by Jon Sweeney
The King James Bible, printed in 1611 after a committee of scholars labored over it for seven years, is the most ubiquitous translation of the Bible today. Although many later translations are more accurate to the original text – the KJV was translated from the Latin Vulgate, itself a translation, while most modern translations are taken from the original Hebrew and Greek – none quite match the KJV for poetic beauty. Indeed, few other works can claim to have influenced the English language as the KJV has done. Now, on the 400th anniversary of the first printing, author John Sweeney has written a book detailing the history of the KJV's creation and distribution and its influence on later writers, as well as exploring some of his favorite Bible verses.
This is a short book – just about two hundred pages, excluding the bibliography and appendix. It therefore touches on each topic rather superficially, opting to give the reader a broad overview rather than a densely-packed, in-depth narrative. Sweeney makes some great points about why the KJV has remained so popular over the years. By using archaic language that was old-fashioned even in the 17th century, when the translation was being worked on, the translators force the reader to slow down and really consider the words and what they mean. The rhythm of the words also makes the verses easier to memorize than a more literal translation; I remember this clearly from Sunday School. Although I learned a lot of Bible verses in my youth, the only ones I remember to this day are the KJV ones.
Unfortunately, a lot of the content of the book seemed rather fluffy to me. There's a chapter on the “humor” of the KJV translation that fell utterly flat to me. For example, he'd pick a verse like 1 Kings 1:21, which contains the phrase, when my lord the king shall sleep with his fathers and hold this up as a funny verse unless you knew that 'sleep' was a euphemism for dying. Seemed like an odd thing to giggle at, but maybe that's just me. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable chapter. Another chapter, which listed verses by topic, might be useful to someone who has never read the Bible – but so many Bibles come with a short Concordance at the back of the book that this chapter seemed to do little by up Sweeney's page count.
This wasn't a bad book, but there are so many other books out there if you want to learn about the KJV that I wouldn't recommend this one, especially if you are hoping for something a little toward the scholarly end of the spectrum.
3 out of 5 stars
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