Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Recommended Reading-In The Beginning by Alister McGrath

The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture.

When I become interested or involved in something I like to know its history. This is especially true of Church history. While we don’t all need to be scholars in it-the more we know our history, the more likely we will be to avoid mistakes of the past-and embrace its good points. We are all prisoners of out times to some degree, and for that reason RC Sproul recommends reading authors from different times-as the errors of their times will contrast with the eternal truths that come through from various times.

The subtitle pretty much sums up the book. We often look back at the times covered by this book and see it through our eyes, McGrath tries to see it through theirs. And the history of the King James Bible (and English Bibles in general) involves not only Church history, but also cultural, linguistic, and political history as well-especially in times and places with a close connection between Church and State.

McGrath is very thorough in his approach and set up—if you’re expecting the KJV to jump out at you early on, hold tight—it comes in about half way through. But that’s to allow the stage to be set in terms of brief histories of the earlier English translations, as well as history of translating the Scriptures into the common languages in other parts of the world.

The English Bible was a late addition to the scene—other languages had Bible translations earlier-partly because they are older languages. The culture and politics of England prior to the 1600’s led to opposition to translating the Bible into English. One of the reason is the English language was seen as low class. The upper classes in Britain primarily spoke French-the common people spoke English-the Scriptures were seen as defiled to be translated into such a base language. This linguistic “snobbery” is not as prevalent anymore, so we tend to disregard those reasons and see merely a religious and/or political conspiracy against the truth. While the resistance to vernacular (or common) language Bibles often has a religious basis-we should not ignore other factors.

McGrath also takes a look at how the Reformation of the 16th century affected religious thought, and politics. Prior to the Reformation there was also a movement to go back to the sources. So in the area of Biblical studies that meant going back to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts of scripture, in addition to the prevalent Latin translation of the day, the Vulgate- (Along the way people lost sight of why it was called the “Vulgate”—it was a translation into the “vulgar” or common language of the people-which in Western Europe, and other places, was Latin.)

This interest added fuel to the Reformation on both sides, and was part of the catalyst for Martin Luther to translate the Bible into German. That translation helped bring about a more united Germany, and standardized the German language. This is also a potential reason vernacular Bibles could be seen as a threat-in this case by Germany’s enemies.

The most popular English Bible prior to the KJV was the Geneva Bible. (It was translated and produced in Geneva, Switzerland, by refugees fleeing religious persecution in England.) It was also greatly disliked by some religious and political leaders due to marginal notes. These notes were strongly Reformed and clashed with some leaders’ views of their own authority. Some religious leaders were not concerned that way-but were not Reformed so opposed it on those grounds. Despite the opposition to the Geneva Bible’s notes, it clearly influenced the KJV.

In 1603 James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England, where he was known as James I. The religious climate at that time depended a great deal on the ruler, and various groups had hopes and plans tied to the new King. It was through these hopes and plans that a new translation was proposed and authorized by King James, (and thus the name-King James Version.) This is a slight over simplification, but the book will fill you in.

Despite how it’s often presented, the KJV was not an instant success when it was first published in 1611-but it eventually became the dominant English translation-and very little new translating was done until the late 1800’s.

From there we see the KJV reverse the story, so to speak. The nation, language and culture influenced the situation into which the KJV was born, but when it took over from the Geneva Bible as the dominant English Bible it impacted the Nation, the language, and the culture.

With so many English translations available today, one may wonder why any of this matters—but it is Church history, and is certainly relevant to where we are now and how we got there. It can also shed some light on the gospel, and how it’s been preached and taught in history. It is certainly probable that without the KJV many hymns would sound different. Our modern translations were affected as well. Many were revisions of the KJV-comparing it to the manuscripts, and retranslating where needed. It also was part of the development of translation methods. Whether or not you’ve ever read the KJV, and whether or not it is your translation of choice-this book is a valuable work on Church history, and should get you thinking about that history-(including those who gave their lives for an English Bible)-and thinking about the Bible.

In the Beginning is published by Anchor Books.


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