorative initial letters to begin each chapter."

While primarily concerned about accuracy, the translators "were men accustomed to thinking about minute details about how language works," he said. "As Protestants they also had great respect for the power of speech to engender faith."

The King James Bible emerged from an age of pulpit oratory exemplified by the sermons of John Donne, Brother Tanner said. "My point is simply that in such an age it would be highly unlikely that the King James translators did not think about how their new translation would sound when it was read aloud from the pulpit."

According to one of the few accounts of the translation process, the sound of the text figured prominently in the process of revision, he said. One translator read the proposed text as others listened while reading some version of the Bible. If they found any fault, they spoke up; if not, he read on.

"This process virtually ensured that the aural quality of the translation would be considered," Brother Tanner said.

"I'm not arguing that sound took precedence over substance for the translators," he said, "only that the translators assuredly were cognizant of producing a text suitable to be read aloud."

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