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400 years of the King James Bible

Mysteries and mistranslations in the making of the King James Bible, still the most influential version four centuries after its birth, by Arnold Hunt.

The King James Bible is a book that attracts superlatives. To David Norton it is “the most important book in English religion and culture”, to Gordon Campbell “the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world” and “the most enduring embodiment of Scripture in the English language”. To Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett it is simply the Bible translation that defines Bible translations: “All other versions still exist, as it were, in its shadow. It has shaped, formed and moulded the language with which the others must speak”.

No one present at the birth of the KJB, least of all the translators themselves, could have imagined that it would live so long. King James’s offer to commission a new Bible translation had been made quite casually at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, chiefly, it seems, to console the Puritans for their failure to secure any other changes to the religious settlement. To many contemporaries, it seemed little more than a royal vanity project. In the preface to the first edition of 1611, the translators admitted that many people saw no need for a new translation at all: “Many men’s mouths have been opened a good while (and yet are not stopped) with speeches about the translation so long in hand, or rather perusals of translations made before: and ask what may be the reason, what the necessity of the employment”.

Nor was the initial reception of the new Bible any more encouraging. The translators’ preface shows them bracing themselves for what they expected would be a “storm of gainsaying [and] opposition”. They were right to be apprehensive. The learned and irascible Hebrew scholar Hugh Broughton, who had been excluded from the translation committee, wrote to the King declaring that he would “rather be rent in pieces with wild horses” than see the new Bible used in churches, “it is so ill done”. In a pre-emptive effort to disarm their critics, the translators sought to play down the novelty of the whole project: their purpose, they declared, was not “to make a new translation”, but merely “to make a good one better” by revising the existing translation, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, itself a revision of earlier translations going all the way back to Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525–6.

This denial of novelty was partly tactical: quite understandably, they had no intention of handing their Catholic opponents a free propaganda gift by suggesting that earlier English Bibles had been falsely translated. But it also squares with what we know of the translation process. Even though the title page of the first edition describes it as “newly translated out of the original tongues”, the KJB as first conceived was not intended to be either new or original. The official instructions given to the translators were to follow “the ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible”, leaving it “as little altered as the truth of the original will permit”. The one surviving account of the translators at work suggests that this policy of minimal intervention was followed very faithfully: “they met together, and one read the translation, the rest holding in their hands some Bible of the learned tongues, or French, Spanish, Italian, etc; if they found any fault they spoke, if not he read on”.

As for the literary style of the new Bible – so often regarded as its greatest glory – there is little sign that the translators paid it much attention. For the most part, it seems, they were content to take care of the sense and leave the sounds to take care of themselves. In The King James Bible: A short history from Tyndale to today, Norton highlights a discussion recorded by John Bois, one of the translators, over the rendering of Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever”. Another of the translators, Andrew Downes, proposed an alternative wording, “Jesus Christ yesterday, and today the same, and for ever”, arguing that “if the words be arranged in this manner, the statement will be more majestic”. It is easy to imagine – indeed, hard not to imagine – such debates occurring again and again as the translators weighed one form of words against another, yet, astonishingly, this is the only clear instance that Norton has been able to find of the translators accepting or rejecting a proposed reading on its literary merits. Here again they were faithful to their instructions, which gave them no mandate to revise the existing translation for reasons of style.

The KJB is thus a paradoxical work: a new translation that denies it is a new translation, a literary masterpiece that shows no evidence of striving for literary effect. It is scarcely any wonder that it seemed to an earlier generation of critics to have emerged miraculously, almost from nowhere, as though, in the age of Shakespeare, beauty and majesty of style were simply present in the air that the translators breathed. Norton’s achievement is to demystify the KJB by reconstructing, in careful and precise detail, what is known of the process of translation. It is typical of the translators’ disregard for posterity that they left relatively few records of their work; of the fifty-odd translators, Bois is the only one who is known to have taken any notes on the proceedings. Norton does a masterly job of assembling the scattered evidence that remains, and takes us about as far as we are likely to get into that peculiar combination of ecclesiastical committee, academic seminar and editorial workshop where the text of the KJB took shape.

As Norton shows, the publication of the 1611 edition was far from the end of the story. The KJB as it appears in most modern editions is not simply the work of the seventeenth-century translators, but also incorporates multiple layers of revision, notably by F. S. Parris for the Cambridge Bible of 1743 and by Benjamin Blayney for the Oxford Bible of 1769. Blayney’s edition coincides with a crucial shift in the reputation of the KJB. As late as 1764, the Critical Review could complain of “many false interpretations, ambiguous phrases, obsolete words and indelicate expressions which deform the beauty of the sacred pages, perplex the unlearned reader, offend the fastidious ear, confirm the prejudices of the unbeliever and excite the derision of the scorner”. It was only after Blayney had discreetly remodelled the text in accordance with eighteenth-century norms of spelling and punctuation, while retaining just enough archaic usages to give it an air of venerable authority, that the KJB became securely established as a monument of English prose.

