A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 29 March 1997
No doubt the cheap and chunky Oxford Bible - with superbly readable notes by its editors, Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett - will prompt the usual smug hosannas about the Authorised Version's shaping influence on English prose. True enough - except that the blend of translations cooked up by 54 Anglican divines from 1604 to 1611 has congealed into commonplaces at 1,000 crucial points. Returning to the AV can bring to mind that story about the tourist who watched Hamlet at Stratford and complained that it was nothing more than a string of cliches. The breezy evangelicals behind bland new translations often censure AV for its archaic diction. In many places the opposite criticism would make better sense - that the beguiling familiarity of the AV phrasing has rubbed its meaning smooth and frictionless. So why, since proselytising Christians have such a strange and shocking message to convey, do they insist that their user-friendly Bibles read like Cliff Richard lyrics or some speech by the outgoing PM? One example: during the AV's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 41), Jesus commands "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain". Now listen to the pious crewcut linguists of the 1976 Good News Bible: "And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre, carry it two kilometres". Oh, yes.
Carroll and Prickett make a forcible case for the AV on scholarly as well as literary grounds. Yet a devil's advocate could challenge its status without proposing that the ancient Greek and Hebrew should now sound like the Highway Code. The Anglican translators, remember, steered a sly middle course between clear-cut Protestant and Catholic readings. Their resonant style often has no higher aim than to gloss over knotty questions of doctrine. AV, in short, contains far too much bureaucratic fudge.
Worse, it muffles the greatness of the towering genius behind it - William Tyndale. Avid to bring the Bible to "the boy that drives the plough", Tyndale translated the New, and much of the Old, Testament in the 1520s and 1530s. His work underpins all the Tudor Bibles consulted by the AV divines - even the Catholic Reims-Douai version. Only one giant of EngLit truly haunts daily speech: not Shakespeare, but Tyndale. Many of the AV's best-loved texts (such as the Nativity stories) come from Tyndale almost word for word.
And what became of this supreme pioneer of demotic - and democratic - English prose? Persecuted by Henry VIII's bishops, he spent a harassed decade in exile. First the books were burnt - and then the man. After his arrest for heresy in Antwerp, Tyndale was strangled, and went to the stake, in 1536. Discussions of the AV often sink into an orgy of national self-congratulation. So it's now high time (Romans 13, 11) to recall that the English state murdered its architect.
tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 3 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview is finally released after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food