Religion Today

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Oral Character of the Written King James Bible

This year constitutes the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Originally created by England’s Anglican Church, it became widely used by all Protestant denominations in America until the twentieth century, as both a pulpit and a personal Bible.

Despite the increasingly old-fashioned character of its language, it was not until the 1950s that a second translation, the Revised Standard Version, gained a foothold in American Protestantism.

Today, the King James Bible, or the KJV as it is often known (the “V” is for “Version”), still has a revered place among Evangelical Protestantism. The Scofield Reference Bible, widely used among Evangelicals, relies upon it. And although the New International Version has recently gained popularity as a personal Bible, the KJV remains the pulpit Bible for many churches.

Of course the Gideons continue to place a copy of the KJV in every hotel room in the United States. They believe that an individual alone can read the Bible and by themselve gain an understanding of God.

This attitude derives from the sixteenth-century declaration by the Reformer Martin Luther that the authority for true Christianity rested on “Scripture alone.” Since that time, Protestantism has envisioned each individual believer knowing the Bible. The ideal Christian became someone who read and studied their Bible extensively. Today, most devout Christians own a personal Bible, which they read regularly by themselves.

The achievement of this ideal within modern Evangelicalism has made us forget that for most of Christianity’s history, this ideal was impossible for all but a few. During 95% of its history, the overwhelming majority of Christians could not read.

Until the twentieth century, near universal literacy existed nowhere on earth. Only then, in Europe, did 90% of adults acquire the ability to read. In 1675, 64 years after the KJV’s publication, only about 45% of adult males in England could even sign their name at their marriage; for women the percentage was significantly lower. Even in 1850, the best estimates put adult literacy in Europe at no more than 50%. American literacy rates were similar.

During most of its history, then, the KJV functioned quite differently from the personal, private use so widespread today. When it was published, it was intended to be read aloud, and that was its primary use until the end of the nineteenth century.

People who can read the Bible gain a sense of its organization as a text and of its character as a physical object. They know how large it is, whether considered in number of words (lots), number of books (about 80), or just its size (fat). Those who become familiar with it learn the order of its books and develop a sense of the total amount of stories, moral tales, parables, law codes, admonitions and prophecies the book contains.

Those who only hear the Bible read and cannot read it for themselves learn about much of it contents, but they never gain a sense of the book as a written text. Because they always depend on a reader, they never acquire any direct access to the text itself.

They know its contents as the material is read to them over the years, in whatever order it is read and whatever passages are selected. They may develop a sense of organization from some of its longer stories, but most oral readings present shorter passages. Just reading a few chapters out loud can take nearly an hour. Hearers will not gain understanding of the Bible’s organization; it will seem an unorganized collection to them.

Moreover, hearers will rarely gain a sense that they know everything in the Bible. They can always be surprised by some passage they have not heard before. Although many churches have a liturgical calendar that guides regular scripture reading, such calendars present selected readings rather than the entire Bible.

Furthermore, liturgical calendars often feature different readings from different places in Scripture together. The Anglican approach for each Sunday includes an Old Testament passage, a reading from the New Testament letters, and a selection from the Gospels.

So until the twentieth century, the success of the King James Bible came much more from its use for oral presentation of Scripture, than from its use as a personal Bible. This is not surprising, for the poetic beauty of much of its language was intended to be heard. The oral hearing of the Bible gave Christians a different sense of Scripture than individual private reading. It is only by the mid-twentieth century, when most Christians can read the Bible by themselves, that a translation whose language is more up-to-date can make headway against the long-standing popularity of the KJV.


  • After sorting thru several editions besides the KJV, I agree with you that no other has the flowing poetic beauty of the KJV. I once used another version of the Bible, in order to read it in modern English, but it contained so many misstatements of the Greek and Hebrew meanings that I went happily back to the KJV. I have since come across several articles that deal with each version's misconstrued interpretations. The KJV continues to be the most reliable.

    As for oral readings, when my kids were growing up, and I could not read my Bible for whatever reason, I would ask one of the kids to read from it -- it was something they enjoyed doing and I liked hearing it, as well.

    I have heard it explained that God gave us reading so that we could read His Word.

    Thanks for reminding us of a 400 year old treasure.

    By Anonymous Laura, at 6/28/2011  

  • Dear Laura,
    Thanks for your agreement about the poetic beauty of the KJV.

    However, I will caution you that beauty does not equal accuracy. Nor is longevity a measure of accuracy; if it was, we would all be reading the Latin Vulgate.

