[NOTE: Yesterday I wrote about literary style vs. substance. I concluded that it’s possible to have the first while lacking the second, especially in the realm of politics. Today I’m writing about a work that undoubtedly has both style and substance—the King James Version of the Bible—and the effect of changing the style.]
As a child who loved poetry, I memorized it almost without intending to. Just a few readings of a poem I liked and its cadences seemed to stick in my brain. Lines and phrases came to me at odd times and repeated themselves, the way song lyrics often do.
The best of them had a strange and hypnotic power. As I got older they took on meanings and subtleties I hadn’t understood as a child. But I had always understood the beauty of the words and the way they fit together, sound complementing sense.
The same was true of certain prayers and Bible passages—the Psalms, for instance, which I knew were also poems, although they didn’t rhyme.
Their language was archaic. I learned the King James Version, even though I didn’t know at the time that it was called that. But it was easy to understand, not hard at all. And to me, all those “thys” and “thous” and “eths” and “ests” made it seem as though the psalms came not from the olden days, but from a place beyond and outside of time.
Then I went to a service that used a revised and modernized version of the Bible. I could still recognize the prayers and psalms, but now they had a jarring pedestrian quality, almost like a Dick and Jane reader. I was still relatively young, but even then I felt the tug of nostalgia for the beautiful language of the past, despite the fact that I couldn’t articulate what was missing or why I minded so much.
Well, maybe now I can articulate it. Here’s the 23rd Psalm in the King James Version:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
It’s not necessarily identical with the first new version I encountered. But it’s typical of versions that make changes that are relatively minimal and yet still seem to me to represent a loss, however slight, of something very beautiful that was part of what made the earlier version so compelling. Is that loss compensated for by any gain in accessibility? You be the judge:
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
It doesn’t take too many liberties with the older version, not really. Mostly it clears out the “thous,” and substitutes the modern “you,” in addition to removing the archaic endings from the verbs. So it oughtn’t to be so bad, right? And yet, and yet…it feels so much flatter, although you may disagree.
The revisers have made a few other changes that seem to me to be gratuitous, although I imagine they have something to do with translating more literally and correctly from the original Hebrew (of which I understand only a few words, although I’ve heard it’s the very best way of all to appreciate the splendor and poetry of the work, as well as its meaning).
There are a couple of changes that jump out at me in jarring fashion. I feel something akin to a pang at the missing words and phrases, and come close to wincing at the additions.
Why oh why, in line 4 (corresponding to line 2 in the older version), are the waters described as “quiet” instead of “still?” Surely the phrases indicate close to the same thing in English, but “still” has the added virtue of conjuring up other references such as “still waters run deep,” as well as the repetitive “s” sound that harmonically resonates with the “s” at the end of the word “waters” and the one in the middle of “beside.” That’s poetry.
Then there’s the worst offense of all, at least to my ears: the omission of the word “Yea” in line 4 of the old version (it would be line 8 in the new). “Yea” was a great change of pace, a dramatic stopping point where the rhythmic variation of the unstressed and stressed syllables stood still for a moment, like a rest in music, before charging forward again. It worked as wonderful emphasis: yes, indeed; hear hear!
The substitution of “Even though” for “Yea, though” not only fails to serve this rhythmic function, it doesn’t even have the same meaning. “Yea” is an affirmation and an emphasis, underlining the thought to follow. The “even” is weak, tentative: “despite the fact that I walk through the valley….”
I can’t imagine anyone caring quite the same way about the newer version as the older one. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to memorize it for the sheer beauty of it, although some of the poetry still comes through. Perhaps there’s even someone who prefers it, just as there are people who prefer frozen french fries to the real thing. But that someone isn’t me.
The changes for the sake of accuracy seem so minimal that I can’t believe they make much of a difference, although in some other parts of the Bible they may be more important. I say keep the important ones and ditch the rest.
I challenge anyone to prefer an even newer version, though, one that departs far more from King James. It’s called the Contemporary English Version, written in 1995 with the purpose of simplicity and ease of reading:
You, LORD, are my shepherd.
I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields
of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
and you refresh my life.
You are true to your name,
and you lead me
along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.
You treat me to a feast,
while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup
until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
each day of my life,
and I will live forever
in your house, LORD.
One might just as well call it the Hallmark greeting card version and be done with it. Or maybe it’s the “You Light Up My Life” version.
This version simplifies to the point of boredom. Nearly all the things that make the first (and even the second, to a certain extent) version uniquely vivid are blanded out. I have no idea why the water is now “peaceful,” for example, but it’s certainly the most dull choice of the three.
But perhaps the worst offense in the passage is totally eliminating the specificity of the image of anointing the speaker’s head with oil, substituting instead the generic and soporific (big yawn) “You honor me as your guest.” Yes, I get the reason: the meaning of the ritual, along with all its rich associations, has been lost. But I don’t think it’s that difficult to guess at in context or to teach, even for a child. For what shall it profit a religious text, if it shall gain a small modicum of enhanced comprehensibility, and lose its own power?
The King James Bible was once new and modern, I suppose, back in the early 1600s when it was first written. But there’s a reason why it’s so popular and has stood the test of time: it’s a masterpiece (and wonder of wonders, it’s a masterpiece produced by a committee).
And yet the urge to improve on the King James Version is nearly irresistible, it seems. There are no fewer than twenty other English-language versions listed at the BibleGateway site, and no doubt there are more on the way. That’s progress for you.