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View Full Version : People often say the King James Bible is "a great work of literature" - Is it really?


astro
02-22-2014, 07:33 PM
My literature chops aren't distinguished enough to make a determination re this one way or the other. Is the King James Bible a bona fide "great work of literature" in terms of literature as art?

Trinopus
02-22-2014, 07:43 PM
Given that it is a translation...yeah. It's great. The sweeping poetry of Job, the looser verse of Psalms, the history of Chronicles and Kings, and the high drama of the Gospels: this is great literature on the grandest scale. Toss in the occasional pun and a few hidden meanings, and you've got gold.

The KJV has the joy of Elizabethan language, the freedom that enabled Shakespeare to make his own way. The translators came up with figures of speech that dominate our everyday speech even now. The cup runneth over!

Penfeather
02-22-2014, 07:56 PM
It's almost impossible to overstate its importance in English, even to the present day. (http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words04/history/bible.html) No other single work of English has shaped the language more.

Penfeather
02-22-2014, 08:07 PM
The KJV has the joy of Elizabethan language, the freedom that enabled Shakespeare to make his own way. The translators came up with figures of speech that dominate our everyday speech even now. The cup runneth over!

I'm afraid that the KJV, as its name suggests, was Jacobean, and post-dated Shakespeare by quite a number of years. And in comparison with Shakespeare's exuberance in using and coining words, the KJV is restrained, almost arid in its simplicity and rigour.

buddha_david
02-22-2014, 08:42 PM
It's a great work of art but man, what a downer ending, with all the mindless sheep spending eternity in a blissful, brainwashed state of mind while the "good guys" burn forever in a lake of fire.

Mahaloth
02-22-2014, 08:48 PM
I would take each book on its own, though I would pretty much still consider each most of the books great works of literature.

Certainly all put together it is even more impressive.

Le Ministre de l'au-delà
02-22-2014, 09:02 PM
I'm afraid that the KJV, as its name suggests, was Jacobean, and post-dated Shakespeare by quite a number of years. And in comparison with Shakespeare's exuberance in using and coining words, the KJV is restrained, almost arid in its simplicity and rigour.

I'm sorry, work began on the King James Bible in 1610, and Shakespeare lived until 1616. While I don't want to get involved in the question of whether Shakespeare snuck his name into Psalm 46 (http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/churchandministry/churchhistory/KJV-Hensley-Shakespeare-KJV.aspx), I think it is highly likely that he could have done some work on it in that 5+ year span.

Trinopus
02-22-2014, 09:15 PM
I'm afraid that the KJV, as its name suggests, was Jacobean, and post-dated Shakespeare by quite a number of years. And in comparison with Shakespeare's exuberance in using and coining words, the KJV is restrained, almost arid in its simplicity and rigour.

I'm sorry, work began on the King James Bible in 1610, and Shakespeare lived until 1616. . . .

Penfeather is largely correct. I am one of those in the habit of referring as "Elizabethan" to Jacobean English also. It's a sloppy short-cut, but, by and large, if it has thees and thous, it's "Elizabethan." I know this is nor formally correct (hell, Kipling uses the familiar, although in allusion to its use in the languages of India) but it's a commonplace one.

I would rather disagree with his notion that the KJV is "arid." Fah! It's lively! It sings and dances! It rejoices in language, and celebrates every word. Far from austere, it is a loving, laughing, explosion of linguistic riches.

Prof. Pepperwinkle
02-22-2014, 09:22 PM
Not only did work begin on the KJV in 1610, it was intended as a revision of the Bishops Bible of 1568, which already had a great deal of the language and phrasing in place. To be sure, the editors and translators did a lot towards tweaking the text towards a higher standard of literature, but there was already a fairly solid bedrock.

The Second Stone
02-22-2014, 10:36 PM
Absolutely a great work of literature. The caveat being that there are parts that are not great literature, long lists of begats and such, depending on what you might find dull. Give the first few chapters of Genesis a try and go from there.

gracer
02-23-2014, 03:46 AM
I never get this stuff about the bible being a great work of fiction: it's not, even when written with pretty King James language.

