The world over, people this year are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV is indeed a landmark in religious and literary history, one of the great achievements of the Reformation and of civilization generally: To this day, much of the Bible presents itself to my own memory in the KJV rendition, even in some verses on which later translations happen to be more accurate and/or felicitous. (In general, the KJV is a remarkably accurate rendition; and its literary merit is of course known to all educated people.) So I have often been curious why some of the more conservative Anglican churches, which use the KJV for their Mass readings, use another translation for the Psalms. In his most recent church bulletin, Rev. Andrew Mead, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, tells the fascinating story:
The Psalms and biblical Canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and in the American Prayer Book of 1928 (with some minor Psalm revisions) are from [the 1535 translation of Bishop Myles] Coverdale. That is why when our choir sings Psalm 23 we hear, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing” (1535 Coverdale) rather than “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (1611 KJV).
The Coverdale Psalms yield themselves to chanting more easily than do the KJV’s Psalm translations, and we may well ask why. I put this question to the Very Rev’d Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Dean Willis, a hymn-writer and connoisseur of Church Music who knows the Psalter to the marrow of his bones, says that Bishop Coverdale, in 1535, was much closer to the Benedictine chanting of the Psalms of the Latin Vulgate, than were the KJV translators 75 years later in 1611, by which time the memory of the old ways of the Medieval Church had died out. Coverdale could still, as it were, hear the old chants as he translated; and his Psalms are far more rhythmic and suggestive of chanting than are those of the KJV.
So when you sing out those Coverdale Psalms, or hear them sung by a church choir, be grateful not just for the Reformation, which did so much to bring Scripture to the people in their own language, but to the Benedictines and other monks, whose sweet voices did so much to keep Christianity (and civilization) alive in the Middle Ages. Everyone who is a Christian today stands on some great shoulders; that’s one important meaning of the word tradition.