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King James Only types. Strange People I’ve only just started thinking about…

April 5, 2015


When I was young, I associated the more intransigent and dogmatic religious types with a kind of opposition to the King James Bible.  There was a clear preference among the literalists for the Good News or (especially) the New International Versions.  Part of the reason, oddly enough, was that King James Version was too beautiful.  Its memorable cadences had the habit of distracting the reader from literal readings and instead encouraging forms of open-ended aesthetic satisfaction. The KJV or the AV was poetic and therefore projected a sense of “indirection” rather than direct injunction.

But recently I’ve become aware of a longish tradition of people for whom not only is KJV “best” but “only”.  Now I’m not a biblical scholar, but many of the King James Only crowd claim that subsequent translations of the Bible have been using contaminated Alexandrian sources.

Yet the bitterness and ferocity of some of the King James Only crowd demands a larger ideological consideration.  People like Peter Ruckman and Jack Chick are not lobbying for a better translation based on their own selection of sources, but rather a belief that something very magical happened in 1611.

When people describe a particular translation as “inspired”, they are in effect saying that such a translation is more than just a translation – it’s a fresh revelation.  Many of the people who revere the King James Version, do so, it seems to me, not because they believe it to be the most poetically satisfying, or even strictly accurate version, but because they have something invested in the idea that God had a special revelation to a bunch of early Jacobean scholars.

God, in other words, spoke English.

King James Bibliolatry is a kind of Anglophile (or rather Anglophone or even Anglophonophile) fetish.  It’s reconfigures the English Bible, not as a translation from Hebrew and Greek originals but as an original all of its own.  God may have spoken first to a bunch of dark skinned near easterners, but He really got his thoughts together for the benefit of fair skinned north-west Europeans (and their transatlantic descendants).  Now, if “inspiration” is the test of truth – then why is the KJV regarded as the Word of God and Paradise Lost a mere work of literature?

Hard to say, and as a result, the frontier between a certain kind of literary theology and a certain kind of canonizing literary criticism has always been pretty fuzzy.

Oddly enough, by seventeenth-century standards, King James I (or VI) was a pretty ecumenical sort of guy.  He was one of the seventeenth-century rulers least likely to want to torture people to death over small points of theology.  Now nobody dislikes having to say positive things about kings more than I do, but there’s no evidence that King James saw himself as authorising a definitive Bible for all Anglophones everywhere for all time.

“King James Best” would define people who have made a considered judgement based on a recognition that the source material is indeed written in Greek and Hebrew and that it may yet need to be re-translated if it is to communicate with future generations.  The “King James Only” movement defines people who have a strange and heterodox relationship with the year 1611.

They also have a very strange and fetishistic relationship with the English language.

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