Tuesday, May 10, 2011
God and the King James Bible
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
The King James Bible is four hundred years old this month.
The King James Version, also known as the “Authorized Version,” was not the first English translation. That honor belongs to William Tyndale, who produced an English translation in 1525. Unfortunately for Mr. Tyndale, his understanding of the biblical perspective on divorce did not suit Henry VIII, and the king settled the matter by arresting Tyndale for heresy and having him both strangled and burned at the stake. Apparently, when it comes to heresy you can’t be too harsh on the heretics.
The language of the KJV is spectacular. It has a poetic resonance which other translations simply cannot equal. Unfortunately, its poetry is not matched by its accuracy, and there are many passages where the original meaning is lost or obscured.
In John Wesley’s sermon, "On Charity," based on the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth, he explains at great length that the Greek word agape, which in the King James Version is translated as “charity,” should really be translated as “love.” The mis-translation reduces Christ’s sacrificial love to a hand out.
The problems of accuracy are important (not to mention ironic) because many of those who treasure the King James Bible are also biblical literalists. The Bible they believe literally is known to be an inaccurate translation.
In a recent edition of “Word A Day,” editor Anu Garg celebrated the language of the King James Bible, but added a critical note:
If there's a god, I don't think he/she/it would care what book or which version (or any book) you read, or what name you addressed him/her/it with, or how many times in a day you bowed, or what direction you faced, or how many rituals you observed, or which animal was clean and which wasn't, or what day of the week you did what, or how many people you "saved".
Any entity worthy of being called a god would be above it all and would probably care more about how kind you were to others, and whether you left the world just a little bit better.
Sadly, we know that there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians for whom that criticism is completely valid. And they make all of us look foolish. But I want to respond in a different direction.
Just for the record, I don’t believe in “a god,” or an “entity worthy of being called a god,” or even in “a God.” I believe in the One who is revealed to Moses as the Ground of Being (Tillich’s phrase). A unity beyond our words and our understanding. The One who brings light out of darkness and life out of death. The one who is beyond every attempt to define or contain.
When the Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well, and asked him where the holiest place to worship God was, he said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God is not contained in words. As T.S. Eliot wrote:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.
Words, even the best and most poetic words, cannot hold the Spirit.