Lately, I’ve been reading a fascinating work on the King James Bible produced by Baylor University Press. The King James Bible and the World It Made edited by David Lyle Jeffrey includes contributions from Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, Lamin Sanneh, David Bebbington, Robert Altar, Philip Jenkins, Laura Knoppers and others. The book is a collection of essays reflecting on the legacy of the King James Bible. But these essays are a cut above the typical book touting the King James on its 400th Anniversary. Many of the essays offer profound historical insights and analysis on the King James Bible.
David Bebbington, professor of History at the University of Stirling, Scotland, pointed out the fact that the King James Version was not always known as “The Authorized Version.” The title was first applied to the King James Version in 1805 by the newly created British and Foreign Bible Society.
The following conclusion to Bebbington’s chapter, captures his contention that “the enthusiasm for the translation of 1611 rose and fell with the growth and decay of Romantic sensibility.”
Over the previous two and a half centuries, the King James Bible had passed through a striking trajectory. In the middle years of the eighteenth century, the version was generally used but not especially respected. Its status rose from the last years of the century onwards as a taste for the past developed, the translation became identified with national feeling, the British and Foreign Bible Society circulated it, and the title the “Authorized Version” emerged. Criticism of the defects of the translation nevertheless created a demand for revision, but both the practice of the revisers and the reaction of the public confirmed the high esteem enjoyed by the King James Version. Appreciation by a wide cross section of the population culminated in the celebrations of 1911, when it was hailed as a marvel of religion and literature alike. The English Bible, it was generally held around that date, was the foundation of national greatness. Dissenting voices came from critical scholars, Roman Catholics, devotees of Tyndale, and increasingly from those within the churches who thought the cult of the Bible as literature was obscuring its spiritual value. The result was the plethora of new translations which gradually eclipsed the Authorized Version during the later twentieth century. The rearguard defense of the older Bible was mounted by intellectuals concerned for its cultural role and conservative evangelicals bolstering their doctrinal position. The former were rather more salient than the latter by 2011. The changing estimate of the King James Bible was clearly bound up with the whole history of Britain during the period, political as well as ecclesiastical, social as well as intellectual, but the key explanation for the trajectory was identified by both C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox. The two men pointed out that the enthusiasm for the translation of 1611 rose and fell with the growth and decay of Romantic sensibility. A “taste for the primitive and the passionate,” as Lewis called it, flourished in Britain during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, but was superseded in the later twentieth century by other attitudes that have been variously labelled “expressivist,” “postmodernist,” or simply “anti-Romantic.” The Authorized Version, fortified by the preferences of the times, could withstand the call for greater accuracy in the nineteenth century but not the challenge of more intelligible versions in the twentieth. This cultural factor, more than any other, explains the altering fortunes of the translation of 1611. The reputation of the King James Bible in Britain was hugely but temporarily enhanced by Romantic feeling. (pg. 65-66)
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Baylor University Press for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.