How good is it?

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • The Holy Bible: King James Version, 1611 Text edited by Gordon Campbell
    Oxford, 1552 pp, £50.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 955760 8
  • Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 by Gordon Campbell
    Oxford, 354 pp, £16.99, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 955759 2
  • The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today by David Norton
    Cambridge, 218 pp, £14.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 61688 1
  • The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic and Cultural Influences edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones
    Cambridge, 364 pp, £25.00, December 2010, ISBN 978 0 521 76827 6
  • Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language by David Crystal
    Oxford, 327 pp, £14.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 958585 4

The quatercentenary commemorative King James Bible (KJB) sits on my desk as I write: a satisfying artefact in its chocolate livery enriched by opulently gilded top, tail and fore edges, with stout chocolate slipcase to match, impressive in its folio bulk, though not nearly as bulky as the originals of 1611, which needed a sturdy lectern to bear them, announcing their presence with a swagger equal to the most majestic of England’s medieval church buildings. Inside, Oxford University Press have thoughtfully provided a sticky-back presentation label, since most of these monuments will no doubt end up as gifts for clergy (I pity the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular). They give something of the flavour of the original: 1611 spelling, ornamental capitals beginning each chapter, a detailed map of Palestine engraved by John Speed (whose maps of English counties were selling so well at the time), a calendar of Church of England holy days and lessons for church services, and, strangest of all, 34 meticulously referenced genealogical tables of biblical characters culminating in Jesus Christ and Paul of Tarsus, to convince the good folk of Jacobean England that the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the notables of the Old Testament were gentry families rather like those who ruled the shires of England in 1611 – or better still, that the whole people of England were like the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Altogether, this array of extras was an encouragement to the English to aspire to the privileged status of Israel in the eyes of a gracious Jehovah, and it hinted that England might even do a bit better than the Israelites under a thoroughly godly Protestant monarch like James I. To hammer home the point, the 1611 book devoted a whole page to the royal arms, just like the big heraldic display which congregations would see proudly affixed to the wall of their parish church as they sat in their pews (in careful hierarchical arrangement), listening to the words of King James’s God. Very often the church walls would also bear the emblems of the Twelve Tribes of Israel; one or two examples can be seen still.

Yet any reader familiar with 17th-century printing will immediately smell a rat on opening this quasi-facsimile edition: the typeface is patently of two centuries later, and indeed Gordon Campbell comes clean in his appended essay. The Gothic or black-letter type of the original is thought to be too difficult to read easily, even for the sort of people who would enjoy such a volume. That has an unfortunate side effect common to any modern edition of the KJB which keeps the original convention of indicating in italics those words which the 1611 translators added for the reader’s comprehension – for example, ‘and what if the sword contemne euen the rodde? it shall be no more, sayth the Lord GOD’ (Ezekiel 21. 13). Originally, these italicised words would have appeared in discreetly smaller type amid the robust black-letter, indicating their auxiliary status: now, because of the different use to which we put them, the italicised words shout their presence (the radically different visual effect of the original is illustrated in David Norton’s The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today, as well as in Campbell’s own Bible, another history of the KJB).

It’s a pity, but the change emphasises just how remote the modern ‘King James’ Bible is from its original. It doesn’t look the same, it isn’t spelled the same, and many of its words are not the same. In fact it is a Disneyfied reconstruction of the original, dating from the 18th century, when a Cambridge don called Francis Parris seized the 1611 text by the scruff of the neck and in 1743 published his own, Georgian version. This was only slightly modified in 1769 by Benjamin Blayney, an Oxford scholar who has succeeded in taking most of the credit, and their joint effort is what KJB enthusiasts read today. If they are real KJB completists, they have the benefit of the marginal chronology added to the Bible in 1679. This is useful in letting us know that Noah’s flood happened in 2849 bc, and of course, famously, that the creation of the world took place in 4004 bc (thanks to a misplaced piece of ingenuity by the genuinely learned and original historian James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh). All this and much more is well told by Campbell and Norton. Their books are respectively published by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, since the 17th century not always friendly rivals in publishing the KJB (in Oxford’s case, originally through a dedicated printing company, whose incorporation in OUP remains a useful source of cash for the university). Like the KJB editions published by the two universities, the two books are beautiful to look at; they are written to the highest standards by two acknowledged experts, who despite their respective insights end up saying much the same thing, though Norton has a better index. The story of the KJB and its influence has often been told, and we will hear it repeated to distraction in this quatercentenary year. If one wonders whether it’s worth telling again, well, like the KJB itself, it sells, and good luck to publishers who turn an honest penny by it.

