A Catholic's Defense of the King James Version of the Bible
And the Douay-Rheims!
In the wake of the publishing of the King James Version for Catholics and its subsequent use by many Catholics (particularly, those enamored with traditional English and Anglican Catholic patrimony, such as myself), I have seen and read many objections (in the online circles in which I run!) to a Catholic’s use of this translation. Many objections to these anti-KJV arguments have been articulated elsewhere, and by folks much more knowledgeable and qualified than I. However, I still seek here to articulate, in my own words, what I personally consider to be some of the most relevant and powerful arguments in favor of the KJV. Firstly, however, I seek to state some answers to what I think are some of the most important questions that are often raised in reference to the KJV.
ANSWERS TO COMMON QUESTIONS
How does the KJV compare to the Douay-Rheims?
While the wonderful Douay-Rheims translation is a direct translation of the Clementine Latin Vulgate Bible into early modern English, the KJV is an authentically English-language translation. (This is why the KJV is rather more idiomatic than the DR [Douay-Rheims].) The DR, on the other hand, is a literal translation of the Latin, using heavily Latinate vocabulary (for example, Matthew 6:11’s “give us this day our supersubstantial” - from the Latin supersubstantialem - “bread” [as opposed to Luke 11:3’s “give us this day our daily” - from the Latin quotidianum - “bread”]).
While the KJV was produced using much of the research that had been done in order to produce the DR, the DR as it is most widely read today (Bishop Challoner’s revision) was based primarily on the KJV. Indeed, the original DR, which is almost illegible due to its extremely Latinate style, is barely published or used by the faithful. Catholic Encyclopedia calls it “sadly deficient in literary form, and so full of Latinisms as to be in places hardly intelligible.” According to CE (Catholic Encyclopedia), St. John Henry Newman wrote that Challoner’s DR was actually closer to the KJV than it was to the original DR.
Thus, there exists a historical interplay and strong relationship (dare I call the two translations siblings?) between the DR (as it exists in its present form) and the KJV - neither translation would exist without the other.
Weren’t vernacular Bible translations simply a feature of the Protestant Reformation, or shall we say Revolution?
No. Excerpts of the Latin Vulgate were translated into Old English by scholars and monks. English translations of Scripture were also undertaken by, for example, 7th/8th-century bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne and 13th/14th-century hermit Richard Rolle (the psalms), 7th-8th century St. Bede (the Gospel of John), 10th-century Durham town priest Aldred (the Gospels), and 11th-century abbot Aelfric (much of the Old Testament). The late 14th-century Lollard John Wycliff was the first individual to produce a full English Bible translation.
Isn’t the Wycliff Bible to be condemned by Catholics?
The issue with Wycliff’s Bible was that it was the main inspiration for and cause of the pre-Reformation Lollard movement, which rejected many key Catholic teachings. Very interestingly, though, Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Wycliff Bible, having been translated from the Vulgate, “well and accurately done” and “in reality of Catholic origin, and not due to Wycliff at all.” Further, states the CE, “there is evidence that copies of the whole were in the hands of good Catholics, and were read by them.”
Aren’t other pre-KJV, Protestant, English Bible translations to be condemned?
In regard to such translations (such as the Tyndale Bible or Coverdale Bible), the Catholic Encyclopedia correctly states that “there was much good and patient work in them, none will deny; but they were marred by the perversion of many passages, due to the theological bias of the translators; and they were used on all sides to serve the cause of Protestantism.”
Doesn’t the KJV include heresies and rejections of Catholic dogma and doctrine?
The only objective doctrinal “issue” in the KJV, one could argue, is its translation of Luke 1:28: “Hail Mary, thou that art highly favoured.” The KJV for Catholics, of course, has an all-important “full of grace” footnote here. For traditional, patrimonial and devotional (think: the rosary!) reasons, “full of grace” is indeed an important translation for Catholics to use. Indeed, the KJV’s “thou that art highly favoured” may be at least partially polemical - a jab against Catholics and the Marian dogma of the Immaculate Conception. However, there is also reason to believe that many high-church Anglicans at the time believed “highly favoured” to be as great in honor as “full of grace.”
“Thou that art highly favoured”, after all, is not formally incorrect. Indeed, the Greek word “kecharitomene” does indicate that somebody is highly favoured. Of course, the KJV translated from the Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) manuscripts, whereas the DR translated from St. Jerome's 4th-century Latin Vulgate translation of those manuscripts. Indeed, Jerome’s translation of “kecharitomene” as “gratia plena” (full of grace) is not only accurate, but doctrinally important in terms of its encapsulation of the Immaculate Conception (which was never defined in Anglicanism and rejected in many parts of it, although not all).