Compare it to other great early novels: Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Gullivers Travels- the Bible doesn't cut it. Culturally it was a very important work, but a toddler writes better stories. Read it as if you were a publisher and you've been sent it as a manuscript. You'd toss it in the bin. The stories are sort of ok, but badly written for what they want to do and only tangentially related. Internal consistency is all over the place and biblical universe is poorly fleshed out. The characters are mostly uninteresting with little depth.

I've never read it as anything but fiction, maybe that helps to see it a certain way. My father read me the Greek myths and the Hobbit and then the Bible stories in a children's book. They seemed really lame already in the children's version, but at least a little more coherent. Reading them from the KJV as an adult was really disappointing. What a load of crap!

So maybe, looking at it as the book that defined our history and culture for thousands of years, it's pretty interesting. But compared to other works of fiction it's badly written and the stories and characters are severely lacking in depth. The nice King James language can't hide that.

Alessan
02-23-2014, 03:54 AM
So maybe, looking at it as the book that defined our history and culture for thousands of years, it's pretty interesting. But compared to other works of fiction it's badly written and the stories and characters are severely lacking in depth. The nice King James language can't hide that.

Sorry, but I have to disagree. On both points: first of all the KJV is crap compared to the original Hebrew; and second of all, I dare you to show me a Homeric character as complex and multidimensional as Moses or David.

gracer
02-23-2014, 04:18 AM
Sorry, but I have to disagree. On both points: first of all the KJV is crap compared to the original Hebrew; and second of all, I dare you to show me a Homeric character as complex and multidimensional as Moses or David.

Ah, yes, unfortunate that I don't read Hebrew. I bet it is lovely to read, and I imagine that it actually feels a lot more appropriate for the stories? Maybe that's something that I find incongruous, that the language of the KJV is, in literary terms, ahead of the stories? The Hebrew might better convey the ancientness of the text, mitigating some of the elements of bad storytelling. I do find that works for other things, such as The Canterbury Tales. Those stories are pretty good, but you sometimes get weird tangents. The language lets you know how to judge that within its time, somehow.

Moses is fairly fleshed out, I agree,* but there is the random stuff, it's like distortion in the story telling. Like sentences just drifted in that apparently have little to do with anything and just distort the story or the character. I was never disturbed by that in reading Homer. No doubt scholars have elaborate explanations for those completely random insertions, but it doesn't make good fiction.


*I prefer Odysseus and feel I can know him better, but that might just be me? I don't know. I can't just quote passages from memory, it's all stuff I read years ago.

Moe
02-23-2014, 08:33 AM
My friend's been working his way through the bible and he sent me this link recently: Think the bible sucks? Try reading it in Hebrew. (http://blog.ram.rachum.com/post/55334872592/think-that-the-bible-sucks-try-reading-it-in-hebrew)

I've never read the bible (any version), and have no dog in this. Just figured I'd post the link.

Flywheel
02-23-2014, 12:54 PM
Sorry, but I have to disagree. On both points: first of all the KJV is crap compared to the original Hebrew; and second of all, I dare you to show me a Homeric character as complex and multidimensional as Moses or David.

Moses is fairly fleshed out, I agree,* but there is the random stuff, it's like distortion in the story telling. Like sentences just drifted in that apparently have little to do with anything and just distort the story or the character. I was never disturbed by that in reading Homer. No doubt scholars have elaborate explanations for those completely random insertions, but it doesn't make good fiction.


*I prefer Odysseus and feel I can know him better, but that might just be me? I don't know. I can't just quote passages from memory, it's all stuff I read years ago.

See Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Chapter 1 (http://www.westmont.edu/~fisk/articles/odysseusscar.html) ("Odysseus' Scar").

installLSC
02-23-2014, 01:10 PM
I remember studying the Bible at my Jesuit college, and we used the New American Version (the one approved for Mass readings). It always sounded so clunky, so on a lark I started using the King James Version. It was far more graceful, with a downright melodic flow to it that was far more appealing than modern day translations. I also liked using Monsignor Knox's translation because of its appealing style, though at times it's more a paraphrase than a translation.
BTW, I've read somewhere that the KJV was considered old-fashioned in its use of the English language even for 1611 and that the translators did so on purpose. Any truth to that?

