In 1949 I graduated from seminary and was installed as pastor in a historic rural congregation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The congregation included families in their third and fourth generations of membership who claimed ancestral memories of the settlement of the Valley by Presbyterians from Scotland. The minister who was my predecessor had served for some 24 years. A contented continuity prevailed in the life of the members. For that church to call a young man fresh out of seminary was at least in part a response to the hopeful changes brought about by the conclusion of the Second World War.
My seminary education had emphasized biblical study. When the New Testament of the Revised Standard Version was published in 1946, it became the constant companion of all the students. I carried an already well used copy of it with me, confident that its introduction would be a centerpiece of my ministry. The Old Testament would be published in 1952.
On my first visit to the pulpit I found a large, lovely, and apparently quite old Bible open as if waiting to be read. The pages exhibited signs of years of regular use, though the Bible was still in quite good condition. Inscriptions on its presentation page indicated that it had been given in the late 19th century by the ancestors of one of the current families in the congregation.
My plan and initial practice were to say some introductory things about the RSV and proceed to use it in the weekly services. But from the beginning I sensed that there was a kind of tension and unease in the congregation when Scripture was read. Nothing was said to the young preacher whom they had welcomed so warmly until the occasion of the first funeral. At its conclusion I was thanked by the widow of the elder we had just buried, who added an expression of regret that the Scripture readings did not sound like “the Bible.”
Her quiet complaint sent me back to the study that afternoon for a time of worried contemplation. I began to grasp belatedly some of the implications of her unqualified reference to “the Bible.” For her, what the King James version said and the Elizabethan vocabulary and grammar with which it spoke were in reality the Bible. For her and generations in the past, that speech and voice were the Bible. Christian education in their Sunday schools had been memorizing that voice. It was the language of Christmas and Easter, of their funerals and weddings. In fact, for forebears reaching back over three centuries, this text and voice had been the reality they knew as “the Bible.”
I knew that afternoon that the RSV should be put aside for the future. And there did come a time when we did adopt this child of the King James, but then with a profounder sense of what was being lost. In the decades since with their plethora of translations it has become impossible to say of one, “the Bible,” with the attachment and commitment of those days. It must be high irony that over the years, the RSV became “the Bible” for the writer.
JAMES LUTHER MAYS is the Cyrus McCormick Professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament Emeritus at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.