    All translations have problems. You may have read about problems with modern translations, and there are some. Indeed, even though I regularly teach Bible courses, I have found NO translation I am fully happy with. (Watch for a column on this problem coming soon.)

    I will point out that there are a number systemic problems with the KJV's accuracy.

    First, it did not use the best manuscripts. The translators did not even use the best manuscripts available at the time--to say nothing of all the wonderful ancient manuscripts found since then (such as the great Isaiah Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls).

    Second, there is no single text we can call the one, the only KJV. Since the KJV was never under copyright, publishers have felt free to make changes to it over the centuries. The volumes labelled KJV in your house are little like the KJV that was published in 1611. You can now buy a cheap ($11) facsimile edition on Amazon and see for yourself.

    Third, the language of the KJV is 400 years old. If we have trouble understanding the meanings of nineteenth-century novels of Dickens, Scott, Stevenson and others, how much more difficult is it to understand the KJV! Shakespeare wrote in the same general time period; what is the meaning of Juliet's famous remark, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo"? "Wherefore" means "why"; it does not mean "where"!

    So enjoy the beauty of the KJV, but don't be fooled into thinking that its beauty makes it "right" in some way.


    So enjoy your reading,

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 6/28/2011  

  • The way you describe people and attribute illiteracy to them seems as if all they were all Neanderthals. You say: “Until the twentieth century, near universal literacy existed nowhere on earth.” But you fail to recognize the Jews who were highly educated as a race. The following excerpt explains much about Jews and education as well as secular education of other nations.
    Jewish History
    The tradition of Jewish education goes back to biblical times. One of the basic duties of Jewish parents is to provide for the instruction of their children. The obligation to teach one's children is set forth in the first paragraph of the Shema Yisrael prayer: “Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deut 6:6-9).
    Elementary school learning was regarded as compulsory by Simeon ben Shetah as early as 75 BCE and Joshua ben Gamla in 64 CE. The education of older boys and men in a beit midrash goes back to the Second Temple period. The importance of education is stressed in the Talmud, which states that children should begin school at six. According to Judah ben Tema, “At five years the age is reached for studying the Bible, at ten for studying the Mishnah, at thirteen for fulfilling the mitzvoth, at fifteen for studying the Talmud.” (Avot 5:21). In keeping with this tradition, Jews established their own schools or hired private tutors for their children until the end of the 18th century. Schools were housed in annexes or separate buildings close to the synagogue.
    Ancient Greece
    In Athens the ideal citizen was a person educated in the arts of both peace and war, and this made both schools and exercise fields necessary. Other than requiring two years of military training that began at age 18, the state left parents to educate their sons as they saw fit. The schools were private, but the tuition was low enough so that even the poorest citizens could afford to send their children for at least a few years. Boys attended elementary school from the time they were about age 6 or 7 until they were 13 or 14. The boys also learned to play the lyre and sing, to count, and to read and write. But it was literature that was at the heart of their schooling. The national epic poems of the Greeks--Homer's 'Odyssey' and 'Iliad'--were a vital part of the life of the Athenian people. As soon as their pupils could write, the teachers dictated passages from Homer for them to take down, memorize, and later act out. Teachers and pupils also discussed the feats of the Greek heroes described by Homer. At 13 or 14, the formal education of the poorer boys probably ended and was followed by apprenticeship at a trade. The wealthier boys continued their education under the tutelage of philosopher-teachers. Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle taught in schools and the boys who attended these schools fell into more or less two groups. Those who wanted learning for its own sake studied with philosophers like Plato who taught such subjects as geometry, astronomy, harmonics (the mathematical theory of music), and arithmetic.
    This is just a little of what education was really like. I enjoyed your article, just felt I had to mention these things.

    By Blogger J Cartwright, at 1/17/2012  

  • Dear J.
    Thanks for the nice description of the importance of reading in Judaism and the summation of the rabbinic emphasis on it.

    Unfortunately, that nice description applies to approximately 5% of males. Literacy did not reach much higher in the medieval period, despite the high social and religious value placed on reading.

    I have two works of research into Jewish literacy in antiquity on my shelves. One is by C. Hezser of the University of London and the other is by a Bar Ilan professor (whose name escapes me at the moment). Hezser shows that Jewish literacy is no higher than that of other groups, but the Bar Ilan professor argues that it may be even lower than other groups--in part because literacy is an urban phenomenon but rabbinic Galilee is largely rural outside Sepphoris and Tiberias.

    Take care,

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 1/17/2012  

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