This is the Bible which I was brought up to call the Authorised Version – in my parson’s-son sophistication, rather looking down on Americans who called it the King James Bible. Yet they were right and I was wrong: the KJB was first called the Authorised Version only as late as the 1820s, and as so often, Americans were preserving an older usage. The KJB nowhere calls itself authorised. The only Bibles to do so were its Tudor ancestors which were given official status by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I: first the Great Bible of 1539, making the announcement on the title page of its 1541 edition, and then the fairly light revision of the Great Bible undertaken in the 1560s by the Elizabethan episcopate. This Bishops’ Bible took up the label of ‘authorised’ in 1584, probably because of official annoyance at the recent commercial success of another new version which had not bothered to seek any authorisation, a translation developed in the late 1550s by a group of Englishmen sheltering in Geneva from Queen Mary Tudor’s Romanist persecution, who were underwhelmed by the form in which Queen Elizabeth restored a Protestant Church to their native land in 1559. They considered her C of E not nearly so godly as their refuge in Geneva, or indeed as the Protestant Established Church which other enthusiasts for Geneva erected in Scotland during the 1560s. Their Geneva Bible did well because it took up a fashion new in Bibles at the time, dividing up the text not merely into the long-established chapter divisions, but within them into verses, so making it much easier to locate and quote biblical fragments. Geneva Bibles also boasted a mass of marginal commentary around the biblical text, so that everyone might have the luxury of their personalised Protestant preacher lurking within the covers, ready with a wise insight for every occasion. Very often these Bibles were bound up with an extra version of King David’s 150 psalms in strong, simple rhyming verse. These ‘metrical’ psalms, though very different from the Geneva translators’ own versions, also took their cue from Genevan devotional practice; they were ready-made for well-known tunes, and throughout Europe, in a great array of languages, they constituted one of the secret weapons of the Reformed or Calvinist strand of Protestantism.

Small wonder that the English bishops felt a little upstaged by the Genevans. Queen Elizabeth herself overcame her distaste, apparently appreciating her presentation Geneva Bible, bound in black and silver thread, enough to write her own extended pious commendation of ‘the pleasant fields of the holy scriptures’ inside the front cover in her fine italic hand – this interesting rediscovery by John King and Aaron Pratt in the Bodleian Library deserves to be more widely known. In fact, most Elizabethan English folk were probably quite happy to multitask: they could have a big fat Bishops’ Bible read solemnly to them in their parish church, then communally roar out a metrical psalm from the back of their Geneva volume at the end of the service, before returning home for Sunday dinner and a pleasant post-prandial rumination over the Geneva marginal notes. James VI of Scotland and I of England felt more strongly than Elizabeth about ‘the bitter notes’ of Geneva; his strenuous time as king of Scotland left him with little enthusiasm for a preaching minister perched on everyone’s shoulder. Accordingly, that shrewd and good-humoured monarch was disposed to seek a new translation, undoubtedly with the subsidiary motive of diverting the energies of his more alarmingly enthusiastic senior clergy into a worthwhile task. He first tried the ploy at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which met in 1601 in the appropriately forward-looking Reformed Protestant setting of the recently built parish kirk at Burntisland in Fife. Nothing came of it, apart from a useful outcrop of surprised goodwill towards their king from the Scottish ministers. Only three years later, now king of England, James pursued the theme when facing a potentially difficult informal meeting of English clerical notables at Hampton Court, and this time his project gained momentum. Within seven years, a remarkably efficient and scandalously under-financed set of committees had co-operated to create the text that was to prove one of the most lasting commemorations of the first person to rule the entire Atlantic archipelago. Pointedly, it was issued with no marginal notes other than cross-references, many of which dated back to the Latin Vulgate (a fact still embarrassingly revealed by the fact that they number the Psalms as the Vulgate does, rather than using the numbering in the KJB itself).

