The Ghost of King James


IT is certainly no secret that we live in an age of very rapid progress. The incredible of yesterday is the commonplace of to-day. Nor is this swiftness of pace uncongenial to the American mind. We cheerfully read the Tuesday morning paper Monday night, and we have hardly mastered the intricacies of the 1923 automobile, when the 1924 model, with all the very latest improvements, is thrust before us. The newest game and the latest fashion penetrate to little towns in every part of the country, with amazing celerity.

This is not a mere craze for novelty. It is based in part upon a social instinct for doing what other people are doing; in part upon a genuine faith in human progress. We believe that science is advancing, that machinery is improving, that new comforts, conveniences, attractions, and joys are being added to life. It is the grip this faith has upon us that perhaps most distinguishes us as a people.

The undeniable advances which human knowledge has made in recent years have not been confined to chemistry, biology, and physics; they have affected the fields of history and literature as well. For the first time the curtain has risen upon ancient history, and archæology has begun to discern the far-off rise of civilization. And all along the way discoveries of tombs, ruins, tablets, inscriptions, and manuscripts have given us new light.

In no field have these discoveries been more fruitful than in that of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament. Manuscripts of great antiquity and excellence have disclosed to us the ancient Greek text with an accuracy and a purity impossible in former times. In our age we actually know more exactly what Paul and the Evangelists wrote than has been possible in any century since the fourth.

The discoveries of Greek papyri, made in Egypt in the past twenty-five years, have put into our hands a mass of materials actually contemporary with the New Testament, and written in the common Greek of its day. These private documents — letters, wills, deeds, contracts, petitions, reports, accounts, receipts, and memoranda — throw a flood of light upon New Testament life. Their bearing upon the language of the New Testament is even more important. Under their influence, and that of the modern science of comparative philology, New Testament grammar and lexicography have been virtually rewritten. In the past fifteen years six new lexicons of New Testament Greek have been produced, in English, Latin, or German.

When in early life Bishop Lightfoot was teaching in Cambridge, he once remarked to his students that if we could recover letters and similar private documents written by Greeks in New Testament times, they would be of the greatest possible help for understanding the New Testament; and the papyrus discoveries have proved that he was right.

All this has put the student of the New Testament in a vastly better position. And surely the most obvious thing to do with all these new aids for understanding the New Testament would seem to be to use them to retranslate it. Can anyone seriously think otherwise? Is the New Testament specialist, who has seen this longdesired material come to light, has shared in its decipherment and application, and has used it with growing satisfaction in his daily work, to keep it to himself and shirk the plain duty the possession of these materials lays upon him? One might as well expect Dr. Luckhardt to keep silent about his discovery of the new anæsthetic, ethylene.

American scholarship has made noteworthy contributions to New Testament grammar, lexicography, and interpretation, but until very lately Americans have read the New Testament in English-made versions, with many expressions unfamiliar or misleading to American ears. It has been felt that an American translation, presenting each book in English of the same kind as the Greek in which it was written and in English familiar in America, would meet a real need of American readers, and appeal to that zest for progress so natural to the American mind. And the work has in fact evoked the most generous interest. Newspapers have announced it in their picturesque way: ‘Rewrites the Bible,’ ‘Modernizing the Bible,’ ‘The Bible à la Chicago,’ ‘The Bible in Slang,’ and even ‘Jazzing the Bible.’

Letters pour in from the educated and the uneducated, full of eager interest, and sometimes of very touching appreciation. Business men, engineers, ministers, doctors, and mechanics write to welcome the new translation. It is no small satisfaction to a quiet professor to know that he has thus served the religious needs of men and women personally unknown to him, in every walk of life, in thirty different states.

‘Long have I wished and needed your kind of a translation,’ writes a man in New Jersey. A business man in Kansas City says: ‘In comparison with the vast number of book-readers, the Bible is the least read of all books, very largely because of its burdensome, involved language, making it impossible for thousands of people to make head or tail of it.’ A man in Chicago writes: ‘We are in need of just such a translation as I believe yours to be.’ ‘We have waited a long time for such a work,’writes a St. Louis minister; ‘I shall do all in my power to get it before my people.’ One remarkable letter comes from a negro living in a basement in New York City: ‘Your book will be refused by the rich and well-educated, but the poor and meagrely educated will receive it with thanks and praise.’ One can ask no higher compliment.

Nor were the rich and well-educated slow in being heard from. In a hundred editorial sanctums, on the evening after the announcement, appeared the glowering ghost of King James, who never fails to rise and walk the earth when any new rendering of the New Testament has the temerity to show itself. He was not well pleased with the new enterprise. ‘Let it be anathema maranatha,’ cried King James, who was never able to understand that ‘maranatha’ was not a curse, but a blessing; and all the editors cried ‘Amen!’ and seized their fountain pens.

