What is the word of God?
To answer that question, millions have died, and churches and governments have risen and fallen.
One thing is certain: Whatever the word of God may be, to get into print, it must first pass through the minds and hands of human beings.
That's the lesson of this, the 400th anniversary of perhaps the single most famous book in English, a book printed more than a billion times, a book still the focus of faith, prayer, and controversy.
In 1611, the first edition appeared of what's known as the Authorized King James Version. (James I commissioned it, but never officially authorized the result. Still, the name stuck.) The KJV is a shaping force of our language, a treasure in its own right, a mighty collection of wisdom, holiness, and comfort — and a warning against extremism in religious and secular life.
Its creation took seven years' work by 47 of England's most learned men. Along with the works of Shakespeare, it has exerted the strongest and longest effect on the vocabulary, syntax, and cadence of English of anything ever printed. Many of us grow up imprinted with its rhythms and language. It's there in Jefferson, Darwin, Dickens, Whitman, Stowe, Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Byatt. Few writers in English have been free of its influence. Many of us can recall verses in a moment:
Psalm 126:4: "Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south."
Ecclesiastes 11:1: "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days."
Matthew 5:5: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
1 Corinthians 2:9: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."
Its words still challenge, elevate, elate, daunt, and startle.
Debora Shuger, distinguished professor of English at UCLA, says, "What has always struck me about it is its faithfulness to the Greek and Hebrew originals. You can find errors and question interpretations, yes, but these were translators who heard the poetry, the underlying feeling, and stay true to it throughout." She thinks modern translations, which are "true to a different aspect of the text — the literal meaning of words," miss this.
She says when she first read the KJV cover to cover, she was amazed at how consistent the translation was. "All the images of ransoming and redemption, from book to book, stay steady," she says. "And when the word is fulfillment, whether of a period of time or a pregnancy coming to term, they stay with it. They're very sensitive."
But this book cannot stand apart from religion, or what it means today.
As it was from the beginning, the KJV remains a compromise, a committee work. The Church of England was only a couple of generations old. King and bishops worried about Protestants, Catholics, and Puritans. All had their own Bibles, and many had their eyes on power. The challenge was to create a Bible that clarified what the new church was and wasn't.
But there was another challenge, as Shuger points out: To stay true to the great tradition, the older church — "really, the medieval Catholic tradition" — without harming the holiness or belovedness of the Scriptures.
So the KJV rested heavily on known and honored English translations of the previous century, especially the Bishops' Bible of 1572 and the Geneva Bible of 1577. The translators admit as much in a preface, saying their aim was "not to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better."
Three-quarters of the KJV is similar to the earlier English translations, more than 90 percent to the Geneva Bible. The translators respected those previous versions as holy things (even if some had been prosecuted): "The very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God."
The KJV was meant to be the official standard, to settle all disputes and end all arguments. As such, it was straightaway put on pulpits throughout the land, and pretty much stayed there. But the arguments didn't end.
Perhaps the biggest clash is over this question: How do we read this — or any other — authoritative text?
Well before King James, some said Scripture was God's straight talk to humankind. These folks warned against any interpretation, disagreement, or criticism. Others said Scripture was for guidance rather than direct commandment. Still others saw translation as ever-unfinished — and it has been, with several (and divergent) "revisions" of the Authorized Version over the years. Still others said that since Scriptures are always a product of human minds and hands, there is room for metaphor, poetry, analogy, and parable.
Whole churches have arisen on the various approaches to this question. Allow me to speak broadly, but I'm on fairly firm ground when I say Southern Baptists, for example, adopt a strict, literal approach, and Roman Catholics a different approach.
This echoes a great human debate, between Nothing Goes and A Lot Goes. Many shameful things have been done and said in the names of both strictness and flex.
Today, we see that battle carried into our very government, as politicians, many of them religious, grapple over how to read our Constitution. Why does this debate so often lack civility? Because in many hearts it's a religious debate, driving to the foundations of authority and communal life.
We human beings often use our most beautiful things to poison our world. I hope we are not doing that now. Think of the KJV, created as a compromise between tradition and the needs of a young faith. Its creators, wary and weary of sectarian strife, hoped it could bring peace, lead the faithful to the God they sought.
It has done that in millions and millions of lives — and in some of the most sublime English ever written. But a particular way of reading it has been made into ground zero by those who can't stand others not belonging to their church. Or party.
Paul anticipated such strife and warned against it, in Galatians 5:14-15: "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another."
All religious people, and all members of all political parties, have a right to their sacred texts and their ways of reading them. All churches, and all political parties, have the right to seek new members. But all sides, in furthering their parties' aims, have forgotten love of neighbor.
The violence of today's political discourse reminds us of how beautiful, how wise, and how little heeded the King James Bible is today.
John Timpane is media editor/writer for The Inquirer. Contact him at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/jtimpane.