For Christian Scientists, the King James Version of the Bible remains at the core of daily study and weekly worship, while modern Bible translations offer fresh insight and clarity in contemporary English. In this discussion, three Bible scholars examine the enduring virtues and some shortcomings of the KJV.
earned her master's in Biblical studies in 1998 at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. For four years she was the director of the Foundation for Biblical Research in New Hampshire, a nonprofit established by Christian Scientists to provide Bible workshops for lay people and clergy of any religious background. Helen currently teaches Bible with Higher Ground Bible Conferences (www.highergroundforlife.com).
did his master's work at Bangor (Maine) Theological Seminary. He is continuing his Bible study at Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, New York, where he is a member of the college's Institute of Advanced Theology. David practices and teaches Christian Science healing in Stanfordville, New York.
a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors, holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Miami, focusing her research on the King James Bible. She co-authored The Reforming Power of the Scriptures with Bill Dawley and is a practitioner and teacher of Christian Science in Boston.
Journal senior writer Warren Bolon conducted this exchange of views by e-mail and selected the following excerpts.
Mary Baker Eddy once wrote, "Our thoughts of the Bible utter our lives" (Message to The Mother Church for 1902, p. 4). What have you been thinking about the Bible lately, and how have these thoughts played out in your own life?
David Robertson: The Bible means many things to different people—history, poetry, drama, and of course the highest expectations of humanity. It is this latter point that has taken hold of my thoughts about the Bible's place in the world. Christian Science has opened for me the understanding that the Bible is not denominational at all but is an exposition of the highest hopes for all people, and as such, Christian Scientists can join with the Bible in offering these high hopes, with incredible spiritual insight, to a hungering world.
Mary Trammell: It's probably not as important what a person thinks about the Bible as it is whether he or she lives Bible truth. Let's say someone is a deep student of Scripture text and the original Bible languages—and yet somehow their life doesn't really reflect the transforming spirituality of the Bible. Well, in that case, there's an opportunity for that person's living of the Word to catch up with their intellectual grasp of Scripture.
Helen Mathis: Teaching and writing about the Bible is my profession—so I have a "Biblical worldview." I see everything around me through the lens of Bible stories and passages. But it is often those rough places in our lives that compel us to move through that worldview to take possession of the Bible's profound truths. This is certainly Mary Baker Eddy's life story; she turned to the Bible for every aspect of her life. She let the Bible stories shatter everything that was conventional in her day. In the spirit of Mrs. Eddy's boldness, I too look to the Bible to break through my own conventional boundaries and sense of limitation. It is then that our thoughts of the Bible literally utter our lives or are "made flesh" (John 1:14) in our own transformations.
How has Mary Baker Eddy's principal book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, illumined the Bible for you?
Trammell: For the first time in human history Science and Health has laid bare the revolutionary facts of being: that Spirit is all, that matter is nothing, and that each one of God's sons and daughters is made—and forever maintained—in the perfect spiritual likeness of the Divine. So it's not surprising that to study the Bible from this single-minded perspective makes a revolutionary difference. It transforms you. And it transforms what you're reading, from mere words to THE WORD of God. Once you've tasted this spiritual standpoint toward reading the Bible, there's no going back. You realize, as Mary Baker Eddy put it, "The one important interpretation of Scripture is the spiritual" (Science and Health, p. 320). To look at the Bible through this spiritual lens is to focus a giant beam on virtually any Bible passage. Catalogs of ancient laws become infused with fresh and relevant meaning. Allegories teach glorious lessons. Christ Jesus' healings become natural, repeatable events, explained by divine law. Prophecy and revelation become ongoing possibilities for all of us today, as in Biblical times.
Robertson: The real awakening of Bible meanings that came to me through Science and Health was when I discerned the distinction between the literal sense of the writing and the spiritual imperative that lay behind the story. Science and Health plunges beneath the surface level of the Bible as a historical report and awakens human consciousness to the wonderful possibilities these stories imply.