Norton’s book is a concise history of the KJB focused almost entirely on the evolution of the text. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The story of the King James version, 1611–2011 is a more discursive account, which the author describes as an “affectionate biography of a book that has had a long life and has, in another sense, given life to Christian readers”. The two cover much of the same ground, but Norton can draw on his experience of editing the KJB for the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible of 2005, and is acutely sensitive to the way that even the smallest textual adjustments, such as the modernization of “shamefastness” to “shamefacedness” in St Paul’s injunction to women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:9), can make a crucial difference to the meaning. Campbell paints with a broader brush, and sometimes passes too smoothly over a text bristling with interesting complexities, but what his book occasionally lacks in attention to detail it makes up in genuine attachment to its subject. Other Bibles are admired, he writes, but only the KJB is loved; “other translations may engage the mind, but the King James Version is the Bible of the heart”.

Where Campbell has the edge over Norton is in his account of the reception history of the KJB in the United States. To many British readers this will be the least familiar part of the story, and to anyone whose image of the KJB still revolves around Matins and Evensong, it may come as something of a shock. Whereas Norton devotes most of his attention to the various recensions of the KJB published by the two learned presses at Oxford and Cambridge, Campbell takes a wider view, and shows how the KJB has been repackaged and repurposed, often in ways that have very little to do with the translators’ original intentions. Chief among these repackagings is the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, the work of the Congregationalist minister Cyrus I. Scofield, who provided the KJB with an apparatus of notes and cross-references dividing biblical chronology into seven “dispensations” from the creation of the world in 4004 bc to the Second Coming of Christ. Thanks to Scofield, the KJB acquired an unexpected new lease of life as the Bible of choice for American Evangelicals. This is the form in which the KJB’s modern readers are most likely to encounter it, and as Campbell remarks, “its influence on American evangelical thought has been huge”.

One cannot read far in the literature on the KJB without coming across the word “influence”; Geddes MacGregor, again reaching for the superlatives, described the KJB in 1968 as “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language”. Yet, as David Crystal comments in his genial and entertaining Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, “evaluating the notion of ‘influence’ proves to be remarkably difficult”, and many writers, when challenged to demonstrate the influence of the KJB, tend to retreat into vague generalizations about its distinctive rhythms and cadences. Crystal prefers a more precise approach. His method of quantifying the influence of the KJB is to count the number of idioms it has contributed to the language. Begat takes the reader on a gallop through every biblical cliché in the book – girded loins, whited sepulchres, feet of clay, lands of milk and honey – and the many ways in which they have been creatively adapted in the media and popular culture.

After doing his sums, Crystal comes up with a grand total of 257 idioms, most of which are not original to the KJB but are carried over from Tyndale or another early translation. This, as he admits, may seem a “surprisingly small” number, though still considerably more than any other single source (even Shakespeare, who clocks in at fewer than a hundred). Where this leaves the influence of the KJB is not altogether clear. Although his argument is never fully spelled out, Crystal seems to regard his list of idioms as evidence of the pervasive cultural presence of the Bible; most educated English-speakers, after all, will be familiar with expressions such as “reaping the whirlwind” or “crying in the wilderness”, even if they have never worshipped in a church, never opened a copy of the KJB, and have only the foggiest idea of where these expressions come from. Yet it could be argued that these are merely the cultural residue left over when the Bible itself has evaporated. Take away the religious authority of the KJB and it rapidly disintegrates into a handful of stock phrases beloved of subeditors and setters of crossword puzzles.

The real difficulty, though, is that Crystal’s view of what constitutes “influence” is only half the story, or perhaps not even that. Some of the best-known passages in the Bible, including “the Lord is my shepherd” and “the valley of the shadow of death”, are excluded from his list on the grounds that they are merely quotations, “not in the same league as the idioms that have become a daily part of the English language”. To qualify as an idiom, it seems, an expression has to be capable of being used by non-religious speakers and applied playfully or punningly outside a religious frame of reference. On these grounds, even “threescore years and ten”, one of the KJB’s most commonly used phrases (and one of its deliberate archaisms, replacing Tyndale’s “seventy”), fails to make the list. When Crystal can declare that the Book of Psalms has had little influence on the English language because its “poetic imagery” is not well suited for “general use”, it is clear that something has gone amiss with his notion of influence.

