1611 to 2011: Happy 400th Birthday KJV

As most of you know, 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the 1611 Authorized Version, what we call the King James Version of the bible. There have been a host of tributes already this year.

One of my favorite tributes has been the recent one by Christopher Hitchens, yes the Christopher Hitchens, in Vanity Fair entitled When the King Saved God:

Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, O King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter? ...

At my father’s funeral I chose to read a similarly non-sermonizing part of the New Testament, this time an injunction from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative “ifs” and its closing advice—always italicized in my mind since first I heard it—to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts. I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s “Contemporary English Version,” which I picked up at an evangelical “Promise Keepers” rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.”

A few weeks ago it dawned on me that I didn't actually own a King James Version. I have a ton of bible versions: American Standard, New American Standard, New Revised Standard, New Living Translation, New Jerusalem, The Good News for Modern Man, J.B. Philips Translation, New International Version, The Message, English Standard Version. In fact, for all you American Restoration history buffs, I even own a copy of Alexander Campbell's translation of the bible: The Living Oracles.

But no KJV.

(Actually, I found out later we do own a KJV. After buying a copy this week--see below--I happily declared to Jana that we were now the proud owners of a KJV bible! She demurred. "Darling, we already have a KJV." "No we don't. I've not seen one." "Yes you have. Remember, we were given one for our wedding."

Ah yes, our wedding...)

Not having a KJV (until corrected later; still, the wedding gift is more a keepsake than something you're supposed to carry around) I started looking for an edition in the bookstores. The anniversary of the KJV was the main prompt, but I was also intrigued by what Kathleen Norris (author of The Cloister Walk among her many other books) said in answer to a question of mine. This last fall Norris was on campus as a part of ACU's Summit and I asked her during a Q&A session what version she used for her daily devotions. She responded, "The King James Version. It's poetry can't be matched."

Shopping for an edition of the KJV I had a few criteria in mind:

1. A fresh font that wasn't too small. Since no one is making any money on the KJV translation as a translation (those dudes have been dead for 400 years), a lot of bible publishers don't take the trouble to update the typesetting of older KJV editions. I didn't want something that looked like an old church pew bible, typesetting-wise. Plus, given that I've now started using reading glasses, I'm starting to worry about font size.

2. I didn't want a big study bible. Study bibles tend to be large and unwieldy. I've got enough big study bibles. So I wanted something smaller, but not too small (font size again).

3. Finally, I wanted something inexpensive. Nothing leather. Just a nice sized hardback with a crisp font at a reasonable price.

And with those criteria in mind I eventually found the perfect volume: The KJV Study Bible by Barbour

Don't let the title "study bible" fool you. This is not one of those overstuffed study bibles (though I do love those). It's just got some brief introductions to the books and some footnotes that take up the bottom 15% of the page. This bible is about the size of a trade paperback. Not too big, not too small. Just right.

Inside, the bible has a nice crisp font. It's also a hardback edition. And the price was right. I got it for $19.99 here in town. Amazon has it listed at that price as well.

So, if you are looking to add a KJV to your library this the Year of our Lord 2011, and this is the year to buy a KJV, this is the bible I'd recommend you get. In fact, it's the bible I'm taking tonight to use in the prison bible study. I can't wait to sink into the cadences of "thee," "thou," and "ye."

The first thing I did upon getting the bible was to turn to Psalm 23. I sat down and read aloud these familiar words:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
It felt like a homecoming.

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11 thoughts on “1611 to 2011: Happy 400th Birthday KJV”

  1. I grew up listening to sermons drawn from the KJV. It is the Bible of my youth. This post prompts the deep wells of my memory. Many of the Bible verses I memorized as a teen were from the KJV and are still deeply ingrained, though I have long since abandoned using the KJV. I do, however, have one that I will pick back up. BTW, we received an ASV for a wedding gift:) thank you for this post.

  2. I memorized many verses in the KJV as a child (including Psalm 23), and they are still the ones that live deep inside me. I agree with Norris...its poetry is gorgeous.

  3. rich i am not the sharpest tool in the shed,PLEASE, COMMENT ON THE NET bible. new English translation.it is a free download,with 60 or 90 thousand translation notes....
    read out gal.2:16-20 compare

  4. Now if you weren't being tight Collins do a beautiful leather KJV. No footnotes just clear comfort text. isbn0-00-510589-7 This is a joy to read and not too heavy on the wrists.

  5. I won't use it, mainly because I want to use a Bible which is, as Cranmer put it, 'understanded of the people'. It's no use using the language of 400 years ago, and having to translate it into English before anyone twigs the meaning!

  6. It's very difficult to beat the KJV.
    Peering into your edition, the font and layout are beautifully clear and easy to read - but they lack soul!
    I am far too attached to the peripherals of prayer and liturgy - a Catholic weakness, perhaps - but when quietly sitting down with this Bible in your hands, don't you miss a proper binding and the solid tactile reassurance of traditional covers?
    In fact, talking of covers, at first glance it might pass for a British University, Faculty of Agriculture prospectus!

  7. As a child and teenager, I was heavily involved in Bible Quiz and memorized a lot of KJV. But in Bible College, a few of my professors that were deep in textual criticism perhaps overstated the inaccuracies of the KJV. So for study, I go with NASB - but for pure enjoyment, (call me a traitor to my generation) I love the old words of King James. Besides, in what other context can you say the word "pisseth" and get away with it?

  8. Dr. Beck, can you comment on the quality and character of the notes? Do they cover doctrinal/interpretive topics or do they simply explain cultural issues? Also, I looked at a page on Amazon and it it appears that the text is set in a one-verse-per-line format. Does this make for choppy reading? Thanks!

  9. Hi Nathan,

    I actually haven't looked closely at the notes as they are not substantial. Looking them over right now they are mainly just clarifications about who or what is going in the in text. Not a lot of doctrinal stuff at all.

    Regarding the verse layout. That's just the way the KJV is. Modern translations, and the way they layout the paragraphs, are actually trying to fix this problem in the KJV. So, yes, the KJV is choppy reading. It's one of its charms/drawbacks.

  10. Thanks! I had never noticed that about the layout of the KJV before, crazy. I have grown to really appreciate paragraphed text (in a single column, if possible). Still this looks like a great book for the price. I'm especially glad to hear the notes aren't too much. I don't mind a full fledged study Bible, but what I'm really looking for in a KJV is a simple hardback (starting to really appreciate hardback Bibles) with readable text. I can live with simple explanatory notes. Looks great!

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