Mathis: Lately I've gained greater appreciation for Mrs. Eddy's boldness in embracing the full implications of the healing part of Jesus' ministry. Her textbook does not apologize for these powerful stories, which were not openly addressed when I was at seminary. Her audacity gives me confidence, helping me see Jesus' healings as more than just metaphors pointing to spiritual truths.
Mrs. Eddy loved, studied, and thoroughly knew the king James or "Common Version" of the Bible, and used quotations and allusions to the KJV throughout her published writing. What do you know of her use of and thoughts about other Bible translations?
Robertson: She was keenly aware of the limits of the scholarship in the KJV. There was an advance in available source material by the time Mrs. Eddy was doing her research, and that has continued at an even more accelerated pace since her time. She was also aware that the Bible has been redacted and copied by hand, with all the attendant opportunities for error, thousands of times down through the centuries. So, it seems very natural that she would want to get back as close to the original meanings of the Scriptures, as was available in the more modern translations she had in her library.
Trammell: Mrs. Eddy was an ardent student of the Bible—not only the KJV, but a number of other Bible translations. Her personal Bible collection included some 40 contemporary and historical Bibles and reference books. She wrote in the margins, underlined words, and often even dated her notes and observations.
In Science and Health she quotes from the George R. Noyes translation, the Icelandic Bible, and others, especially when she felt these translations were clearer or added new light. The words of Jesus that circle the Cross and Crown seal on the cover of all her published writings, and the magazines she established—"Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons"—is from the Revised Version. And Mrs. Eddy turned to the American Standard Version for the motto of her newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor: "First the grain, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear."
It's certainly true, though, that the vast majority of Bible citations and paraphrases in Science and Health are from the King James Bible, and Mrs. Eddy objected strongly when one of her editors for the book, James Henry Wiggin, "inserted" quotes from another Bible in her exposition of Genesis. "My notes on Genesis were upon the above scriptural version [the KJV]. It changes the uniformity to go off on another one," she complained (L02166, Mary Baker Eddy to James Henry Wiggin, 1885).
In 1894, when Mrs. Eddy named the Bible and Science and Health with key to the Scriptures as Pastor of the Church of Christ, Scientist, she did not specify any particular version of the Bible. Why no designation?
Trammell: Mary Baker Eddy's only written instructions on the use of the Bible by Christian Scientists are these broadly embracing words in the Church Manual: "I, Mary Baker Eddy, ordain the Bible, and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Pastor over The Mother Church,—The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Mass.,—and they will continue to preach for this Church and the World" (Church Manual, p. 58). What an expansive vision! It opens up the possibility of reading, and conducting Christian Science services, in virtually any and every language on earth.
In English, of course, the Bible translation that was pervasively used in English-speaking countries during Mrs. Eddy's day was the King James Version. So it's not surprising that from 1890 through her passing in 1910, the Christian Science Bible Lessons stayed with the KJV in the main body of the Lesson, though they sometimes utilized citations from a contemporary Bible in the Golden Text and the Responsive Reading. The practice of adhering to the KJV alone in the Bible Lessons didn't start until 1914, several years after Mrs. Eddy's passing.
Why didn't Mrs. Eddy choose a specific Bible version for Christian Scientists to read? Possibly for two reasons. First, because she may have trusted her students to make their own decisions, as the times would demand and as their spiritual sense would guide them. And more important, because Mary Baker Eddy's devotion to the Bible transcended translation issues.
True, Mrs. Eddy loved the King James Bible, with its grandeur and poetry, above all other translations. She once wrote a student who'd sent her a copy of the Twentieth Century New Testament, "...I am not fond of new things unless they are more spiritual than the old." But she went on to point out one "indisputable" improvement in the new Bible—the use of the phrase "evil spirits" in place of "devils." The letter then goes on to raise the whole issue of Bible translation to a profoundly metaphysical level with these arresting words: "When we translate matter into Spirit we shall then have not only the Authorized Version, but the eternal version of the Scriptures. I never read the Bible now without such an illumination that every word of it contains a spiritual meaning" (L13053, Mary Baker Eddy to William P. McKenzie, Feb. 20, 1900).