Never was the literature of humor more rapidly enriched than in the moments that followed; and next morning from Utah to Manhattan there rose an editorial chorus of praise for good King James. The editors conjured up a dreadful vision of a prosy-minded professor, utterly devoid of reverence and good taste, and ignorant of the English tongue, busily engaged with scissors and devastating pen in altering the King James Version to suit himself. It would not comfort them to know to what lengths the tampering, tinkering, puttering, and chipping, which they charge against modern translations, have been tacitly carried in the current printings of the Authorized Version they so much enjoy.

Few verses indeed of that great literary landmark remain as they were first printed; and it is not so very long since about one tenth of the King James Bible — the Apocrypha — was quietly dropped from its contents. It is no real King James, therefore, but in very truth a mere blanched and pallid ghost of him that walks abroad and frights them in the dead vast and middle of the night.

Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise!
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’ T is folly to be wise.

Modern discovery and the march of sound learning mean nothing to them, in the overpowering presence of the Ghost of King James. Across the path to a better understanding of the New Testament still stands that sinister figure, just as the Old Latin barred the way of Jerome’s Vulgate, and Jerome’s Vulgate barred the way of William Tyndale.

So the Authorized Version has barred the way of both revisions, and still says in effect to even the simplest forms of New Testament study, ‘Non licet esse vos.’ Against this verdict of conventionality and tradition, New Testament scholarship will confidently appeal to that deeper faith in the progress of the human mind which we have seen to be characteristic of the American genius.


What the modern translator really undertakes to do is something very different. He takes up the soundest obtainable text of the original Greek, saturates himself with the language of the contemporary papyrus documents, and with the aid of the ablest modern lexicons, grammars, translations, commentaries, and special treatises, seeks to understand, without bias or prejudice, just what each sentence of the Greek New Testament was intended by its writer to mean. This meaning he then, to the very utmost of his ability, strives to cast into modern English, of the same kind as the Greek he is translating; English so natural that it may even make the reader sometimes forget, in his absorption in its thought, that it is a translation he is reading, and lead him on and on, until he has read and understood a whole gospel or epistle, and realizes that the New Testament is not a collection of disjointed texts, but a library of coherent and powerful banks. It is this ancient quality of continuous readability that we must recover for the New Testament in English.

The uplifting influence of the diction of King James is naturally reflected in that of his editorial champions; ‘The King James Version,’ says one, ‘contains the rarest beauty in the English language. For centuries generations of people speaking the English language and worshiping in Protestant churches have been raised upon its texts.’ Surely it is most fitting that the editors who have been raised on these texts should rally to the defense of the texts on which they have been raised.

Most of the editors readily agree that the King James Version is perfectly clear and intelligible. It possesses no difficulties for them, and they marvel that anyone should find any part of it obscure. One is reminded of a great remark of the Apostle Paul: ‘If a man thinks he has acquired some knowledge, he does not yet know it as he ought to know it.’ One wonders what they understand by a ‘horn of salvation,’ or by ‘taking up one’s carriages,’ or by these words in the Revelation: ‘A measure of wheate for a penie, and three measures of barley for a penie.’

Every novel-reader knows that the third Horseman of the Apocalypse is the Angel of Famine, but it is safe to say that King James did not reveal it to him. How large is a ‘measure,’ and how much is a ‘penie’? Some of us are sufficiently interested in the New Testament to want to know, not simply how it sounds, but what it means, and see neither beauty nor propriety in muffling it up in words that contradict its thought.

Our editors are much disturbed that the poetic old-fashioned ‘candle’ of King James should be displaced by the commonplace modern ‘lamp,’and indulge in much good-natured raillery on this score. ‘When it comes to the substitution of such words as “lamp” for “candle,”’ says one metropolitan daily, ‘and “peck measure” for “bushel,” and “stand” for “candlestick,” one is struck by the absurdity of endeavoring to “modernize” language.’ And another proceeds: ‘But why did he not bring it entirely up to date and write “touch a button,” so that all should know an oil lamp was not meant?’

It is to be feared that, in following our distinguished ghost too closely, these writers have been drawn to the edge of the battlements and had a disastrous fall. He has made these grizzled and godly men in New York, Washington, and Indianapolis, where there are presumably libraries and encyclopædias at least — he has made them think that the apostles used candles and candlesticks, and no one has ever undeceived them.

This is just the trouble with King James; he has constantly to be followed about by a commentator and an archæologist to undo the impressions he has made: to say that when he says ghost he means spirit, and when he says candle he means lamp. Is it necessary to say that candles were unknown to the New Testament, and its characters were dependent upon oil lamps for illumination? It is, in fact, King James, and not the modern translator, who has here ‘modernized’ the New Testament.

And the irony of it! that his wellmeant effort to bring the New Testament up to date in his day should now be mistaken by his adherents for archæological fidelity and charged off to poetry!