FriarTed
02-23-2014, 02:05 PM
My friend's been working his way through the bible and he sent me this link recently: Think the bible sucks? Try reading it in Hebrew. (http://blog.ram.rachum.com/post/55334872592/think-that-the-bible-sucks-try-reading-it-in-hebrew)

I've never read the bible (any version), and have no dog in this. Just figured I'd post the link.

This article tells us a lot about the writer & virtually nothing about either the Bible or the Hebrew language. And one thing it tells me is he sucks as a writer.

Thudlow Boink
02-23-2014, 02:22 PM
I never get this stuff about the bible being a great work of fiction: it's not, even when written with pretty King James language.

Compare it to other great early novels: Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Gullivers Travels- the Bible doesn't cut it. Culturally it was a very important work, but a toddler writes better stories. Read it as if you were a publisher and you've been sent it as a manuscript. You'd toss it in the bin. The stories are sort of ok, but badly written for what they want to do and only tangentially related. Internal consistency is all over the place and biblical universe is poorly fleshed out.Is it possible you don't realize that the Bible isn't a work at all, but rather a collection of works?

Le Ministre de l'au-delà
02-23-2014, 02:22 PM
gracer - I'm afraid I can't agree with your classification of the bible as 'fiction'. Non-fiction classifications such as History, Philosophy, Ethics, Mythology, Poetry, Folk Tales, Ancient Literature are among the classifications that would work. I find 'fiction' to be both inaccurate and unnecessarily provocative, and I say that as an atheist.

As far as your take on the bible as literature, I disagree, but de gustibus non disputandem.

Quartz
02-23-2014, 03:30 PM
Sorry, but I have to disagree. On both points: first of all the KJV is crap compared to the original Hebrew;

Do you not mean Aramaic?

and second of all, I dare you to show me a Homeric character as complex and multidimensional as Moses or David.

Odysseus comes immediately to mind.

Johnny Bravo
02-23-2014, 03:50 PM
Do you not mean Aramaic?

No, he means Hebrew. Only a few pages of the bible were originally written in Aramaic.

The Second Stone
02-23-2014, 04:30 PM
I've never read it as anything but fiction, maybe that helps to see it a certain way.

Just to be clear then, you have read it? You've read the Old Testament and the New Testament in the King James Version? Pretty much all of it?

Mdcastle
02-23-2014, 04:45 PM
Anyone else a fan of the New King James? I like it because you're not stumbling over trying to figure out thee, though, thine, but a lot of the style, and should I say majesty, is preserved. I grew up with the NIV and it always seemed dull and watered down.

The Second Stone
02-23-2014, 05:59 PM
The NIV is okay, but the joys of the KJV are more than worth the slow down.

dougie_monty
02-23-2014, 06:59 PM
I have read the Bible five times, mostly in the New World Translation (Jehovah's witnesses), but with the King James Version and the New English Bible (1970) alongside to compare readings; and I even use a translation into Esperanto. I have since acquired translations in Spanish and Russian as well, and an interlinear rendering of the New Testament.
Hebrew is quite terse compared to English; the 23rd Psalm, for example, is in four words in Hebrew.
Imagine what it must have been like to translate the Bible into Chinese! :eek:

PSXer
02-23-2014, 07:02 PM
Hebrew is quite terse compared to English; the 23rd Psalm, for example, is in four words in Hebrew.




"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want" is 4 words in Hebrew. Not the entire 23rd Pslam


one verb can express a lot more than one English verb (and you can infer the subject from the verb without having to write it), and they don't have to use the verb to be. other than that it's not much more "terse" than English

dougie_monty
02-23-2014, 07:22 PM
"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want" is 4 words in Hebrew. Not the entire 23rd Pslam


one verb can express a lot more than one English verb (and you can infer the subject from the verb without having to write it), and they don't have to use the verb to be. other than that it's not much more "terse" than English

I stand corrected. I miswrote that.. :o

Hector_St_Clare
02-23-2014, 11:03 PM
mdcastle I've looked at the NKJV, it doesn't quite do it for me. maybe it's just that I've read enough of the KJV, Shakespeare etc. that I'm comfortable with the Elizabethan Pronouns and verb endings.

