The historical and cultural facts are that the KJV has had a profound impact on the English language in both its British and American versions. A few examples of phrases from the King James Bible that everyone knows: “In the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52). “Gave up the ghost” (Jn 19:30). “O ye of little faith” (Lk 12:28). “Seek, and ye shall find” (Mt 7:7). And this is just for starters.
In a style both informative and captivating, Sweeney covers the history of the Bible that led up to its Latin and then English translations and, finally, to its appearance in the Authorized, or King James, Version in 1611. He explains the process used by the committee of translators to produce the KJV, including revisions carried out in the 1769 edition — the version used most commonly to this day. In an extensive appendix, Sweeney explains many of the archaic terms still in the KJV, such as “suffer,” meaning “allow;” “seethe,” meaning “boil;” and “holpen,” the antiquated past participle of help.
Similarly, Sweeney highlights the sometimes gross humor in certain KJV passages, such as: “Say thou unto the people … Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither 10 days, nor 20 days; But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you” (Nm 11:18-20).
In the decades following the publication of the KJV, usually following the appearance of another, more contemporary English translation, a “KJV only” movement arose; indeed, this biblically fundamentalist Protestant movement survives in our own time, insisting that, in fact, the KJV is the only divinely inspired English translation of the Bible. Its Catholic equivalent is made up of those — often doctrinally fundamentalist Catholics — who want nothing but the old Douay-Rheims Catholic translation.
Sweeney discusses how the KJV shows up in the Declaration of Independence, classical hymns and African-American spirituals, the works of poets such as Emily Dickinson, the writings of Charles Dickens, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. He also presents well known proverbs and “immortal verses” from the KJV.
In an era when, in printed versions at least, many familiar Catholic prayers have been purged of “thees,” “thous” and other technically archaic words, Sweeney’s book may incline us to reconsider: “The KJV offers a language that is slightly outside of everyday experience, which expands our capacity to contemplate, see and know God. … We long to hear … rhythms that call us back to a place where we can stand in the dark beneath the canopy of the heavens and gaze into the unknown.”
“Verily, Verily” is, at its most basic, a book about language and its power to shape the human mind and heart. It isn’t at all about the new English translation of the prayers of the Mass on the near horizon. But you may find it helpful if you would sidestep any form of knee-jerk reaction to the new translation. Regardless, however, “Verily, Verily” is a book not to be overlooked. Even for Catholics.
Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including “The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between” (The Word Among Us Press).