Burning Bibles as literary criticism

I don’t know whether the New International Version and the New King James Version are “heretical” or not, but they’re acts of literary vandalism.

I once read a satirical attack on American Protestant Biblical literalists that said they believed in “the Whole Bible, as dictated personally by the Holy Spirit to King James.”  The point of the satire was that most American literalists don’t read Hebrew or Greek and therefore have to take what they claim to be a verbally inspired text in translation.  Unless you think the translators were themselves inspired, you’re stuck with a translation that might not reflect the text.

Folly, as it always does, runs ahead of satire.  The pastor of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina (near Cold Mountain) decided to make a Hallowe’en bonfire of what he considered “heretical” translations, including NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT. His church uses only the King James Version (KJV) aka the Authorized Version, which as James Wimberley pointed out is about 75% Tyndale’s work.  His God, he says, is soooooo powerful that He was able to make sure that the true text of the Bible was preserved by King James’s interlocking committees of scholars, thus sparing His worshippers, such as the good pastor, the effort of learning Hebrew or Greek.

Actually, the pastor’s commitment isn’t to the scholars who prepared the Authorized Version at King James’s command, but rather to the Hebrew and Greek texts as the Seventeenth Century understood them, without any meddling by modern critics.   On this point, among others, the pastor is a trifle confused:  he refers to “the TR-Textus Receptus (Masoretic Test) that underlays the King James Version.”   The Masoretic text is the canonical Hebrew Bible as read in the synagogue; it reached its current form toward the end of the first millennium.   The Textus Receptus is Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, based almost entirely on Byzantine sources.

Those were indeed the texts used by Tyndale in preparing his translation, and by King James’s scholars in revising it.  But Erasmus wsan’t a Masorete.

But perhaps the good pastor himself was divinely inspired; if so, the divinity must have been Euterpe, the Muse of lyric poetry.  Whatever their theological merits or demerits, the Bibles that fed that bonfire are uniformly hateful to Euterpe and all who revere her.

Let’s take the first three verses of the 23rd Psalm:

King James version:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

The New King James Version sticks more closely to the original, but as far as I can tell every change it makes is a for the worse in literary terms. Take David’s great lament for Saul and Jonathan from 2 Sam. 1:


The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places:
how are the mighty fallen!

Tell it not in Gath,
publish it not in the streets of Askelon;
lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

Ye mountains of Gilbo’a,
let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you,
nor fields of offerings:
for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away,
the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.

From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan turned not back,
and the sword of Saul returned not empty.

Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives,
and in their death they were not divided:
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.

Ye daughters of Israel,
weep over Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights;
who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.

I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan:
very pleasant hast thou been unto me:
thy love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.

How are the mighty fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!

The NKJV starts:

The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;

Small enough changes:  “How the mighty have fallen!” for “How are the mighty fallen!” and “Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon” for “Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.”   Just enough to destroy the music.  The gorgeous

HOW have-the-migh-ty FALL-en

becomes the pedstrian

HOW the mighty have FALL-en.

And the majestic

PUB-lish-it-NOT/in-the-STREETS-of ASH-ke-lon

becomes the tuneless

Pro-CLAIM it NOT/ in the STREETS of ASH-ke-lon.

As to the New Revised Standard Version, the KJV translation of John 11:35 has been described as the only sentence in English that couldn’t be improved by compression.  It reads, “Jesus wept.”  The NRSV reads, “Jesus began to weep.”   (I believe that the New English Bible has “Jesus shed tears,” but perhaps that was only a bad dream.)

“Heretical” or not, the later translations are acts of literary vandalism, defacing perhaps the most beautiful set of texts ever written in English.   To the fire with them!