Incidentally, it isn't just the vocab and syntax than sets the KJV apart from most 'modern' versions, it's also the textual sources. the KJV is based on the Textus Receptus, while (say) the NRSV is based on the oldest possible sources. I prefer the TR, which is another reason I like the KJV.

BrainGlutton
02-23-2014, 11:51 PM
I'm afraid that the KJV, as its name suggests, was Jacobean, and post-dated Shakespeare by quite a number of years. And in comparison with Shakespeare's exuberance in using and coining words, the KJV is restrained, almost arid in its simplicity and rigour.

Yes, but I've read it was written in language that was archaic even in its time, being largely and consciously based on far earlier translations as well as on the original-language texts the translation committee studied.

BrainGlutton
02-23-2014, 11:55 PM
Perhaps the "simplicity and rigor" of the KJV is caused by that of Hebrew poetry and literature.

Miller
02-24-2014, 12:35 AM
I never get this stuff about the bible being a great work of fiction: it's not, even when written with pretty King James language.

Compare it to other great early novels...

Well, there's your problem. The Bible is not a novel.

Jim's Son
02-24-2014, 05:53 AM
I think it works better spoken aloud. But KJV has contributed more idioms to the English language than anyone else, even Shakespeare. But it helps to have a more modern translation handy.

Skammer
02-24-2014, 08:01 AM
When I read the Bible to actually understand or take meaning from it, I use a contemporary translation (any of which benefit from the 400 years of biblical scholarship since the KJV was started).

But for sheer poetry and beauty of language the KJV cannot be beat.

ThisUsernameIsForbidden
02-24-2014, 08:12 AM
My two cents:

Non-fiction. Historically significant, yes. Many man-hours spent putting it together, yes.
I have read all of it, and some parts of it multiple times, especially the Gospels.

nevadaexile
02-24-2014, 08:23 AM
No,it's really not.

It's more a series of anecdotes,exaggerations and inaccuracies bound together in the same volume which itself is in desperate need of an editor. The four contradictory Gospel recitations of the Cruxificion and the Resurrection alone make it clear that either large portions of the original text have been omitted or the Bible's many transcribers simply have little with which to work and simply compile what they have.

It's basically a few good stories combined with a great deal of filler material.

davidw
02-24-2014, 08:42 AM
Just noting for those of you interested in the Bible as literature, you should check out this ongoing discussion here (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=716593). It has been very interesting to read.

Hector_St_Clare
02-24-2014, 02:02 PM
When I read the Bible to actually understand or take meaning from it, I use a contemporary translation (any of which benefit from the 400 years of biblical scholarship since the KJV was started).

But for sheer poetry and beauty of language the KJV cannot be beat.

I think the value your place on that '400 years of biblical scholarship' is going to largely depend on your own ideological predispositions.

If you believe that the Received Text is more reliable and accurate than the older manuscripts (as for example the Eastern Orthodox do), then of course the KJV is going to seem superior to the NRSV (which is why the Orthodox do, in fact, use the KJV).

Skammer
02-24-2014, 03:33 PM
I think the value your place on that '400 years of biblical scholarship' is going to largely depend on your own ideological predispositions.

If you believe that the Received Text is more reliable and accurate than the older manuscripts (as for example the Eastern Orthodox do), then of course the KJV is going to seem superior to the NRSV (which is why the Orthodox do, in fact, use the KJV).

Fair enough. But it's not just that modern translations use older manuscripts; we also have many more manuscripts available than the KJV editors did, which allows greater confidence in detecting corruptions to the inherited texts. Not to mention that much of the English used in the KJV is archaic itself and requires additional translation to be understandable to the modern reader who is not fluent in Jacobean English.

Esox Lucius
02-24-2014, 04:08 PM
Give the first few chapters of Genesis a try and go from there.

It even has the modern twist of alternate versions for the reader to interactively decide which he likes better. Way ahead of its time. ;)

Thudlow Boink
02-24-2014, 04:13 PM
Whether or not the King James Bible is "a great work of literature," there's no denying that the LOLCats Bible (http://lolcatbible.com/index.php?title=Genesis_1) is.