One of the strongest arguments indeed for translating from the Latin Vulgate instead of the Greek or Hebrew is that Jerome, when translating from the Greek New Testament and Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew), likely had access to more Greek manuscripts than we do. When he penned his Latin translation, he was likely cross-referencing manuscripts of which we do not know, synthesizing all of them brilliantly into one authoritative, Latin translation. This is just one of many strong arguments for reading the DR (in addition to the KJV!).
P.S. KJV’s “thou that art highly favoured” at least beats New American Bible (the official Bible of the U.S. Catholic Church)’s “Hail, favored one!” and certainly New Jerusalem Bible (the official Bible of the Catholic Church in England)’s “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour!”
What about KJV’s translation of Luke 2:14 as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”?
Some Latin-to-English hand missals for the Traditional Latin Mass, such as the pre-1955 St. Andrew’s Missal, also have “good will toward men” instead of “to men of good will.” The former is taken from the Greek eudokia; the latter; eudokias. St. Jerome translated the latter into Latin as “pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”, whereas the KJV went with evidence that eudokia may have been more correct than eclectic manuscripts that contained eudokias.
Doesn’t the KJV use other inaccurate words?
Short answer: No.
The word “Jehovah”, used a grand total of 8 times throughout the KJV, was an inaccurate vocalization of the Tetragrammaton - the 4-letter (YHWH - “I am who I am”) name of God in Hebrew. “Jehovah” was a common misconception, a Latinization of the Hebrew word (first used by William Tyndale in his biblical translation, which was the first Bible to take advantage of the printing press and the first English Bible to translate from the Hebrew and Greek texts, as Wycliff had used the Vulgate). When YHWH was printed in Hebrew Scriptural texts, it was read out loud by Jews as “Adonai” (“Lord”), which is translated as “kyrios” in Greek manuscripts, and “Dominus” in Latin ones (hence, the DR’s use of the English word “Lord”). It is noteworthy that the KJV for Catholics edition uses the word “Lord” instead of “Jehovah” (in all 8 spots), indicating the original text (“Jehovah”) with footnotes.
Here, John Covert (publisher of the KJV for Catholics) lists out other purported errors of the KJV translation, showing that almost all of these purported errors are vocabulary choices that the KJV shares with the DR.
Didn’t Protestants produce the KJV?
The KJV was produced by a committee assembled by, of course, King James I, who was of the high church, “Anglo-Catholic” party of the Church of England. The KJV was intended to be a common, unifying translation, and not primarily a polemical one (unlike other “Reformation”-era translations).
Isn’t the KJV missing some books?
The original 1611 KJV contained 80 books that corresponded to but were organized differently from the 76 books of the 1610 DR. Although Anglicans always used all 80 of these books, other Protestants began printing 66-book KJVs that left out the 14 apocryphal books. It is noteworthy that the KJV for Catholics edition puts all the books of the original KJV in the order that Catholics are used to.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF THE KJV
One very interesting feature of the KJV is that it attempts to honestly convey the ambiguousness of the Greek or Hebrew, whereas modern translations using the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts often attempt to convey just one interpretation - whichever one is “most likely” - of ambiguous or vague words and phrases. For example, the KJV translates John 1:5 as “the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” (the DR uses the same word, from the Latin “comprehenderunt”). The New Jerusalem Bible reads “the darkness did not overpower it” - one clearly-chosen meaning out of numerous possible meanings.
The KJV also avoids the linguistic clunkiness that characterizes many other modern translations. One could argue that the above NJB (Jerusalem Bible) translation beats John 1:5 in the NAB (New American Bible), which reads “the darkness did not grasp it.”
The KJV translates Genesis 4:1 as “Adam knew his wife Eve”, capturing all the rich, nuanced and beautiful layers of meaning and mystery of the Hebrew word there. (Unsurprisingly, Jerome also preserves the Hebrew in his use of the Latin word “cognovit”, which the DR of course faithfully translates as “knew.”) Compare this with NAB, which butchers this verse with “the man had relations with his wife Eve.” NJB arguably gets it even worse with the more explicit “the man had intercourse with his wife Eve.”