Most of the essays in The King James Bible after 400 Years take a wider, less partial view of the KJB’s influence. Many of the essays focus on individual writers, from Milton and Bunyan to Jean Rhys and Toni Morrison, and show how their work exploits the familiarity of the KJB, not in unconscious echo but in what Michael Wheeler, in a fine essay on Ruskin, describes as a “complex art of allusion”. As with most such essay collections, the contents vary in quality. A missed opportunity is R. S. Sugirtharajah’s “Postcolonial notes on the King James Bible”, which presents the KJB as an instrument of imperialist oppression and its recent historians as unwitting accomplices in the colonial project, “simultaneously denying and discrediting the agency of the ‘other’ and reifying and exaggerating the role of the master/colonizer”. The reception of the KJB in India and Africa, whether at first hand or through translations seeking to reproduce its language and diction, deserves much more nuanced study than it receives here.

The liveliest essay in the volume is Robert Alter’s “The glories and the glitches of the King James Bible”, in which he matches wits with the KJB translators. As the editor-translator of The Five Books of Moses (2004) and The Book of Psalms (2007), Alter is well qualified to appreciate not only the skill of the translators, but also their mistakes. After reading Alter’s essay, it is hard to feel quite the same way about the KJB’s rendering of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, which many Anglicans of a certain age can still recite by heart: “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets”. Alter is justly admiring of this “great sombre poem on mortality and the decay of the body”, but also points out that some of the poetic effect is actually the result of mistranslation. The Hebrew word hagav, which the KJB translates as “grasshopper”, may refer to the locust-tree; the word aviyyonah, which the KJB translates as “desire”, is probably another plant, the caper-fruit.

Alter’s essay poses an awkward question for any admirer of the KJB. How far were the translators up to the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures? Campbell rightly draws attention to their formidable range of linguistic expertise, encompassing Syriac and Arabic as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As he points out, it would be hard to assemble such a distinguished team today, let alone one drawn from the ranks of the Anglican clergy: “We may live in a world with more knowledge, but it is populated by people with less knowledge”. Yet if they were not well equipped to understand the structure of Hebrew poetry, which had to await the researches of Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century, still less were they equipped to grasp the profound otherness of ancient Jewish society and culture. Instead, as Naomi Tadmor brilliantly shows in The Social Universe of the English Bible, they domesticated the Old Testament, turning the alien landscape of the Hebrew into the reassuringly familiar landscape of early modern England.

By way of illustration, Tadmor points to the virtual disappearance of slavery and polygamy from English Bibles. The word ’eved occurs 799 times in the Hebrew Bible, but its English counterpart, “slave”, appears only once in the KJB’s version of the Old Testament, which uses the word “servant” instead (or “handmaid” for female slaves) and reinterprets the language of bondage in terms of a legal contract or covenant. The word ’ishah was translated either as “woman” or “wife” (though, as early modern commentators were aware, there was no warrant in the Hebrew for any distinction between the two), and references to the “taking” of women were expressed in terms of marriage, thus bringing the Bible into line with early modern patterns of monogamy and marriage. Tadmor refers to this mildly as a “semantic shift” between the Hebrew and the English, but its implications are profound. Crystal’s collection of biblical idioms may be the most obvious way of evaluating the influence of the KJB, but it is Tadmor who makes the strongest case for its long-term effect on our language and cultural assumptions.

This also requires us to rethink some long-standing assumptions about the KJB itself. The translators boasted in their preface to the first edition that they had permitted themselves considerable linguistic variety, rather than attempting to impose a “uniformity of phrasing”. Yet Tadmor argues that, far from introducing extra diversity, the KJB had the effect of flattening subtle differences within the text. No fewer than fourteen different Hebrew words were conflated by the KJB into the single term “prince”, while a whole constellation of other titles were anglicized as the familiar sounding “captain”, “lieutenant”, “sheriff” or – in the case of eunuchs – “chamberlain”. As Stephen Prickett remarks in The King James Bible after 400 Years, the translators created a “massive uniformity”, “the King James steamroller”, which effectively ironed out the differences, linguistic and cultural, between the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New, and turned the whole Bible into a “single dignified amalgam”.

It also invites us to reconsider the relationship between the KJB and its Catholic counterpart, the Rheims–Douay Bible. Where the two are compared it is almost always to the latter’s disadvantage. The KJB, it is argued, benefits from a tradition of plain vernacular English derived from Tyndale, whereas the Rheims–Douay translation suffers from an over-literal dependence on the Latin Vulgate: thus the former declares that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:10), whereas the latter declares that “every knee shall bow of celestials, terrestrials and infernals”. The KJB, in short, is native English, the Rheims– Douay Bible suspiciously foreign. This type of comparison has a long history. As early as 1618, just seven years after the publication of the KJB, the Protestant preacher Jeremiah Dyke could criticize the Rheims New Testament for “such a soaring sublimitie of phrase, and such a Roman English, as plaine English men cannot understand”.