Hector_St_Clare
02-26-2014, 09:29 AM
Fair enough. But it's not just that modern translations use older manuscripts; we also have many more manuscripts available than the KJV editors did, which allows greater confidence in detecting corruptions to the inherited texts. Not to mention that much of the English used in the KJV is archaic itself and requires additional translation to be understandable to the modern reader who is not fluent in Jacobean English.

Fair enough about having more manuscripts available. (My understanding of the Eastern Orthodox position is that they hold that the Spirit guided not only the people who wrote the Bible, but to some extent also those who copied, edited, collated and selected the texts, as well as of course the church fathers, which is why they believe that the Received Text which eventually became dominant in the east, did so because it most fully reflected the Holy Spirit).

Regarding the archaic language, there's an 'updated' version of the KJV (the 21st Century King James Version) which is my Bible of choice, it substitutes modern words for obsolete ones while maintaining archaic verb endings and pronouns, the general Jacobean syntax, and other 'old fashioned' bells and whistles.

FriarTed
02-26-2014, 06:10 PM
Fair enough about having more manuscripts available. (My understanding of the Eastern Orthodox position is that they hold that the Spirit guided not only the people who wrote the Bible, but to some extent also those who copied, edited, collated and selected the texts, as well as of course the church fathers, which is why they believe that the Received Text which eventually became dominant in the east, did so because it most fully reflected the Holy Spirit).

Regarding the archaic language, there's an 'updated' version of the KJV (the 21st Century King James Version) which is my Bible of choice, it substitutes modern words for obsolete ones while maintaining archaic verb endings and pronouns, the general Jacobean syntax, and other 'old fashioned' bells and whistles.

How does it differ from my go-to Bible, which is the New King James Version?

Well, I did see how it differs from a previous post of yours.

But I will use this edit to note that the NKJV was the template for the New Testament of The Orthodox Study Bible, while they translated the Septuagint for the Old Testament.

gracer
02-27-2014, 05:20 AM
Is it possible you don't realize that the Bible isn't a work at all, but rather a collection of works?

No I realise that, in the sense that that is technically what it is. When I read, though, I read all of it. It belongs together in a certain sense, as you say, it's a collection. We call it "The Bible", though of course there are many different versions. We don't generally refer to it as "the collection of bible stories" or something. Also, the OP calls it a work.

But... m'kay.... I don't think it's a very good collection of stories? (I don't have a problem calling it a work, it's sold together as one thing and has been together in that form for a very long time. The writers wrote, and then the bible was put together as "a work". But yeah, if it bothers you, ok: it's a collection, I realise that.)

(Merriam-Webster: Work, noun 7 a : something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill <this book is the work of many hands>
b : something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort : artistic production <an early work by a major writer> - doesn't seem to exclude the bible, particularly?)

gracer - I'm afraid I can't agree with your classification of the bible as 'fiction'. Non-fiction classifications such as History, Philosophy, Ethics, Mythology, Poetry, Folk Tales, Ancient Literature are among the classifications that would work. I find 'fiction' to be both inaccurate and unnecessarily provocative, and I say that as an atheist.

As far as your take on the bible as literature, I disagree, but de gustibus non disputandem.

While mythology or folk tale might better describe it, I don't see it as being outside the classification of fiction. The Bible is a collection of narratives that mostly didn't really happen in the way the are presented. Sometimes fictionalised accounts of events, sometimes just fanciful stories. (Sometimes boring lists.) Most stories contain the elements of plot, characters and place. Fiction seems to fit, literature is broader so also fits.
Obviously there are different ways of reading the Bible. As I said, I read it as I read fiction. I read the Odyssey that way too. I read it for pleasure, and I read to know the stories and characters. I did not read it to study history or religion or language. I didn't think the Bible was very good, I thought the stories rather poor. The KJV didn't mitigate what I thought was poor about the stories and the characters, so I conclude that it is not a great work of literature.

Absolutely, de gustibus non disputandem. Everyone in this thread seems to love it: it's bizar to me. But then everyone seems to like Game of Thrones, eeeugh! :confused: And seriously, eating the dark purple wine gums? That's just wrong. WRONG! I tell ya!

