Hitchens on the KJV in Vanity Fair

Fascinating little article by Hitchens in this month's Vanity Fair. It's becoming common knowledge that he likes the KJV (for it's literary style and influence, of course!) but it's interesting to see that when he likes something he doesn't swing into his usual hyperbolic rhetoric.

Bishop Andrewes and his colleagues, a mixture of clergymen and classicists, were charged with revisiting the original Hebrew and Greek editions of the Old and New Testaments, along with the fragments of Aramaic that had found their way into the text. Understanding that their task was a patriotic and “nation-building” one (and impressed by the nascent idea of English Manifest Destiny, whereby the English people had replaced the Hebrews as God’s chosen), whenever they could translate any ancient word for “people” or “tribe” as “nation,” they elected to do so. The term appears 454 times in this confident form of “the King’s English.” Meeting in Oxford and Cambridge college libraries for the most part, they often kept their notes in Latin. Their conservative and consensual project was politically short-lived: in a few years the land was to be convulsed with civil war, and the Puritan and parliamentary forces under 

Oliver Cromwell would sweep the head of King Charles Ifrom his shoulders. But the translators’ legacy remains, and it is paradoxically a revolutionary one, as well as a giant step in the maturing of English literature.

Some interesting stuff on principles of translation, but then he just can't help himself.

For example, in Isaiah 7:14 it is stated that, “behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This is the scriptural warrant and prophecy for the impregnation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Ghost. But the original Hebrew wording refers only to the pregnancy of an almah, or young woman. If the Hebrew language wants to identify virginity, it has other terms in which to do so. The implications are not merely textual. To translate is also to interpret; or, indeed, to lay down the law. (Incidentally, the American “

Revised Standard Version” of 1952 replaced the word “virgin” with “young woman.” It took the Fundamentalists until 1978 to restore the original misreading, in the now dominant, “New International Version.”)

Aaaah, that old canard – the suggestion that the original readers' in their own culture would not have understood almah as “virgin”. It is, of course, utterly undermined by the fact the the very Jewish translators of the LXX rendered almah as “παρθενος” – “virgin“. They seemed to understand very well what was intended. But perhaps Hitchens (and so many others with him) know better how to understand an ancient Hebrew text than some ancient Hebrew scholars.

Nevertheless, it's a stimulating little read

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  1. Roland

    I enjoyed this article very much. The Authorised Version (also known as the K.J.V.)is my favourite Bible. I support the spread of it around the world through the work of the Trinitarian Bible Society (London) which translates and publishes Holy Scripture in various languages. They also have a bookstore and mail-order catalogue of many Bibles and Scripture booklets, posters, tracts and calendars. See their website for more information.—http://bnafreedom.posterous.com

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