Beauty, Language, and the King James Bible

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Regardless of your creed or convictions (or lack thereof), it’s hard to deny that the King James translation of the Bible is an epic tome of efficient diction, unforgettable narratives, and beautifully wrought poetry. The translation–arguably the most widely read text in the English language–celebrates its 400th birthday this year and deserves praise for its enduring allure and literary relevancy.

Ann Wroe of More Intelligent Life recently lauded the elegant language of the King James Bible in a passionate piece of personal essay and approachable scholarship. First, she describes her initial interaction with the KJV, a chance reading at St. John’s College Chapel. “The effect was extraordinary” remembers Wroe, “as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.” And when you open its pages, she continues, “

[I]t is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts,” Wrote continues. “Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields, serving girls in Sunday best, and every schoolboy whose inky fingers have burrowed to 2 Kings 27, where Rabshakeh says, “Hath my master not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”

Although she covers many of the KJV’s linguistic curiosities, her ruminations on the specificity of vocabulary are particularly interesting:

By the same token, the reader of the King James lives vicariously in a world of solid certainties. There is nothing quaint here about a candle or a flagon, or money in a tied leather purse; nothing arcane about threads woven on a handloom, mire in the streets or the snuffle of swine outside the town gates. This is life. Everything is closely observed, tactile, and has weight. When Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves together to cover their shame they make “aprons” (Genesis 3:7), leather-thick and workmanlike, the sort a cobbler might wear. Even the colours invoked in the King James–crimson, scarlet, purple–are nouns rather than adjectives (“though your sins be as scarlet”, Isaiah 1:18), sold by the block as solid powder or heaped glossy on a brush. And God’s intervention in this world, whether as artist, builder, woodsman or demolition man, is as physical and real as the materials he works with.

Source: More Intelligent Life

Image by Ian B-M, licensed under Creative Commons.

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