In light of the 400th anniversary of the King James, I thought it would be fruitful to bring up an interesting argument that Eugene Peterson makes in his book Eat This Book. Furthermore, Ben Myers has recently put up a blog post about his love for the King James so I thought this would stand as an interesting contrast. Myers provides something of a personal apologetic I first heard when I was in an undergraduate Bible class – that there is just something special about the King James. I never used the King James so I was intrigued by this line of logic. The person in my class talked about how the language of the King James was sufficiently “high” for the Bible, and how that language helped to push the Bible into a more spiritual register (my language, not his). In light of this argument, I would like to note some of Eugene Peterson’s reasons for thinking that the King James Version, for these very reasons, is an inadequate translation (I should note that I don’t have this book with me and I read it a year ago, so I will only outline the broad contours of his argument).
The first thing to note about Eugene Peterson’s argument is that he denies what tend to be two assumed premises. First, that the King James was written in an older form of English which was used in everyday conversation. Rather, Peterson argues, the language of the King James was never conversational in any age. It was, even in its own day, an attempt to spiritualize language to a higher order fitting for the Bible. As ink marked the page it was, at it were, “arcane,” or, better, “foreign.” Second, based on the Greek language of the New Testament, the King James fails to provide a proper translation of the language that the apostles used to convey the gospel. It was, in fact, common language that was invoked for the New Testament and not a higher-level spiritual grammar. To make this point, Peterson highlights two arguments used leading up to the King James translation to explain why there were Greek words used in the NT that did not occur in other Greek manuscripts. I don’t recall the number of words, but there was a large chunk of key terms that hadn’t been found in any other ancient Greek text. From this problem arose two views: First, that the words were transliterations from the Hebrew, and second, that the terms were a special language given by God for use in his Bible. Peterson argues that these two arguments were both proven false when archeologists discovered the words on papyri found in garbage dumps. The terms were not found in other manuscripts because they are not the kinds of words people save for posterity. They are the kinds of terms used only for the mundane like laundry lists – not theological or philosophical treatises – so the argument goes.
Based on this line of reasoning, the King James bought into a certain view of the language used in the New Testament that latter textual work has shown to be inadequate. This is why, Peterson explains, he translated the Bible into “American.” I find this argument to be pretty fascinating. Any thoughts?