The editors have much to say concerning the Lord’s Prayer. They declare that King James made no change in that gem of all the liturgies; indeed, says one, ‘It is a petition that in its present wording has been held sacred for nearly two thousand years.’ From this it must be evident that our Lord and his apostles not only used candles but spoke English — of course the English of King James. As a matter of fact, no two English translations agree in the rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, and the two forms given in the Prayer Book differ from them all, King James included.

Of course, criticism, condemnation, and even curses (Revelation 22:18 seems to be the general favorite) have been showered upon every translator of the New Testament, from Jerome down. The idea of the divine inspiration of the King James Version is still strongly held in some quarters. ‘Theologians and laymen alike,’says one good brother, in a newspaper interview, of the present translator, ‘will wait, with awe for God to strike him dead for thus laying his calloused hands upon the sacred and inspired word of God.'

Yet in Puritan New England, a minister who could not read the Scripture lesson in a version of his own directly from the Greek, but must read it from the Authorized Version, was not thought fit to minister to a Christian congregation. Such were the earlier American ideals of New Testament interpretation, and of the relative values of the Greek original and the traditional version.

When Jerome produced that greatest of all the versions, the Latin Vulgate, he was bitterly criticized even by Augustine himself; and everyone knows the fate of William Tyndale, who first translated the New Testament from Greek into English. The same deep attachment to familiar forms of religious truth still operates and probably always will.


The remarkable thing about the reception of the new translation is not the opposition it has aroused, but the welcome it has received. Not all the editors have been hasty and conventional. Here and there all over the country they have ventured to look King James squarely in the eye and even to ask him,

. . . why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again.

Two great claims are made for the Authorized Version: that it is richly freighted with religious associations, and that it is a noteworthy monument of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English. Both may be at once admitted. Yet both together are not enough to justify for the Version the perpetual monopoly which is usually claimed for it.

These values do not outweigh the meaning of the New Testament, in which its chief interest and worth must always lie. The King James Version belongs of right to literature and to liturgy; it is of little use for interpretation. Its stiffness and obscurity are quite alien to the Greek original, and its 7959 arbitrary paragraphs constitute 7959 obstacles to coherent understanding, which taken together are literally insurmountable.

For the body of memories and associations, which for most of us in middle life or past it are enshrined in the Authorized Version, all thoughtful men must have profound respect. It somehow embodies and reflects, as Dr. Glover of Cambridge once remarked, the history of English-speaking Protestantism for the past three centuries.

These are great values, which none of us would wish to impair. Its literary interest too is very great. I enjoy the Authorized Version, particularly when I can escape from the doctored modern copies to the genuine quaintness of the original of 1611, so full of atmosphere and freedom—of figge trees, and bottomlesse pittes, of sunne, moone, and starres, of oyle and ayre; with its moneths, its fornaces, its souldiers, its ancres, Marie, Gethsemani, Hierusalem, and all the rest. It may be, as we are constantly told, a masterpiece of terse, rhythmical, native English, although sentences like ‘Take that thine is,’ and ‘I am verily a man which am a Jew,’ and the steady use of the Latin ‘servant’ where the Greek demands the Anglo-Saxon ‘slave,’ leave me a little dubious.

But the New Testament ought to be more to us than a literary masterpiece or a mass of associations. It still has a message for modern life, just as it had for its own time. It is something more than a sponge that has absorbed our religious emotions, or a hypnotizing chant to which we really listen only when we miss a familiar word. It must not be reduced to the level of an incantation, the words of which remain after the meaning has been forgotten.

There are higher uses for it than these, and we must not exchange the Greek New Testament, the most valuable book of religion ever written, for a literary curiosity of the seventeenth century, which those who admire it most as literature do not read or understand.

The New Testament was not written for the admiration of dilettantes. Its writers scorned the petty refinements of literary stylists; the Apostle Paul says so in so many words. What would he have thought to see himself tricked out in the artificialities of the Elizabethan phrase-makers?

The papyri have risen from the sands of Egypt to confirm Paul’s statement: the New Testament is written in the everyday language of the common people. The discoveries and studies of the past twenty years have established this beyond peradventure. Those who deny it would do well to explore the evidence.

The greatness of the New Testament lay not in its form but in its meaning. It was its message that elevated and ennobled the humble forms of speech its writers employed. It follows that in translation it should possess ease, clearness, and vigor, rather than Elizabethan pomp and poetry of diction.

Tender associations and literary interest are very well in their way, but when in their name men would silence the discoveries of three hundred years, and stop the mouth of the Greek New Testament, they are going too far. No one wishes to take the King James Version away from those who prize it, but the right of the rest of us to profit by all the archæological and philological progress since 1611 cannot be denied.

The fate of this or that modern translation is a matter of little moment, but freedom to understand the New Testament as it was originally written is of the highest importance. That freedom will never be gained for the English reader until we transfer our allegiance from the form and letter of the New Testament to its meaning and spirit, and thus lay forever the Ghost of King James.