Happy Birthday, KJV

I read the following in  Writer’s Almanac and found it interesting.

It was on this day in 1611 that the first edition of the King James Bible was published in England. An epidemic of the black plague had struck London so severely that the year before work began on the King James Bible, 30,000 Londoners had died of it. At the same time, Puritans in the country were beginning to agitate against the monarchy as a form of government. And a group of underground Catholics were plotting to assassinate the king.

King James I thought that a new translation of the Bible might help hold the country together. There had been several English translations of the Bible already, and each English version of the Bible had different proponents. King James wanted a Bible that would become the definitive version, a Bible that all English people could read together. Previous versions had been translated from Latin. The King James Bible would make use of those previous translations, but it would attempt to be more accurate to the original Hebrew and Greek.

King James assembled a committee of 54 of the best linguists in the country. They believed that the most important quality of the translation would be that it sound right, since it would be read aloud in churches. So when the committee would gather, each man read his verses aloud, to be judged and revised by the other men.

The translators also deliberately used old-fashioned language. At the time they were working on the Bible, words like “thou” and “sayeth” had already gone out of fashion. Some scholars believe that the translators wanted to give the sense that the language in the Bible came from long ago and far away. And when the meaning of a particular word or phrase was mysterious, they tried to choose English words that would be just as mysterious, just as strange.

Many of the turns of phrase in the King James Bible came from previous translations, but it was King James Version that set them all in stone. Many of those phrases have some of our most enduring English expressions, such as “the land of the living,” “sour grapes,” “like a lamb to slaughter,” “the salt of the earth,” “the apple of his eye,” “to give up the ghost, and “the valley of the shadow of death.”

One of the few sections that was translated almost entirely anew for the King James version was the Book of Genesis, which begins: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and blackness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

The first edition came out on this day in 1611, but for decades, most people preferred the Puritan Geneva Bible, because of its plainer language. It was only after England went through a civil war that the King James Bible came into fashion. People were nostalgic for the period before the war, and they saw the King James Bible as an artifact of that simpler time. The King James version went on to become the English symbol of God and country, and it influenced the way writers have used the English language for hundreds of years.

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