To me, those remarkable words point to the only "translation" that really counts—the self-transformation that naturally happens as people let Spirit rather than matter, charity rather than academic hair-spliting, inspiration rather than tradition and dogma, become their basis of thought and action. This true "translation" just naturally lifts a person to a whole new view of reality—one that makes us healers and peacemakers. One that lifts us above debating over this or that word, this translation or that translation, and wins for us an "eternal version of the Scripture"—a new heaven and a new earth!
Mathis: In 1897, Mrs. Eddy wrote to the members of a branch church in Chicago: "The different renderings or translations of Scripture in no wise affect Christian Science" (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 179). Although she clearly found the King James Version the most eloquent and inspired Bible of her day, even in light of her consistent use of this translation in her textbook, she still did not name a particular version. This seems intentional. Perhaps she felt similarly about her Church's Bible as she felt about its periodicals—that they must be "kept abreast of the times" (Church Manual, p. 44).
Robertson: I think she knew that her Church was an international institution, and that would be an ever expanding set of different language translations of her works and the Bible that would come into use. So it would really be impossible to make up a list of how these works would be translated and used in the future. She worked so hard to make Christian Science available to all people, and that would negate cementing in any translation. I also believe that she left much for us, for "future generations" of Christian Scientists, to grapple with and decide what is best to propel her Church in our time.
What would you say are the advantages and assets of the KJV, and what are its limitations?
Mathis: I haven't found that any of the modern translations have captured the richness of the English language found in the KJV. The KJV was not immediately accepted by everyone, even though it was written in the common language of the people. When the Pilgrims came to America in 1620, not one of those God-fearing people brought along a copy of the KJV because they found it too modern. Today it is just the opposite; King James English is no longer the vernacular.
The translators of the New Testament of the KJV created an excellent translation within the limits of the small number of texts they had available. But scholars today are not at all sure they ever used any original Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Instead they mostly used available Greek and Hebrew translations from the 1500s, which in turn were based on a small number of manuscripts dated no earlier than the 11th century. Today there are over 5,000 manuscripts available to scholars, some of them the earliest full New Testament manuscript (Sinaiticus) dating back to the fourth century. And we have the stunning discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have shed much light on the Old Testament text and New Testament times.
The KJV translators were products of their age, when men stuck to the public sphere and women remained in the private sphere. This custom is reflected in the translators' practice of taking gender-neutral Greek terms, such "child" or "everyone" and translating them into the andro-centric English words "man" or "son" or "brothers." For example, the KJV translated Matthew 6:24, "No man can serve two masters." The use of "man" might sound natural to the 17th-century ear, but does not remain faithful to the Greek term behind it, which is oudeis, meaning "no one." Many of the modern translations today have gone out of their way, where appropriate, to use gender-inclusive language when referring to people or persons.
Robertson: The KJV's greatest asset is its familiarity to much of the English-speaking world, and its aculturalization into the English language. It's what we are used to in Christian Science churches. The poetry and drama that come through so well in some parts of the KJV are often lost in more modern statements of the text. Being so familiar with the KJV, however, can also be a disadvantage, for we probably don't listen as keenly as we would if we were hearing it said a bit differently. I once read Paul's letter to Philemon, a rather difficult text, from The New English Bible as the Scriptural Selection in a church service, and many people said they were awakened to the meaning of the letter. That's one case where a different translation was helpful.
For the longtime student, the key advantage of some of the modern translations is that they are much closer to the original manuscripts as a result of the many new discoveries of texts and the advancements in understanding word evolution. Even with those that have no difficulty in understanding the KJV there is a yearning to get as close to the original texts as possible. For younger readers, the KJV can be inscrutable. As they are the future of our movement, this is the most pressing Bible issue for us to pray about.
Trammell: It's hard for me to be objective about the King James Bible. I was raised in a family where we read it every day, prayed with it, turned to it—along with Science and Health —in every need. Later, I wrote my master's thesis and doctoral dissertation on the KJV—and I've written a good deal on the subject since. I've come to know every one of the Bible's 54 translators like a personal friend. In a word, I love the King James Bible.
