I confess that, particularly around Christmas time, I love the King James poetry of translation: “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
Compare that to the New Revised Standard Version: “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” Favored one? This is like “Live long and prosper” for Pete’s sake. (It is also interesting that this is one of the few angelic declarations that does not begin, “Fear not.”)
Then comes Mary’s response: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” Versus the NRSV: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Rather like “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
After her cousin Elizabeth blesses her, the KJV has Mary say: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior”; and she says other words later in the Magnificat like: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel.” When is the last time you used “holpen”?
Since the KJV was the Bible for English-speaking people for more than 400 years, other things entered our speech with beautiful language. “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes;” “How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer;” “The Lord is my shepherd,” “Let not your heart be troubled” to name a few.
However, even in today’s world there are myths about this translation. It was not the first Bible in English. It was not even mostly original as it had Geneva Bibles and Tyndale’s. Nor was it the “Authorized Edition,” which was a title popularly given to it late in its history.
It was not written by King James and he, while pious, was no saint, so calling this the “Saint James Bible,” as some people do, is to be curiously confused.
The three men in the New Testament whom we call St. James are one of the disciples; the brother of Jesus; and St. James, the writer of the epistle of that name, and they are of course in no way associated with the King James of Britain nearly sixteen hundred years later.
It is neither the best or the perfect or the inerrant translation of earlier texts. Scholars find the Old Testament prophecies are almost unintelligible. For instance, Micah 1:11 “Pass ye away, thou inhabitant of Saphir, having the shame naked: the inhabitant of Zanaan came not forth in the mourning of Bethezel; he shall receive of you his standing.” What?
The poet Robert Browning, during his courtship of Elizabeth Barrett, was asked by her what some of his lines meant. He replied, “Madam, when I wrote those lines, only two beings knew what they meant – God and Robert Browning. Now only God knows.”
The Rev. Dr. Mike Fay is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Salida.