Saturday, 1 January 2011

New Year's Day

"Well, that'll learn him!" I can almost hear the grizzly badgers in my former churches after both the Queen's Christmas Day message and the Archbishop of Canterbury's New Year message today on the subject of the 400th anniversary of the Authorised (or King James', as it seems fashionable to call it) Version of The Bible. I raised great ire in some quarters by introducing a dynamic equivalent translation, the Good News Version, for use in church. In fact it was not done without consultation or off my own bat, but vicars exist to stop the buck.

My answer was to point to William Tyndale, the first English translator of the Bible. I like this lively description, by Alice Brewer, apparently aged 10, in the Tyndale Archive: "To a 15th century farmer, the Bible was just a big book full of unreadable words and made-up rules. This was because priests in those times insisted on the Bible being in Latin. They said the Bible was a holy book, and shouldn’t be allowed to be read by any old sinful peasant. Really, they wanted it to be in a language only they could understand so they could make up a bunch of silly laws to suit themselves, then get away with it by saying "It says so in the Bible." They thought no-one would ever know different, and no-one would ever try and reveal the truth. And no-one did, until Tyndale came along...." (

From the Tyndale archive
Having taught English for many years I'm aware that for all the beauty of the 17th-century prose, much of the AV is actually inaccessible to the average reader - who's much more likely to read and understand The Sun or The Mirror than The Telegraph or The Independent. And the Bible contains good news for all people. When challenged by a grouchy priest one day, Tyndale's reputed reply was, "If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!" In the end he was martyred for his work, but he had set in motion a tradition of putting the Bible within the reach of everyone who could read, of which the placing of the Authorised Version in every church in the land, was the fruit.

One of my favourite verses which I still prefer in that version over any other is: Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.' Might be a good motto for this year.

However the fact that there are versions which are now more comprehensible to people at large does not diminish or undermine the unique importance of the AV. Its influence on language, literature, culture, ethics and in fact on the whole of our heritage is unparalleled. But Rowan Williams pointed out its most significant contribution, which he summarised as: "for people to make sense of their lives, it helps to have a strongly defined story in the background, that tells us that we all matter" - whether we feel it or not, and whatever our circumstances. As well as referring to the Psalms, he showed us the words, "For God so loved the world... that he gave his only begotten Son." That is why we all matter.

I trust you enjoy 2011 and know, without doubt, that you matter, you are infinitely significant.


  1. You don't have to use archaic language to get your message across - Limericks can be just as effective!

  2. I missed it on Sunday, but particularly enjoyed the one about Messrs Dawkins and Hawking. Not very good theology, but nice point!

  3. I shouldn't take a 10 year old's account of history too seriously. Poor girl. On point of fact, Tyndale was beaten to being first translator of the bible into English by the Venerable Bede in the seventh century and by plenty of others (including Wyclif) subsequently.

    Tyndale's translation was - however - significant for working from Greek and Hebrew, coinciding with the advent of the printing press, and incorporating reformist theology, which irked church authorities.

  4. Poor patronising old man! I merely said I liked her description, not that I endorsed her every word. I was, believe it or not, aware of Tyndale's predecessors (including Coverdale). As you say, they didn't go back to the original languages. My point was Tyndale's about making Scripture accessible to the ordinary punter, which academics and vested interests did not and do not approve of.

  5. I love the poetry of the King James but realise that much of it is meaningless in this day and age and cannot understand those who reject 'modern' versions. Words change their meanings - I never sing, in the harvest hymn, " All our WANTS He doth provide" because it conjures up pictures of the modern child moaning "I want...I want"; I sing "All our NEEDS He doth provide" and it's just too bad if it wrong-foots those in front of me. Not that they haven't all moved by now ..........