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Professor: KJV has strengths others lack
Michael Foust, Baptist Press
May 16, 2011
7 MIN READ TIME

Professor: KJV has strengths others lack

Professor: KJV has strengths others lack
Michael Foust, Baptist Press
May 16, 2011

WHEATON, Ill. — Leland Ryken is a Christian and an English

professor, so perhaps it’s a given that he would love the richness of the King

James Version Bible translation — so much so that he wrote a book to mark the

400th anniversary of its publication.

But Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, isn’t a King

James-only believer, and his service on the translation oversight committee of

the English Standard Version (ESV) puts him in a unique position to critique

the King James Bible, the most printed book in history. (He was a literary

stylist for the ESV committee.)

Much has been gained by having new translations, Ryken says, but much has also

been lost. Scripture memorization, for instance, took a hit when multiple

translations came on the scene, he believes.

Ryken, author of “The Legacy of the King James Bible” (Crossway, 2011), spoke

with Baptist Press about the King James Version. Following is a partial

transcript:

BAPTIST PRESS (BP): The King James Bible was not the first English Bible. Why,

then, was it far more popular than its predecessors such as the Tyndale Bible

and the Geneva Bible?

Ryken: Starting with Tyndale, there were six English Bibles that preceded the

King James Bible of 1611. I would describe those six translations as a single

communal effort. Yes, they were carried on by distinct committees and

individuals, but each one of those translations built upon its predecessors.

There was a process of refinement going on, so that the King James Bible reaped

the benefit of those earlier translations. And I would have to credit the King

James translators with having what one scholar called “a sure instinct for

betterment” — that is, they did the tweaks that really brought it to its

climax. So the King James Bible was great because of what preceded it.

BP: I have read that it took several decades for it to catch on in popularity.

Is that true?

Ryken: We live in a day of debunking. The main opinion is that the King James

Version was unsuccessful upon its publication. That is not what my research

uncovered. It was not an immediate sensation, but it was, in my view, an

immediate success. It went through 182 editions in its first 35 years. That’s a

success story in my view.

BP: It was written, at least partially, for public use for oral reading. What

does that involve, and how was it successful?

Ryken: First of all, it said on the first page, “This Bible was intended for

reading in the church.” What it means is that the translators lived in what we

would call an oral culture. It was in the process of becoming a print culture,

but wasn’t quite there. That means that they just had ears that were tuned to

rhythm and cadence and flow so that, to this day, I think the King James Bible

is matchless in its cadence and its flow. It just reads well, and modern

translations that follow in the lineage of the King James Version can also

partake of that quality.

BP: You already partially answered this question: What are some ways you think

the King James Bible remains superior to modern translations, and maybe some

ways that you think it is inferior.

Ryken: It is supreme in its fluency, first of all. Secondly, we just have to

praise the King James Bible for its language and style. It’s not easy to find

the adjectives to describe it, but it’s elegant and it is dignified…. The

language is beautiful. Quite often the language is quite simple, but the effect

is majestic and moving.

BP: What do you mean by fluency?

Ryken: It flows smoothly when read aloud. If we take a modern colloquial Bible,

the moment someone starts reading it in public, it does not flow well; it’s

flat. It particularly comes out when a whole congregation starts to read it.

BP: Are there any ways that you think modern translations are superior to the

King James Bible?

Ryken: Yes, the language of the King James is archaic. I say that even as

someone who teaches Renaissance literature. It is a really difficult read for

me. And, secondly, I think we have to acknowledge that scholarship has advanced

a lot in the last four centuries; the King James is not the most accurate

translation.

BP: Was it written in the language of the day?

Ryken: Yes, I think it was, but given a continuum that always exists in a culture,

it was on the more formal end of the continuum. Certainly it was not in the

idiom of spoken or conversational English. But in the register of written

English of the day? Yes.

BP: What impact did the King James Bible have on succeeding English translations?

Ryken: It had the playing field to itself until the mid-20th century. Beginning

then, there have been three English translations that have consciously tried to

retain all that was good in the King James Bible while updating the

scholarship, grammar and language. The first of those was the Revised Standard

Version, then the New King James Version and then more recently the English

Standard Version. All of those retained the essentially literal philosophy of

the King James translators, and they consciously appropriated what is excellent

in the style of the King James Version.

BP: What do you mean by the style?

Ryken: I mean the register of language — that it remains elegant and not

colloquial, not dressed down, not reduced to a sixth-grade level, which is very

common in the easy-reading modern translations. It is possible to retain the

phraseology, the sentence flow, the rhythm of the King James Bible in a modern

translation. It can be done.

BP: What has been lost by having multiple translations and not having a common

English Bible?

Ryken: Everything has been lost by our loss of a common English Bible.

Christians and the public at large no longer know what it means when we speak

of the “the” Bible, whereas for three centuries everyone knew what that meant.

I think it has taken away the incentive to determine what an accurate

translation is. If we look around a group and we have six different

translations, the sentiment readily sets in, “Well who is to say which one is

right?” And we finally give up the quest to find out which is the right one.

Also, Bible memorization became very difficult, and in many churches became a

lost cause.

BP: So Bible memorization was assisted by having a common Bible?

Ryken: Absolutely. It comes back to this matter of fluency. The King James is

filled with memorable phrases.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)

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