In my last post I called the King James Bible “crap”, partly because of its poor English, and partly because its translators do violence of the underlying text, so that their translation destroys whatever literary or poetic structure was present in the original language.

There seems to be some remaining misunderstanding about this. At least a few commenters claimed that the alleged literalness of the KJV somehow preserves rather than destroys the structure of the biblical texts and their accompanying nuances. To illustrate that this claim is mistaken, let’s look at the first chapter of the Epistle of James, which I’ve included at the bottom of this post in a parallel presentation of the King James and the New Revised Standard Versions.

In the King James Version of James’ epistle*, each verse reads like an isolated aphorism. Consequently, this chapter of the epistle, when read as a whole, is disjointed and lacks coherence. In other words, it is poorly written. If I handed-in something of this quality for an English class, I’d receive a poor grade regardless of the archaisms. The teacher would likely say that the piece has its moments, but overall it ends up rambling through thought-fragments in a muddled way. Those willing to compare the KJV to good Jacobean English (like that of John Ford, John Fletcher, and the more popular works of Ben Johnson), will find that KJV English isn’t even good by Jacobean standards.

Though one would never guess from reading the KJV, James’ epistle is not disjointed, incoherent, fragmentary, or muddled. In fact, it is the only book in the New Testament that possesses substantial literary sophistication. The Epistle of James is cleverly written and magnificently constructed.

In James’ epistle, each sentence builds upon a theme in the preceding sentence. Moreover, each paragraph builds on a theme in a preceding paragraph, sometimes by contrast and sometimes by augmentation. The resulting chain of ideas is pleasing, powerful, and perhaps even playful. The first chapter is especially ingenious. The first few verses develop several themes, stringing them together as a conceptual chain that progresses like this:

Trial brings joy → trials lead to endurance → fulfilled endurance is complete.

(new paragraph transitions with contrast: complete vs. lacking)

To those lacking → ask of God → he will give it to you if you have faith → unbelievers get nothing

(new paragraph transitions with contrast: unbelievers vs. believers)

God elevates lowly believers → God brings rich brought down → their beauty will wither

(new paragraph transitions with contrast: wither vs. endure)

Those who enduring test are blessed → receive crown of life, etc.

In the New Revised Standard Version this thematic wordplay is manifest in English. The words flow beautifully and each concept neatly fits within the chain developed by the author — not so with the KJV, in which James appears to simply lay proverb upon proverb with no rhyme or reason.

This is an especially apt example of poor writing in the KJV, because the KJV language in the Epistle of James is not unduly obscured by archaism, and each verse is readily intelligible to modern readers.

And so we see that, for all its vaunted “beauty,” the KJV is awful English. In spite of the presence of a handful of quotable statements (e.g., verse 5), the KJV slaughters the epistle as a whole, because it fails to link its ideas with clear and cogent transitions. The resulting English is laborious to read and difficult to understand quite independent from the issue of archaisms. In other words, the problem isn’t that the English is difficult. The problem is that the English is bad.

But enough analyzing. See for yourself:

King James Version New Revised Standard Version

1. James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.

1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Greetings.

2. My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;
3. Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.
4. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

2My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

5. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
6. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
7. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.
8. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

5If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

9. Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted:
10. But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
11. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.

9Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

12. Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
13. Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:
14. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
15. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
16. Do not err, my beloved brethren.

12Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved.

17. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.

26. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
27. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

With the KJV, these kinds of issues are the rule rather than the exception. It’s difficult for me to see how people can maintain that they find the KJV to beautiful unless they (a) don’t read it very closely, or (b) have a rather low opinion of biblical texts to begin with.

Alas, few people are literate enough to confidently assert that the KJV is hideously written, so they blame themselves for the difficulty they have understanding it. Even those who have their doubts about the KJV tend to shy away from criticizing it, sometimes because they fear that it will expose their ignorance. After all, everybody just knows that it’s beautiful.

 

*I am aware that James the Just did not actually write the epistle. Even so, there’s no reason not to refer to the author as “James.” For one thing, it’s less boring than contriving ways to refer to an unnamed author. For another thing, who knows but that the author actually was named James? (click here to return to text)