Tadmor suggests, however, that the two translations are much closer than they appear. Both owe a debt to the Vulgate, even though the KJB makes its indebtedness considerably less obvious, and in at least one case the Rheims–Douay version’s allegiance to the Vulgate actually gave it an advantage in capturing the meaning of the original Hebrew: it renders Leviticus 19:18 as “love thy friend” (following the Latin, diliges amicum tuum) where the KJB (following Tyndale) has “love thy neighbour”. Here, Tadmor argues, the Rheims–Douay version comes closer to “the Hebrew language of amity” which the KJB characteristically transposes into an “English discourse of neighbourly love”. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of the Rheims–Douay translation as the failed alternative to the KJB. If history had turned out a little differently we might now be celebrating the creativity of the Rheims–Douay translations in enriching the language with so many new Latin coinages such as “odible”, “promerited” and “exinanited”. As Ronald Knox mischievously suggested, if the Rheims–Douay version sounds “barbarous and exotic” to English ears, it is only because the other side won.

What of the future? The KJB is still, as it has always been, “appointed to be read in churches”, but it is now only one of seven Bible translations recommended by the Church of England’s House of Bishops for liturgical use, and over the past forty years it has been gradually overtaken by modern versions, principally the New International Version (1973) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989). It still has its faithful defenders, and Alter is one of several modern scholars to suggest that in some respects it is still the best translation for English readers seeking to explore the Hebrew Bible, partly because its literalism allows it to accommodate ambiguities and obscurities that other versions tend to eliminate. Still, the fact remains that it is now less likely to be heard in churches in its native land than at any time over the past four centuries, audible to many churchgoers, if at all, only as a faint mental echo behind the modern translation, when the ear hears “in a mirror dimly” and memory substitutes “through a glass darkly”.

Several of the authors reviewed here strike an elegiac note as they wonder uneasily whether, after 400 years, the KJB is finally reaching the end of its long life. Norton remarks that “one must wonder whether the KJB has a future”, and sees it as some ageing champion of the ring, “the authentic, elderly, increasingly disregarded but still revered monarch among Bibles”, surrounded by a host of younger pretenders. In an essay on “The dethroning of the King James Bible in the United States”, Paul Gutjahr goes further and declares bluntly that the KJB is “dying” in America, replaced by an ever-increasing number of “niche Bibles” such as The Couples Bible, One Year New Testament for Busy Moms, Extreme Teen Study Bible, and (Gutjahr’s particular abomination) The HCSB Light Speed Bible, which promises its readers that they can expect to read every word of the Bible in about 24 hours, “or a little longer”.

Seventy-five years ago, in his essay “Religion and Literature”, T. S. Eliot was predicting the imminent demise of the KJB, complaining peevishly that “those who talk about the Bible as a monument of English prose are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity”. But as Gutjahr’s essay illustrates, when admirers of the KJB say that it is dying, what they actually mean is that it has lost its monopoly. It is not clear that this is such a bad thing, or even such a new thing. In any case, for the past hundred years the KJB has spoken with a plurality of voices, published in a variety of different editions targeted at different markets. The Gideon Bible in your hotel bedroom is a King James Bible. Gordon Campbell points out that Oxford University Press sells over 250,000 copies of the KJB every year, and describes it as “the most widely owned and used translation in the United States”. Not least of the paradoxes of the KJB is that it appears to have lost its cultural authority just when it sells more copies than ever.


David Norton THE KING JAMES BIBLE A short history from Tyndale to today 232pp. Cambridge University Press. £40 (US $65). 978 0 521 85149 7

Gordon Campbell BIBLE The story of the King James version, 1611–2011 354pp. Oxford University Press. £16.99 (US $24.95). 978 0 19 955759 2

David Crystal BEGAT The King James Bible and the English language 327pp. Oxford University Press. £14.99 (US $24.95). 978 0 19 958585 4

Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, editors THE KING JAMES BIBLE AFTER 400 YEARS Literary, linguistic and cultural influences 378pp. Cambridge University Press. £25 (US $39.99). 978 0 521 76827 6

Naomi Tadmor THE SOCIAL UNIVERSE OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE Scripture, society and culture in early modern England 248pp. Cambridge University Press. £55 (US $95). 978 0 521 76971 6

Arnold Hunt is a Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library and the author of The Art of Hearing: English preachers and their audiences, published last year.

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