Within a few days, as word gets around, the fur should start flying nicely over Thomas Nelson Co.'s futzing about with the King James Bible.
This hoary publishing house, which specializes in many versions of the Bible, introduced its "New King James Version" at a penthouse luncheon in the St. Regis Hotel yesterday. In very little time, an august white-haired gentleman arose from the table, fixed a hard eye on the publishers, and objected to the word "Update."
"To update means to add new facts."
The publishers confessed they had not had any such gall but only got rid of Thees and Thous and archaic words in general.
The King James Version, said the old man, "is a great masterpiece of our tongue. Why not alter Shakespeare, getting rid of his obsolete words, too? Believe me, it's not the same, even if the words mean the same."
"I'm glad you brought up Shakespeare," said Arthur L. Farstad, executive editor of the revision. "We would never change Shakespeare. He wrote in English. The Bible is a translation.
"Suppose we now know, as we do, that a Semitic word means monkey, but the 1611 translators thought it meant peacock.
"Well, I was raised on the King James version and as it happens, I prefer King Solomon with peacocks to King Solomon with monkeys. But I think we had an obligation to use the correct word."
In fact, the great 1611 version ordered by King James in London has been revised four times, twice in the 17th and twice in the 18th centuries.
"And it's high time to do it again now," said Farstad.
"I notice you leave the creation of the world alone," said a guest.
"Not a word changed," said Farstad of the Genesis account. "The more famous the passage, the less likely you are to see any difference."
Still, after $4 million, a host of scholars and seven years of arguing, there are changes.
"My cup runneth over," becomes, of course, "My cup runs over"; not a major change but enough to make a few English-speaking teeth curl.
Sam Moore, president of Thomas Nelson, said sometimes a whole week was spent arguing over a single word.
"How can we succeed if we spend a whole week on one word?" he used to cry, he said, but the scholars paid no attention to him and went their deliberate ways.
If it ain't busted, don't fix it, is a sound precept of a high-tech age -- especially if you don't have the right replacement parts. This seems to be the central argument of those who resist any change at all in the 1611 Bible, which even now is preferred over all other translations throughout the English-speaking world. Moore said more than 50 percent of all Bibles sold today are the 1611 translation, despite the competition of many other versions.
But publishers discovered in their surveys there is a strong demand for a Bible retaining the word music of the 1611 translation, only made intelligible to "your Miss Jones who is not quite sure what this word and that word means."
"Here is a chance for you to go farther out on the limb," a reporter said to Farstad after lunch. "Suppose a reader actually grew up knowing English so that he had no great trouble with things like 'undressed' vines, not supposing the vines had taken their clothes off, but aware the vines had not been pruned and trained.
"Do you say your book has any merit, beyond helping Miss Jones who has trouble with vines being undressed?"
"Yes," said Farstad, leaping to the challenge. "I mentioned changing peacock to monkey to correct a small error. But take this: St. Paul uses the word 'atonement' in the 1611 Bible. That word has profound and technical meanings. In 1611 it did not mean anything remotely similar to its meaning now. It meant simply 'reconciliation.' So we changed it to reconciliation. The 'New King James Version' is more accurate than the old one in such an important example as this.
"But a thing that astonished us was the scholarship and dedication to accuracy of the 1611 translators. They were better scholars of Hebrew, say, than many biblical scholars who came after them. In only a few cases has their scholarship been improved on.
"I know we are going to catch it from the ultraconservatives," said Moore. "But then you take your life in your hands when you get up in the morning and cross the street."
The same publishing house issues the 1611 translation with the first-edition spelling and punctuation, without even the changes made later in the 1600s. The discovery of this should have made the lunch worthwhile even to the most determined defender of King James.
Samplings of a dozen people who had read the new revision produced a consensus that no damage at all has been done to the literary beauty of the Bible and for those who think so, their cup, no doubt, runs over.
That "monkey" of the monkey-peacock crisis, by the way, probably should be translated "baboon," Farstad said privately. But they chickened out.