The Literary Beauty of the King James Bible

7 minute read

Should a Bible translation be “beautiful?” What does that even mean?  

Over the decades, the King James Version (KJV) has been described as “majestic,” artistic,” a “literary masterpiece,” even “lyrical.” There is universal praise for its sound and rhythm, especially when read out loud, but are these worthwhile goals for a Bible translation?  

While there is a contemporary debate about what makes a Bible translation great, few modern translations of the Bible make literary excellence their primary goal. Yet literary excellence makes the KJV unique. 

Praying Hands on top of an open Bible

Comparing Passages

Here’s a comparison between the King James Version and the most popular English translation in the world today, the New International Version (NIV), using the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

KJV

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 

Give us this day our daily bread. 

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 

NIV

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. 

If you didn’t grow up using the KJV, you probably wouldn’t be opposed to using a modern translation like the NIV. It uses straightforward, modern English that is easy to understand and memorize. 

But if you grew up using the King James Version, you will be disappointed by most modern translations. There is reverence in the sound of “thy” as opposed to “your,” especially in reference to God. 

A Sense of Mystery

Open Bible on lectern with candle stand close by.

Back in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church moved away from using Latin in its liturgy in favor of vernacular languages, you would have thought such a move would have been welcomed. It wasn’t. In fact, lots of people exited the church. Even priests became disillusioned, and thousands left the clergy in the following decade. Why? Because the liturgy seemed emptied of some of its mystery. 

Here is the Catholic absolution in Latin and English. Imagine entering a confessional where the priest repeated the Latin absolution for your sins.  

Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis (suspensionis) et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. 

Now read the English and see if you can see how some of the holy mystery is lost.  

May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication (suspension) and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

Just like Catholic Christians and priests felt about the twentieth-century move away from Latin liturgy, so also many older Christians prefer the 400-year-old English of the KJV to what they feel are modern, “dumbed down” translations that sound more like a kid talking in middle school than a stately pastor proclaiming transcendent, spiritual truths from the pulpit. This belief contributes to the persistence of “King James only” people in the world today. 

Formality of Language

Why are words like “exaltation,” “grandeur,” “dignity,” and “affective power” used to describe the King James Version? Does that really matter for Bible translation? 

In his contrast between the literary beauty of the KJV and most modern translations in The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation, Leland Ryken writes, “A sacred book should sound like a sacred book, not like the daily newspaper. It should command attention and respect, and to do so it cannot be expressed in the idiom of the truck stop.”[1]

Compare, for example, how past US presidents communicated in public speeches with how our contemporary politicians often talk. A level of eloquence is lost today in their overuse of colloquialism; the majesty of the office seems diminished.

Pink rose on top of an open Bible.

Eye of the Beholder

Granted, art is largely subjective. What one person finds beautiful another may consider ugly. And while it is not our intention to criticize other Bible translations, there is nevertheless something to be said for stating the truth of God in elevated speeh, while being faithful to the original biblical languages. 

This also extends to how humans express themselves to each other in the Bible. For example, consider the contrast between the KJV and a modern translation of this poetic passage from Song of Songs 1:15-16: 

KJV

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair . . . 

Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant. 

CEV

My darling, you are lovely, so very lovely . . . 

My love you are handsome, truly handsome. 

There is a certain eloquence with the first version, that doesn’t come through on the second.  The repeated word “behold” announces the depth of feeling. Anyone with an affinity for Shakespeare can feel the poetry and the romance. Admittedly, this is subjective!

Literary Opinions

Interestingly, though, this isn’t only a modern-day observation. Consider this comment by eighteenth-century author Jonathan Swift: 

“The translators of our Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work than any which we see in our present writings, which I take to be owing to the simplicity that runs through the whole [society].”[2] 

Those who love the King James Version know exactly what Swift meant. Twentieth-century writer and critic Dwight Macdonald shares Swift’s appreciation for the KJV: 

“To make the Bible readable in the modern sense means to flatten out, tone down and convert into tepid expository prose what in KJV is wild, full of awe, poetic, and passionate. It means stepping down the voltage of KJV so it won’t blow any fuses.”[3]

Many people join Swift and Macdonald in praising the beauty of the KJV. It has been called a “peerless masterpiece” and for good reason. The rhythm, style, cadence, and literary eloquence of the KJV guarantee that the it will remain a popular Bible translation for years to come. 

Notes

[1] Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 279-80. 

[2] Jonathan Swift, Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue (London, 1712).  

[3] Dwight Macdonald, “The Bible in Modern Undress,” in Literary Style of the Old Bible and the New, ed. D.G. Kehl (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 40.