Alas, I wasn’t invited to the bonfire; otherwise no doubt Terpsichore, the muse of dance, would have inspired me to caper around the flames in honor of the vengeance taken for the sin against her sister Muse.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Burning Bibles as literary criticism”

  1. I seem to recall Dwight MacDonald, the old curmudgeon who wrote for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, heaping scorn on The New English Bible that came out in the 60s. He said that the translation did preserve "Jesus wept." But he was certain that they had been inclined to translate "Jesus burst into tears."

  2. Personally I think the New Jewish Publication Society version has the stamp of the Almighty, because it had an Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi on the translation committee, and what other than Divine intervention could have kept them off one another's throats?

    Their translation of the 23rd psalm begins:

    The Lord is my shepherd;

      I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures;

      He leads me to water in places of repose;

      He renews my life;

      He guides me in right paths

      as befits His name.

    Yeah, that "water in places of repose" is ugly, but if I understand the Hebrew correctly, mei menuchot is in semichut form, so it really means "water of things-that-rest" rather than "resting water". "He leads me to a spa" would really get Euterpe's dander up.

  3. he refers to “the TR-Textus Receptus (Masoretic Test) that underlays the King James Version”

    Sheesh, he can't even speak English himself!

  4. Often the changes are prompted by a desire to avoid misunderstanding due to changes in the meaning of English words. "I shall not want" means, to a modern reader, "I will not desire anything" rather than "my needs will be satisfied." The newer translations – e.g. I shall not be in want – prevent this misunderstaning.


    The Lord' is my shep'herd

    I shall' not want'

    is a couplet of iambic dimeter, and the translations lose this entirely. The gain to clarity is set off by the loss of conviction. There's no recognition that the rhythm of words imparts a power that adds belief to meaning.

    Another example: the King James has Jesus say, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me," where virtually all the more recent translations, including the NIV and the NKJV say, "Let the little children come to me," because "suffer" meaning "permit" is entirely obsolete and many people think that Jesus was talking about chldren in pain. But the poetry of the KJV –

    Suff'er the litt'le child'ren to come' unto me'

    And for-bid' them not'; for such' is the king'dom of God'

    two lines of blank verse –

    and it's lost in all the modern versions.

  5. Yes, the newer translations are often more accurate, and often more comprehensible to modern ears. What's lost is the music. That's what makes the pastor's choice so deliciously weird; he has in effect chosen poetry over faithfulness to the text.

  6. This is a problem of the philistinic brand of puritanism. The fundies are prevented from professing a love of beauty or art, so they have to seize on supposed 'inerrancy' as their ostensible reason for rejecting the other versions.

  7. Ah, Canton! I used to live in Candler, halfway between Canton and Asheville. Canton is home to the Blue Ridge paper mill, which means that the entire town smells like festering shit. I got whifs of that about once a week. Lovely! There's actually a radio station in Asheville whose call letters are WKJV; their slogan is "The King's Radio!" Them ole mountain Baptists, the "innupenent" ones (for whom the Southern Baptist Convention is den of sell-out hellbound sinners, liberals, and lovers of Catholicism, Mormonism, and all other abominations) like their Bibles unchanging, their pastors frothy-mouthed, and their vegetables fried. It is, therefore, no surprise whatsoever that mistranslations will be sent to the flames. These are not people known for their appreciation of nuance and subtlety; such people can join the Methodists!*

    *Or the Universalists. Another community in Haywood County, in which Canton is located, boasted of a Universalist Church in the first half of the 20th Century. The community was called Sunburst, IIRC, and it was basically a glorified logging camp. So I'm not saying there's no spiritual diversity in Western NC, just that it's not looked upon favorably by the people who attend these kinds of churches.

  8. You actually spent time doing this? I cannot believe I actually spent part of my life reading this.

    Hell, if you will me give the pastor's address, I will ship him more matches. Bug eyed lunatic or not, he does my militant atheistic bidding.

    I have never chanted, "Burn, baby, burn," more fervently.

  9. Thanks, Davis — John 11:35 was part of the lectionary reading yesterday, and I wondered what about the Greek made "began to weep" correct.

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