Is the KJV perfect? No. It has some drawbacks. King James himself, for instance, was a grand idealist with a less-than-perfect moral record. Also, the translators he selected included no women. Yet I feel the King James Bible has three major assets that no other English Bible can match. First, it's supremely ecumenical. King James had a glorious vision for the new Bible—to unite the warring factions of the English nation and its Church under the banner of a Bible that would appeal to all wings of the religious spectrum, from High Church to Low Church, from radical Puritans to conservative Anglo-Catholics. To accomplish this, James appointed six committees of Bible scholars—men of all theological stripes—to translate the major portions of the Bible. And he commanded them to keep at it till they arrived at a consensus! It was a brilliant plan, and produced a Bible that appealed to almost everyone and offended almost no one, a Bible that has survived almost 400 years.
The second asset of the KJV is its scholarship. The translators represented the cream of British Bible research at the time, including famous Oxford and Cambridge dons, and the most learned theologians in England. In an age of exploding Bible scholarship, these men were towering figures.
A third key advantage of the KJV is its lyrical style. It was translated during the Golden Age of English literature, when playwrights like William Shakespeare and poets like John Donne were walking the streets of London. These scholars knew the value of retaining the poetry and rhythms of the original Hebraic texts. More than that, they were virtually all active preachers who realized the importance of sound and memorability, who knew how to speak to congregations that were largely illiterate.
But on a more fundamental level, Mrs. Eddy pointed out repeatedly that without spiritual inspiration, no translation of the Bible can be truly understood. In The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, she stated bluntly, "Uninspired knowledge of the translations of the Scriptures has imparted little power to practise the Word" (p. 238).
Do you think the KJV is outmoded for 21stcentury readers and churchgoers?
Trammell: No, I really don't. The English language has remained remarkably stable over the last 400 years. That's not true in some other languages. In fact, the King James text—and its overwhelming popularity over the centuries—is largely responsible for the stability of our English idioms and syntax. Its wording is quite understandable and readable, just as Shakespeare's wording and that of the other great Renaissance writers is. And, of course, the way the Bible is read makes such a difference! Just as it does with Shakespeare. Someone reading it may need to get used to the "thou's" and "thee's." Still, when it's read with inspiration, the KJV is unforgettable. Its rhythms and phrases have come to me many times in the middle of the night, in moments of stress or pain, and brought me incredible comfort and healing.
Robertson: The KJV is not outmoded. For me it certainly continues to have strong advantages and its language disadvantages are in specific parts of the text. I get to visit different Christian church services frequently, and I would say that I have not heard the KJV used in them in many years. These churches have found a need to have the Bible message be more integral to people's experiences today. For me, I do not think it's a question of which translation to use all the time. But rather, what is the best translation to bring out the spiritual meaning of this citation, this week, in this Lesson. I think we will some day feel very relaxed about this issue and get to the point of choosing other translations for specific citations to help enlighten the Bible Lessons. In the meantime, the my Bible Lesson edition is a great asset.
The language of Science and Health is so interwoven with that of the KJV—has it become too difficult to understand for younger generations of readers?
Robertson: I have not found it at all difficult to switch between reading the KJV quotes in Science and Health and reading the Bible citations from a modern translation. Mrs. Eddy's careful explanation of the Bible texts used in Science and Health is quite different from Bible citations that have to stand on their own without explanation. As to the language of Science and Health itself, it probably is a new tongue to many beginning readers, especially the young. However, I have not found this to be a unique problem with Science and Health. There is much concern about younger generations' reading comprehension and desire to read. We can be of more help with this as it relates to understanding Science and Health. Many scientific subjects do have a primer to get new readers familiar with the language and the flow of the subject.
Mary Baker Eddy's early students were mill workers and not well-read or educated, yet they did well in understanding Science and Health once they had been given a head start, sometimes by Mrs. Eddy herself. In teaching Sunday School or when I talk with prison inmates, I find it important to have a good dictionary always available. The language of Science and Health is certainly scientific and technical, and yes, quite Victorian, but I think it is worth struggling with, and its precision is really important. So, I don't see a big need for changing Science and Health. But perhaps there are things we could do to help the new reader of the book have some head-start assistance.
