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.

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