The KJV: Intentionally Archaic

An excerpt from George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 348-9)

Whether the ‘antique right­ness of the phrasing’ in the Authorized Version, as A. C. Partridge puts it, is due to deliberate stylistic policy, whether it is the achieve­ment of Miles Smith, one of the two final editors, or whether it mainly reflects the influence of the genius of Tyndale, the greatest of English Bible translators, is not certain. But the pervasive patina, the sense of an idiom grounded in Tudor rather than in Jacobean usage and speech-rhythms are decisive.

They ensured the remarkably rapid acceptance of the 1611 translation as not only canonic, but as somehow native to the spirit of the language and as a document uniquely inwoven with the past of English feeling. Though John Selden accused the translators of being antiquarian, they were in fact, as David Daiches has shown, heirs to Reuchlin and Erasmus in their standards of up-to-date scholarship. [1]

What countless readers then and since have experienced in turning to their work is an unequalled feeling of ‘at-homeness’; they have found a native presence in what is, in obvious truth, a remote, entirely alien world of expression and reference.

By choosing or achieving almost fortuitously a dating some two to three generations earlier than their own, the translators of the Authorized Version made of a foreign, many-layered original a life-form so utterly appropriated, so vividly out of an English rather than out of a Hebraic, Hellenic, or Ciceronian past, that the Bible became a new pivot of English self-consciousness.

The archaicism was ‘not a phenomenon of vocabulary alone, but a com­plex of historical factors, impossible to isolate.’ [2] They include archaic weak plurals, the inflexion of the second- and third-person singular of verbs, the use of past participles of verbs, the preservation of the idiomatic verb wot, weak preterites such as shaked, the common Middle English assimilation of the preterite and past participle in­ flexions to the stem-final t of weak verbs (the Ark ‘was lift up above the earth’ in Genesis, 7:17), and numerous words which had dropped out of current speech or were rapidly becoming obsolescent at the turn of the century. [3]

Far from being static or merely ornamental, this archaicism embodied the vitality, the logic of a cumulative tradition. This ‘ingestion’ and transmutation of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin sources into English sensibility, where it continues to play a part more immediate than that of Scripture in any other European com­munity, more linguistically central and theologically diffuse, would not have occurred had the scholars and editors of 1604-11 laboured to be ‘modern’. It was by looking back that they justified the proud definition contained in the Preface:

Translation it is that openeth the window,

to let in the light; that breaketh the shell,

that we may eat the kernel.

Steiner’s footnotes:

1.  Cf. David Daiches, The King James Version of the English Bible: An Ac­count of the Development and Sources of the English Bible of 1611 with Special Reference to the Hebrew Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1941), particu­larly Chapter IV.

2. A. C. Partridge, English Biblical Translation (London, 1973), p. 138.

3. I am following Prof. Partridge’s detailed discussion of these points in op. cit., pp. 115-38.