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

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?

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!

It’s almost impossible to overstate its importance in English, even to the present day. No other single work of English has shaped the language more.

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.

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.

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.

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, I think it is highly likely that he could have done some work on it in that 5+ year span.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

See Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Chapter 1 (“Odysseus’ Scar”).

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?

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.

Is it possible you don’t realize that the Bible isn’t a work at all, but rather a collection of works?

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.

Do you not mean Aramaic?

Odysseus comes immediately to mind.