Why did the 1611 version have such a lasting effect? Partly because of the good work done in its Anglophone predecessors, all of which it cannibalised, explicitly in the case of the Bishops’ Bible, but with taciturn ecumenism also including Geneva and even the translation produced by Roman Catholic scholars who had sought to show the faithful how badly Protestant heretics did the job. There were so many translators on King James’s committees that the effect was not cacophony but uniformity: one translator read out his effort on his allotted section to his fellows, and they all joined in with criticism and helpful suggestions to smooth out idiosyncrasies – prompting some to suppose that an invisible genius (Shakespeare? Francis Bacon?) was ventriloquising those owlish dons and clerics. Instead of pursuing such mare’s nests, we should note that behind all the earlier English Bibles (which Norton rather mischievously styles ‘drafts’ of the KJB) there loomed a single early Tudor translator of genius, William Tyndale. Tyndale, as John Foxe long ago told us and as recent research seems to have confirmed, came from the English borders of Wales, and one must think of the boy being fascinated by the sound of two utterly different languages in the marketplaces and alehouses of his childhood. In the 1520s, Tyndale brought the same fascination to translating biblical Hebrew and Greek into English, finding the sacred languages much more suited to his native tongue than they were to the Latin of the Western Church’s Vulgate, and the English which he created could hardly be bettered. Indeed the KJB translators did not try very hard to do so, except where (in accordance with the brief King James gave them) they felt that it needed to sound more like the parish church and less like the alehouse. For much of the Old Testament and a little of the New, they did not have Tyndale as a guide. He had never finished his self-appointed task, being judicially murdered in 1536 by the Holy Roman Emperor. The murder was carried out with the connivance of Henry VIII; a few years later, Henry was to pride himself on authorising an English Bible, which (with one of those ironies so easily provoked by Henry’s myopic selfishness) consisted of Tyndale’s work completed. The main complementary hand was that of Miles Coverdale, who had the all-important task of Englishing the Psalms, not tackled by Tyndale. Such was Coverdale’s success that the Book of Common Prayer still employs his psalter text and not King James’s: a curious decision in view of the Prayer Book’s thorough revision in 1662, by which time the KJB was well established. Maybe the Prayer Book revisers simply thought that the Coverdale was better.

Once more, that possibility poses the question as to how good the KJB actually was and is. It possesses undoubted literary merit, but a great deal of luck was also involved. It was produced in a narrow window of opportunity in the 1610s, when the English and Scottish Churches were rather grudgingly moving together under King James’s guidance, and before English Protestantism had irretrievably fragmented. This was something of a golden age for the Church of England, before the obtuseness of James’s son Charles nearly ruined it for ever. Published under the auspices of a king who in retrospect appeared a model of Protestant commitment compared with his untrustworthy offspring, the KJB had the potential to become a uniting symbol for English-speaking Protestantism – and, rather against the odds, that is precisely what happened. It was not tainted by Charles I; it did not become a totem of royalism, as it so easily might have done, and indeed versions were printed under the aegis of Lord Protector Cromwell. By the time that the episcopally governed Church of England came back with Charles II in 1660, even those Protestants who so disapproved of bishops and the Prayer Book that they refused to join the new Established Church had turned away from the Geneva version their parents would have preferred, towards the new Bible. Two writers who are exemplars of this process, John Bunyan and John Milton, rejected the new Anglican establishment and suffered at its hands. While England’s majority population of Anglicans henceforth had two books which suffused their prose – the Prayer Book and the Bible – English Protestant Dissenters and the Established Church of Scotland, which in the end also rejected episcopal church government, became people of a single book, the KJB.

So it was that when England and Scotland jointly stumbled on a ‘British’ world empire, the unifying anglophone book which they took to new lands was the KJB. Its unifying effect was not simply on English Anglicans and Dissenters. The Scots, in their acceptance first of the Geneva Bible, then of King James’s, increasingly confined their own centuries-old northern forms of English to private use, since throughout the 16th century and thereafter they read the word of God in the language of London: if anything welded the two ancient enemies together, it was this joint possession of a Protestant Bible. Now its most ardent defenders are to be found amid the multiple Protestantisms which British emigration has bequeathed to the US. Some of those defenders, the ‘King James Only’ type, believe that it possesses an extra dose of the Holy Spirit not granted to any other English version, which is very generous of them, considering that it was commissioned by a monarch whose jovial bisexuality would cause them apoplexy.

The history of the KJB after it escaped King James’s England and Scotland is exhilaratingly explored by the essayists captained by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones, who scrutinise it severally from linguistic, historical and literary perspectives. What emerges is the importance of the British Empire in cementing the KJB’s reputation. During the later 17th century, KJB language, already self-consciously old-fashioned in 1611, seemed almost embarrassing, as a teenager feels embarrassed by Mum and Dad. That mood strengthened in the 18th century, and Isabel Rivers’s essay explores how influential the Protestant Dissenter Philip Doddridge was with his monumental paraphrase of and commentary on the KJB, so huge that it was only posthumously completed two decades after he issued the first parts of it in 1738. Doddridge’s work was much plagiarised, and it might well have burst into a flash flood of retranslation, but politics intervened. The French Revolution convinced the British that foreigners were a threat to all that was good in our islands’ national heritage, and the KJB took on its present iconic status: the same mood canonised Shakespeare. Several of Hamlin and Jones’s essayists show how from that point on it has been possible to hear echoes of the KJB throughout the anglophone world, simply because it was so important in the basic education of anyone who spoke English. Consequently it still exerts a literary influence which may reflect hostility to the religious and political tenets that inspired it as much as reverence for the biblical message. In a variety of guises and moods, one can hear the KJB resonating in the work of Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison.

