A Bible for Today?

It’s been on my bookshelf for the last 58 years. I have to confess that I haven’t opened it very often in all those years. It was a gift from my parents. Inside it says: ‘Presented to Geoffrey Crago to commemorate the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 2 June 1953.’

It’s the Authorised Version of the Bible, first published exactly 400 years ago in 1611. It now sits alongside about ten other Bibles on the shelf – including one in Greek and one in French. When I was a child the language of the 1611 Bible just seemed so obscure. And – to be honest – it still does. For most 21st century people it’s as obscure as the Latin which was used almost everywhere until the 16th century, or the Greek New Testament that sits on my bookshelf. Even most modern Greeks wouldn’t recognise the language in that.

The Bible in English didn’t happen without a struggle which sometimes cost lives. Using ‘the vernacular’ (ordinary, everyday language) was banned by the Catholic Church. Only Latin could be used because the Bible was for priests and scholars – not for ordinary people.

There were at least six other attempts at translation of the complete Bible into English before the Authorised Version. John Wycliffe was probably the first in about 1380. But he had no access to Greek or Hebrew texts. All he had to work on was the Vulgate, the Latin translation dating back to St Jerome at the end of the 4th century. The Vulgate was the officially approved Bible for the Catholic Church.

A century and a half later William Tyndale did have the advantage of a Greek text of the New Testament. But he had a rough time with him translation work. It wasn’t approved by the Church and he had to travel to Germany in 1524 to complete it. His New Testament was printed there and smuggled into England, where it was an instant success. Tyndale then started work on the Old Testament. But he never finished it. In May 1535 he was kidnapped and imprisoned in Belgium. He was tried and executed as a heretic in 1536.

The Authorised Version came about because, in 1604, King James called together a conference of the rival Bishops and Puritans at Hampton Court. They just couldn’t agree on what sort of church the Church of England should be. They were still fighting the battles of the Reformation. A new Bible wasn’t originally on the agenda, but the idea was raised and approved by the conference. Several committees of scholars were set up in London, Oxford and Cambridge, and it took them 7 years to do the job.

The Authorised Version soon came to be accepted as the ‘real’ Bible in most of the English-speaking world, and even now some churches, especially in the USA, will use no other. But surely there’s nothing especially sacred about early 17th century language. And it’s also important to remember that modern Bible scholars know so much more about the original sources of Scripture than those committees set up by King James in 1604.

We had the benefit of a number of more modern translations in the 20th century especially the Revised Standard Version in the 1950’s; the New English Bible in the 1960’s; and the Good News Bible in the 1970’s. The version we now use week by week in the Church of England is called the New Revised Standard Version. So we have plenty to choose from in addition to the King James Bible. That was just one stage – a very important stage – in the continuing work of bringing the Bible alive for each new generation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version in his New Year message for 2011. This is part of what he said:

“Perhaps someone some time has said to you that you shouldn’t hide your light under a bushel. Or told you to set your house in order. Maybe you only survived a certain situation by the skin of your teeth. Perhaps it’s time you listened to the still small voice within.

“All those everyday phrases come from one source – a book whose four hundredth anniversary we celebrate this coming year, the King James Bible – or the Authorised Version as it’s sometimes called. It wasn’t the first Bible in English by any means. But for all sorts of reasons it got into the bloodstream of the people of this country.

“The language it was written in wasn’t ever quite the sort of language people spoke in their daily lives, even four hundred years ago. But its rhythms are exceptionally memorable, and its stories can still move and even shock us.”

Now I would be the first to agree that the language and poetry of the 1611 version have made an enormous impact on our culture. But I don’t think that it’s the best version to read if you really want to get to the original meaning of what was written in Hebrew and Greek 2000 or more years ago.

If I had to recommend a modern version – a Bible for 2011 – it would be the ‘Contemporary English Version’ published by the Bible Society. It’s much more in the language of today and, in Archbishop Rowan’s words, it too ‘can still move and even shock us’. It might not have the poetry of 1611, but it does present the Jewish and Christian stories in a compelling and understandable way that can really change lives. Try reading it for yourself

(If you found this interesting or helpful, please pass on the link to others.).

3 Responses to “A Bible for Today?”

  1. 1 Pete S January 12, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Having been brought up on the Authorised Version I still enjoy, as you seem to the beauty of the language. One other thing this version brings is it’s ability to open discussion as to interpretation which in itself adds to others understanding and belief. Whilst consise and matter of fact, the modern versions seem to want to remove all forms of free thought around the text,seeming to say “this is it profound though it may be take it or leave it”. I would suggest that a combination gives a wider understanding ,in that no matter what version one should realise that non are infalible but that the message and teaching is the important factor. In many cases it is the discovery of that message that is the joy of reading.

  2. 2 Office chairs china April 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm

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