Books that changed humanity – the King James Bible

Yesterday evening I went along to a lecture at the ANU Humanities Research Centre, as part of their series on Books That Changed Humanity. This lecture was given by Rev Dr John Harris on The King James Bible. It was truly fascinating. Not only did he talk about how the spread of this bible, in schools and homes and communities, changed the understanding people had of their relationship to God, and the moral framework of an entire culture, but then there was a discussion of the language itself.

James VI, who became James I of England, apparently gave a directive that the simple old words be used in preference to the French, and from that arose the King James Cadence, which is still a stirring cadence that has been used, and the language of the KJV alluded to, in many great speeches since (eg Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King). He pointed out that many of the most memorable verses in the KJV are composed entirely of one-syllable Saxon words (“I am the way, the truth and the life”, “I am the light of the world”), because this works. The biggest exception to this rule of short simple words in the KJV is apparently the epistles of Paul. Supposedly they contain more legal terminology because the Westminster Company that translated these letters used more of the French language, the language of the courts, in them. Words like justification, propitiation, redemption were French words. In simple Saxon they would be more like “put right with God”, “Jesus died to buy us back” (I can’t quite remember the actual phrases he used to illustrate this point) … I thought that was so interesting. And apparently French had many words for wrong doing (crime, trespass, transgression …), whereas Saxon had only one – “sin”.

I didn’t actually take notes, so there are many historic anecdotes and literature references I wish I could now remember (particularly to Shakespeare), but when the podcast comes up I will post it because it really was so very interesting. And the way Rev Dr Harris (you can read his credentials on the link above) delivered the lecture was in itself very moving (he even sang a little). Well worth a listen.

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