One of the most interesting and perceptive essayists is R.S. Sugirtharajah, even though his postcolonial scrutiny of the KJB takes surprisingly bitter sideswipes at a rather good recent history of 1611 by Adam Nicolson. Sugirtharajah chronicles how successful a handmaid of empire the KJB proved; its unprecedentedly numerous usages of the word ‘nation’ as a translation for four different Hebrew words in the Old Testament helped to colour a new vision of Britishness as a nationality with a mission. He also points out that supposedly authoritative KJB prose can have a malign effect when those formerly colonised by the British retain the simplistic attitudes to its message once peddled to them by the missionaries. Homophobic African bishops had better understand how colonialist they are being when they accuse European and American Anglican liberals of colonialism or condescension on the subject of sexuality. Ironically, among many conservative evangelicals in the US, the KJB has lost its hegemony over the last half-century, as a welter of new translations has appeared, reflecting the diverging agendas of an American evangelical Protestantism which was once given a certain unity by the cadences of 1611. This story is entertainingly and perceptively outlined by Paul Gutjahr, who tours us round Bibles rewritten for ‘busy moms’, ‘extreme teens’, or any special interest group looking for spiritual guidance to suit itself, without the fatigue of having to listen to any of the Bible’s multitude of alternative voices. I relish the prospect of opening the Celebrate Recovery Bible: it would be pleasing and appropriate if it beguiled its former addicts with the hallucinogenic art of William Blake, but somehow I doubt it.

David Crystal’s contribution to the KJB’s commemoration is quirky and original in exploring the continuing background hum of Jacobean sacred text. A superior version of the literature which one helpfully shelves for the studious in the lavatory, this is prime material for enjoyable browsing, though it can produce a surfeit of pleasure if read cover to cover at a sitting. It represents the fruits of much labour, based on a clearly exhaustive journey through the KJB text, with page after page scrutinised for familiar phrases to pop up through the thees and thous. Crystal has done a great deal of diligent Googling to locate their uses and perversions in English-speakers’ innumerable efforts at witticisms or arresting newspaper headlines. I do not intend criticism in mentioning the role of Google, for tracking down the ripples from these KJB fragments would hardly have been conceivable without modern search engines, and the exercise does have a serious point. Crystal has subjected to quasi-statistical scrutiny that much repeated claim (which by the end of this year will be even more repeated) that ‘no book has had greater influence on the English language’ than the KJB. The influence is in fact uneven, being strongest from the more exciting bits of the Old Testament, principally Genesis and Exodus, plus Isaiah (a little help there from Handel’s Messiah), then a fairly consistent run of the New Testament, which in modern anglophone conversation is still generally treated more reverently than the Old. The English, being Protestants, have not been much affected by the text of the KJB Apocrypha, and being in large numbers nominally C of E, they have looked to the Prayer Book (and so to Coverdale) as much as the KJB’s update when they make reference to the Psalms. Thanks to Crystal, we can know, rather as Archbishop Ussher knew that the world had been created in 4004 bc, that there are 257 instances of the KJB being the most likely candidate to have created a phrase in current use in English, although the total reduces to 18 if we look austerely for exact phrases with no known source earlier than the KJB.

This figure of 257 is about three times that which can on similar principles be attributed to the works of Shakespeare, and it by no means exhausts the ramifications of English’s still intimate involvement with the 1611 text, which is knotted up with our love of incongruous verbal juxtapositions. Crystal directs us to the biblical parody song which gives him his title – ‘The Begat’, from Finian’s Rainbow (1947) – but he does not complete the joke in Adam’s preliminary observation to Eve ‘The time has come to begin the begat’: a cross-referential pun to Cole Porter’s song of 12 years earlier, ‘Begin the Beguine’. Crystal’s treatment largely leaves aside sustained para-biblical texts – satires and squibs adopting KJB style. This genre can be traced back at least as far as a savage royalist narrative of the English Civil War published at the time of Charles I’s execution in 1649, which opens ‘The Booke of the Generation of JOHN PIM, the sonne of Judas, the sonne of Belzebub’. Less polemical in intent is Brother Maynard’s solemn reading from the Book of Armaments, which saves Monty Python’s King Arthur from slaughter by the fearsome bunny rabbit, as the text culminates in the vital information, ‘once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’ And Crystal, though not lacking either a sense of humour or the ability to call a spade a spade, spares us the need to blush at that para-biblical phrase ‘Go forth and multiply,’ which over the last century has become a treasured part of English usage.