Trammell: Well, having specialized in 16th and 17thcentury Renaissance literature, I think of a book published as recently as Science and Health —and constantly updated through 1910—as a modern work! Actually, though, a book that's been classified as a "bestseller" some 130 years after its original publication is, by most anyone's standards, a classic that transcends time. What really sets Science and Health beyond time and space is the power of its message. The book has healed and redeemed millions of readers. It's the only book ever published that empowers anyone, anywhere, to repeat the cures Jesus performed. It's the only book on earth that communicates the complete message of the Comforter.
Yes, Science and Health is shot through with quotes and paraphrases from the King James Bible. But that doesn't date Mrs. Eddy's book. It's just that the revelation of Christian Science is rooted in the Bible, and, in Mrs. Eddy's book. "The Bible has been my only authority" (Science and Health, p. 126). And the carry-over of Bible language in the two books that comprise the Christian Science Pastor, the Bible and Science and Health, brings unity and wholeness to their message.
Mathis: Wouldn't it be helpful to have a "Study Science and Health," like the study Bibles everyone already has? A study edition of Science and Health (not a "commentary") could have, for example, notes for words that are no longer in common use; Webster definitions of unfamiliar words; alternative Bible verses from different versions for those passages from the KJV that are not easily understood; even a simple concordance in the back. Does this sound familiar, since this is already happening with my-BibleLesson.com?
Trammell: That's a wonderful idea, Helen. I understand that something like this is in the works already.
New readers of Science and Health over the past decades often speak of how it opened the Bible to them–that before, it was a closed book. Why has that been so often the case?
Trammell: That's been the response of new readers of Science and Health from its very first publication. Perhaps more than anything, Mrs. Eddy's book revealed to the world for the first time the "Science of the Scriptures" (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 239)—the rule of healing that undergirds Bible truth. It explains that a divine Principle lies behind the healings in the Bible, that they're not just miracles, or one-time, unexplainable events that belong to history. Knowing there's a Science behind the Bible changes not only the way a person reads the Bible, it changes the way they live. And that's revolutionary.
Mathis: Mrs. Eddy introduced her Key to the Scriptures with this passage from the book of Revelation: "I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (3:8). A "key" is something that explains something else—like a key to a map which allows us to understand it. Science and Health is the key that allows a way into the profound meaning of the Bible. Once that door has been opened, there's no turning back. Why is our textbook so effective in helping people internalize the Bible? It wasn't that Mrs. Eddy wrote about the Bible as if she were an independent observer of it. It was because in the midst of her struggles, she turned with her whole heart to the Bible as a supplicant with her hands outstretched, and it transformed her life. When she sat down to write her book, her Bible-infused life spilled out onto its pages—pages that continue to speak volumes today.
Robertson: In its most elemental and radical form, the message Christian Science reveals is that, "The Bible contains the recipe for all healing" (Science and Health, p. 406). For me, Bible study is about becoming a better healer—to get out of the Bible everything I can, from whatever source I can, and thereby be a better healer.
Trammell: Christian Science disperses the fog that for centuries clouded humanity's understanding of the Bible, and reveals the bold, world-transforming reality of the Bible message. It's like the way the sunshine gradually dissolves the fog that cloaks the Andes Mountains each morning—and reveals the majestic peaks surrounding Santiago, Chile, where I happen to be writing this. The magnificence of the mountains was there all along, but it took sunshine to unveil their grandeur. That's the clarity that Christian Science brings to the Bible, revealing for the first time in history the true significance of its message. "The central fact of the Bible," Science and Health states boldly, "is the superiority of spiritual over physical power" (p. 131). It took Mary Baker Eddy's utterly unique vision of the totality of Spirit and the nothingness of matter to properly interpret the Bible's import. It took the advent of Christian Science to cut through the scholasticism of the ages and bring to light the ultimate Truth that—like the mountains—was always there.
Please see page 62 for a statement from The Christian Science Board of Directors and Board of Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society. This statement responds to questions on the occasional use of Bible translations other than the King James Version in the Golden Textand/or Responsive Reading of the Bible Lesson.