Well, there's your problem.

Actually, it's an opinion and I'm pretty ok with it. But thanks for your concern.

The Bible is not a novel.


It seems to me a little OTT all these language qualifications that *prove* that I misunderstood it all along. If only I could understand that it is in fact a collection of not-quite-true narratives, then I would appreciate it? :dubious:

Yes, the Bible is not a novel. But when you read, you compare. If the Bible were the only literature I had ever read and if I knew no other stories, I'm sure I'd think it was marvellous. Compared to other literature, and so much of it exists in novel form, I don't think it's all that great. Since we are talking specifically KJV I looked at some works that might be comparable (very broadly). I prefer those works, I enjoyed them as literature. In a way, of course, I compare it to everything I have ever read: from David Foster Wallace to cartoons, the Qur'an to a romance novel, Pepys to LotR to The Gruffalo, the magazines in my GP's waiting room to Mark Duffield; they all form the giant context with which I read anything. Maybe the KJV is a great work of literature in the context the stories of when the original text was written, or as a religious text, or a fascinating historical document. But in the context of literature: meh, to me.

But as I also already said: it might be hindering me that the language of the KJV is actually incongruous with the ancientness of the text, and that might be better conveyed if I were able to read the Bible in its original languages? I'll never know, myself, because I doubt I'll learn those languages. I read the Qur'an in Dutch, I wouldn't recommend it! ;)

Skammer
02-27-2014, 08:54 AM
Part of the problem with reading as story - or even a collection of stories - is that about half of it isn't even in narrative form. You've got the long genealogies of course; but there are also long passages of poetry, philosophy, prophecy, proverbs, and correspondence - none of which were intended to tell a narrative but to convey knowledge, wisdom or exhortation.

Thudlow Boink
02-27-2014, 10:28 AM
No I realise that, in the sense that that is technically what it is. When I read, though, I read all of it. It belongs together in a certain sense, as you say, it's a collection. We call it "The Bible", though of course there are many different versions. We don't generally refer to it as "the collection of bible stories" or something. Also, the OP calls it a work.The OP asked specifically about the King James Bible as a "great work of literature," which (perhaps confusingly) conflates two things: If you're talking specifically about the KJV as a work of literature, you're talking about the language, and its literary quality: what the translators brought to the work; and things like the storyline and the characters are irrelevant to that.

On the other hand, if you're talking about the Bible, in general, instead of any specific translation, then you're looking at things like how the stories themselves work as stories. It's in this sense that the Bible is a collection of works (we do, after all, talk about the books of the Bible), written by different people at different times in different genres; and, as Skammer pointed out, much of the Bible isn't in narrative form at all.(Merriam-Webster: Work, noun 7 a : something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill <this book is the work of many hands>
b : something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort : artistic production <an early work by a major writer> - doesn't seem to exclude the bible, particularly?)Out of curiosity, would you refer to the Norton Book of Classical Literature (http://www.amazon.com/The-Norton-Book-Classical-Literature/dp/0393034267/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393518367&sr=8-1) as a "work"? (I don't mean to imply that it's an exact parallel, but there's some similarity.)

Obviously there are different ways of reading the Bible. As I said, I read it as I read fiction. I read the Odyssey that way too. I read it for pleasure, and I read to know the stories and characters. I did not read it to study history or religion or language. I didn't think the Bible was very good, I thought the stories rather poor. The KJV didn't mitigate what I thought was poor about the stories and the characters, so I conclude that it is not a great work of literature. If you're reading strictly for the stories and characters, the KJV's language might have gotten in the way of your enjoyment, and you might have been better off reading a more modern, "transparent" version.
Compared to other literature, and so much of it exists in novel form, I don't think it's all that great. Since we are talking specifically KJV I looked at some works that might be comparable (very broadly). I prefer those works, I enjoyed them as literature.The works you mentioned in your earlier post (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, etc.) are roughly contemporary with the translation but far more modern than the content, so it's not really a fair comparison, if you're using the same standards, or reading the Bible as if it were a modern novel.

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