JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 20, 2011 – The King James Version of the Bible is considered a great book because of how it was compiled and received, but also because its legacy continues today, said Leland Ryken at a Union University conference held Sept. 15-17.
Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, spoke in two sessions at the “KJV400: Legacy and Impact” festival, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James translation. He has written or edited several books including “The Word of God in English,” “The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery” and “The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible,” and he served as the literal stylist for the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Ryken’s first presentation, which served as the conference’s third plenary session, focused on reasons why the King James Version is so significant.
“The greatness of the King James Bible would not exist if something even greater than it did not exist before it, namely the words that God superintended human authors of the Bible to write,” he said. “What we call the Word of God is greater than the King James Version of that word.
“On the other hand, we should not be lulled into thinking that all English Bible translations are created equal. I think that the King James Bible is demonstrably the greatest English Bible ever.”
He divided his eight-point list of reasons into two categories: external and internal traits that make the King James translation exceptional.
Two external reasons Ryken said contributed to the King James Version’s greatness were God’s use of the power of King James I, an ungodly king, to translate the holy text and the people and process that created the translation.
“The King James Version is great because God chose to override the bad behavior of an ungodly king who lent his name to the King James Version,” Ryken said. He then added, “I want to give credit where credit is due. We would not have the King James Bible without the initiation and ongoing involvement of King James during the process of the translation.”
He also said the King James Version was the culmination of excellence throughout the 16th century — the hundred years that preceded the translation — and noted that William Tyndale, the first scholar to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to English, played a significant role in the King James translation of the text.
“What Tyndale chiefly contributed was such an excellent translation in terms of both content and style that his translation provided a baseline upon which subsequent translators could do their work of refinement,” Ryken said.
Many people want to paint the translation as an initial failure, he said, by claiming that its success did not come until much later after its publication.
While the King James translation was never officially sanctioned, Ryken said it received popular acceptance, which was “an even better authorization than either a king with his crown (or) bishops in their vestments could have imposed on the translation.”
Ryken’s next point was the first of the internal traits and related to the philosophy of translation called verbal equivalence, which is when every word or phrase in the original language of the text was given an equivalent word or phrase in English.
Tyndale used this method before the King James translators, and by doing so Ryken said he created as many as 2,000 new words to the English language.
Ryken’s last three points on why the King James Version was great included its beautiful style, pleasing oral qualities and literary characteristics, such as figurative language and imagery.
“The King James Bible -- and I believe the Bible in its original form -- does not sound like the idiom of the bus stop or the dorm room,” he said. “A Bible that is made to sound like the daily newspaper is given the attention and credence that we give to the newspaper, which is considerably less than what the Word of God deserves.”
Ryken also spoke at the conference’s fourth plenary session, where he explained the far-reaching legacy of the King James translation and lamented the loss of a common Bible.
One way the King James Version has been kept alive, Ryken said, is because of the many public inscriptions all over the world — Yale, Cambridge, the Liberty Bell — that were written in that translation.
“While the King James Bible made it onto these public inscriptions in the first place because of its cultural dominance, once the inscriptions were in place they kept the King James Bible continuously alive in people’s sight and awareness,” Ryken said.
While proving the influence of the King James Version is difficult, he said that its presence is self-evident.
Ryken added that the King James Bible has had a strong presence even in his own life.
He said as a child he heard reading from the King James translation at every meal and twice a day on Sundays. He added that a verse from the King James Version that he made in elementary school with dried alphabet soup letters on pegboard hangs on the wall of his guest bedroom.
Ryken closed the conference noting that many newer translations of the Bible stray from the beautiful style of the earlier translation and are dangerous because they eliminate the feeling of grandeur and awe that elevated language provides.
However, he said he was assured of the King James translation’s legacy because there is “no (English) conversation that it has not adorned.”
By Whitney Jones (’12)