The first Bible I ever saw was a King James Version (that’s King James of England, not LeBron of Miami).
The King James Bible came out in 1611 – but 350-plus years later, it was very much the Bible of the “Bible Belt” in 20th-century Texas.
With the grammar and syntax of Shakespeare, the KJV was the Bible for centuries, for millions and millions of people. It is still revered by many as the only real, authorized version of the Good Book.
This explains why, as a kid, I bowed my head in church in dusty West Texas and listened as cotton farmers prayed using “thee” and “thou” and “thine.”
I grew up, as they had, thinking that was how God talked. The only Bible movie of that day, Charleton Heston’s “The 10 Commandments,” reinforced that notion, and in the few Bible recordings we heard, Alec Guiness or some other Shakespearean actor always intoned the words of God.
In truth and forsooth, I thought God was British.
In the last few decades, the Bible has come out in multiple other translations, from the Revised to the American Standard to the New International. There have been all kinds of paraphrases – groovy hippie versions, kids’ versions, versions tailored to specific cultures or theologies or edited for political correctness – even versions for those who translate into sign language.
It is now permissible in most churches to pray and read the Bible without channeling Laurence Olivier, or even Hugh Grant.
The more recent versions of the Bible, ironically, are more accurate, since they’re based on scholarship and manuscripts that hadn’t been explored back in 1604. But the goal of many post-KJV editions is just to make the Bible accessible to someone besides English majors.
Please don’t think I’m knocking the King James Bible. Its beauty and poetic rhythm surpass anything Shakespeare penned – and of course millions of people have been led to faith and salvation through its message.
But I’m pretty sure millions have also opened it, tried to read it, and given up, thinking maybe this God thing was not for them. That’s too bad.
Since I grew up to actually be an English major, I persisted. But a fair number of my childhood misconceptions sprang from King Jamesspeak.
Beyond all the “canst not” and “wist not what I wot” I remember being put off that “longsuffering” was considered a good thing (it means patience) and that “bowels” often had nothing to do with the toilet, as in “O ye Corinthians… Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.”
I think I speak for all eight-year-olds when I say, “Huh?”
I made some unlikely connections. When the KJV warned me against falling into “divers temptations” I immediately thought of the TV show “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges. I assumed “diver’s temptations” consisted mostly of the desire to come to the surface too quickly, which, of course, gave them the bends and was certainly worth a Biblical warning.
(They also seemed to be very tempted to get into knife-fights underwater and cut each other’s air hoses – which I also thought they should avoid, but I found nothing in the Bible to back me up. Since I wasn’t a diver, none of this applied to me anyway.)
I also got hung up on the 23rd Psalm, which began, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Did that mean I didn’t want him to be my shepherd? That seemed like faint praise.
And what about that “suffer the children to come unto me”? I knew some suffering was required, but as a kid I wasn’t all that eager to get started.
Some of the old dudes who prayed in King James English did OK, but most were fairly inept. I confess, I found myself judging them as attempting to sound high and churchy.
Maybe I missed this passage from Romans 2.
“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself…”
I’m pretty clear on what that means, so I think I’ll withhold judgement on King James – yea, verily, even the one from Miami.
Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.