The KJV does not suffer from the gender-neutral wokeness of many modern translations. Like the DR (of course), the KJV uses the word “man” (not, for example, “one”, or a similar substitute) when that word is present in the Greek (or in the case of the DR, the Latin of Jerome). The use of the word “man” is not only accurate, but Christologically significant. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly” (psalm 1:1) recalls the Christ figure with clarity - “blessed is anyone” of NJB, much less so.
The benefit of the KJV (and DR!)’s use of the archaic English personal pronouns - “thee”/“thou”/“thy” and “ye” - is that they indicate whether the second person (“you”) is singular or plural. These personal pronouns are not only clear in that they refer clearly to either one person (“thee”/“thou”/“thy”/ “thine”) or two (“ye”), but they preserve the sense of intimacy that we have lost in our modern English, all-inclusive “you.” This distinction is preserved, for example, in modern French “tu” (familiar/singular) versus “vous” (formal/plural). It is also important to note that in early modern English, “thee”/“thou”/“thy”/ thine” were used in a poetic, dialectic rhetorical sense, which contributes to the hieratic sense of the KJV’s language. The same can be said, of course, of the DR.
The KJV was intended not only to be read aloud both in the church, court, town square and other public places, but to be memorable. Indeed, the syntax, accents, inflections, rhythms and cadences of the KJV greatly facilitate a person’s memorization and personal internalization of Scriptural passages. If biblical texts are burned into a person’s brain and heart, they will be there when that person needs them most - in times of trial, or in times when a friend may need to hear such words.
In terms of English-language worship, the use of the KJV is as traditional as it gets. The KJV has been used in English-language worship for over 400 years - far longer than any other English Bible translation. When the Catholic Church began permitting vernacular, English-language worship in the late 1960’s, it can be argued that She should have only approved the most traditional English-language idiom possible. If Western Christian worship is going to be conducted in the vernacular, it can be argued that it should be not only in a hieratic vernacular, but in the most traditional vernacular translation that exists (for the English language, this is the KJV).
The KJV, which has been considered widely for many generations as a literary masterpiece of the English language, utilizes a style of English that was employed in both the Church and court - a hieratic (“heightened”) linguistic style that rested above much of the vernacular of the streets and other places. Thomas Cranmer too employed this sacral English style in his Book of Common Prayer (hence, the term “Prayer Book English”). Of course, the BCP and KJV together have not only contributed many words and phrases to the English language, but helped standardize spelling in the English language for the first time (a process largely related, of course, to the 16th-century invention of the printing press). This elevated, sacral language draws the mind to heights that enable real, deep contemplation of the sacred mysteries of the Christian faith.
Indeed, the language of the DR is also elevated. Its linguistic tone is not just authoritative, noble, lofty and majestic, but eccelsiastical (as can be seen in, for example, the DR’s use of “obey your prelates” [Latin - “praepositis”] in Hebrews 13:17, as opposed to KJV’s “obey them that rule over you”).
The KJV and Book of Common Prayer also came into being at a time when the English language was at a poetic high point. (A side-by-side reading of the KJV and Challoner DR will yield that the KJV’s English prose is often superior to that of the DR.) The English of the KJV is the English of Shakespeare - whom, it should be remembered, was popular with all social classes. In this way, the language of the KJV is truly universal and in no way “elitist” or intended for just a few. The KJV belongs not just to all Anglicans or Protestants, but to all English speakers. In a 21st-century world in which the new “lingua franca” is not Latin, but indeed, English, this point cannot be overlooked. Further, the KJV is not only the most widely disseminated and read Bible translation, but book, in the history of the world, making it belong to all people. The KJV possesses a cultural resonance that is unparalleled - think, for example, of the entire English oratorio tradition (of composers such as Handel and Mendelssohn), the librettos for which were all based on the KJV translation.
Finally, in terms of copyright, the KJV possesses much more freedom than do modern Bible translations - its rights and permissions can be read here. The DR is public domain and is therefore the property of every human person - as the Word of God should be.
Although I plan to treat of the issue of copyright separately in a future article, this point cannot be overlooked in our age of intellectual property law.
Thoughts? Refutations? Objections? Counter-arguments? I welcome any thoughtful, respectful commentary and discussion below.
Clement M. Hall's Murder of Richard Hunne London in the Early Reign of King Henry VIII
Dobbie E. Van Kirk's The Manuscripts of Caedmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song with a Critical Text of the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae
Henry W. Robinson's The Bible in its Ancient and English Versions
Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K. Pullum's The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language