Battles of a book: The King James Bible's history of dissent and inspiration

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A spy named Henry Phillips betrayed one of the greatest of all English writers – the only one, perhaps, whose phrases by the dozen still fill the mouths of many millions of English speakers every day. Charged with heresy and treason, Phillips's victim was picked up in Antwerp and imprisoned outside Brussels. His detention came, a deal between monarchs, as a result of the sort of inter-state solidarity against alleged subversives that now gives us the European Arrest Warrant. After months in his fortress jail, he went on trial and received the inevitable death sentence. He was strangled at the stake with an iron chain. Then his corpse was burnt. According to legend, the translator and reformer William Tyndale ended his life in September 1536 with the words: "Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

Tomorrow begins the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible of 1611: never strictly an "Authorized Version", for all its traditional British name, but merely a bible "appointed to be read in churches". As it says on the title page of the 1853 edition of the King James version, printed in Oxford, which Abraham Lincoln used when he swore the oath of office at his inauguration in 1861. The same volume was employed again for the same purpose in Washington DC in January 2009 - by Barack Obama.

Not far from that spot, in 1963, Dr Martin Luther King gave a speech and had his dream – "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made striaght, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together". This, with the very few slight tweaks that a preacher's memory makes, is Isaiah 40: 4-5 in the King James version, then – as now – the language of hope and dignity for African Americans and many other peoples.

After four centuries, the symbolic power of the 1611 Bible remains mighty indeed. The translation - or rather, the revision of six existing translations - ordered by an embattled new king began as a bureaucratic quest for theological compromise. After a mixed reception, it bedded down, fairly slowly, as the English bible of choice: first in the British Isles, then in the North American colonies, and finally in every region where trade, colonisation and evangelism implanted groups of English-speaking Christians.

Later, as secularism grew and believers came to prefer the language of more modern translations, the King James Bible (KJB) acquired a second wind. It became a masterpiece of English prose to be enjoyed by people of all creeds and none at all.

Today it is a commonplace to note that the words and rhythms of the KJB and its source translations shape the speech of countless millions who never open a bible or enter a church. Somehow, the language of the 1611 version never falls from grace (Galatians 5.4) even if its message falls on stony ground (Mark 4.5). In a secular age where ignorance of religion goes from strength to strength (Psalms 84.7) among lovers of filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3.8) who only want to eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12.19), we know for a certainty (Joshua 23.13) that these resonant words endure as a fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10.1) and a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7) of the powers that be (Romans 13.1). They can still set the teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31.29) of those who try to worship God and Mammon (Matthew 6.24). But does this ancient book, proof that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9), now cast its pearls before swine (Matthew 7.6), and act as a voice crying in the wilderness (Luke 3.4) – a drop in a bucket (Isaiah 40.15) of unbelief, no longer a sign of the times (Matthew 16.3) but a verbal stumbling-block (Leviticus 19.14) or else all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9.22) while the blind lead the blind (Matthew 15.14)?

With a host of publications, exhibitions, websites and broadcasts heralding its 400th birthday, the KJB looks set to enjoy a new season in the sun. Already, three invaluable new books allow readers keen on the KJB to deepen their knowledge, and newcomers to join the congregation. They are Gordon Campbell's Bible: the story of the King James Version 1611-2011 (Oxford, £16.99; 354pp); David Crystal's Begat: the King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford, £14.99; 327pp), and The King James Bible after 400 Years, a collection of essays edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W Jones (Cambridge, £25; 364pp). This article draws deeply on them all.

Will the celebrations end by repeating the ploy that its critics have detected in the KJB itself almost since 1611: a tendency to drown out a bitter history of conflict with the ringing cadences of authority and uniformity? KJB-sceptics have long argued that its beauty masks, or at least softens, truth. And that truth includes the 90 years of censorship, controversy and violence that led to its gestation.

The lesson for 2011 should, perhaps, remind us that the book lauded as "the national epic of Britain" (Thomas Huxley, Darwin's atheist "bulldog"), "the anchor of the national seriousness" (Frederick Faber, Victorian Catholic educator), which "if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power" (Thomas Babington Macaulay, politician and historian), begins with the garrotted and charred body of a hunted heretic in 16th-century Brabant.

A brilliant multi-lingual radical scholar from Gloucestershire, William Tyndale had, since fleeing England, worked with his associates in the Protestant-friendly cities of Cologne, Worms and Antwerp on translations of the Bible into English. He sought to set scripture free from power, so that "the boy that driveth the plow" should own it as much as any priest. The reform-minded queen Anne Boleyn herself owned a vellum copy of his New Testament. But not until after Tyndale's gruesome death did Henry VIII, now irreparably estranged from Rome, accept that vernacular scriptures, rather than the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, should be heard in his land. By 1538, Thomas Cromwell's patronage had led to the instruction that "one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English" must stand in every parish church.

Prior to his death, Tyndale had only completed his versions of the New Testament, the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses), the book of Jonah and some historical books of the Old Testament. Entire Bible translations began in 1535 with the edition by Miles Coverdale, Tyndale's partner in underground European publishing. So begins the great chain of Tudor and Jacobean translation. Coverdale led to the Matthew Bible (1537), the official Great Bible (1539), the Calvinist Geneva Bible (1560), the state-sanctioned Bishops' Bible (1569), and the Catholic Douai-Rheims Bible (1582 and 1609).

Then, in 1604, James 1 - an arch-dabbler in theology, who feared both Puritan and Catholic rebellion - convened Anglican divines at the Hampton Court Conference. He instructed them to study all existing versions, refer to the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and come up with a definitive official scripture that would quell factional disputes and stand the test of time. The task went to six learned companies of 54 translators: two in Westminster; two in Oxford; two in Cambridge. Famously, their brief was not to start from scratch with their translation but "to make a good one better".

Did they? The KJB text certainly flatters its forerunners, Tyndale above all, by sustained imitation. What proportion of Tyndale's words survives in the KJB? The most commonly accepted calculation suggests that 84 per cent of his New Testament does, and 76 per cent of the Old Testament books that he completed. For Gergely Juhasz (in The King James Bible after 400 Years), "by modern standards of authorship, the KJB would be regarded as a form of plagiarism".

An example: 6 January marks, for Western churches, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the magi - or wise men - visited the baby Jesus at King Herod's behest. The second chapter of Matthew's gospel has the story: "When they had heard the king, they departed, and lo the star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were marvellously glad. And entered into the house, and found the child with Mary his mother, and kneeled down and worshipped him, and opened their treasures, and offered unto him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And after they were warned in their sleep, that they should not go again to Herod, they returned into their own country another way."

That is not the KJB but Tyndale's New Testament, 80 years previously. The six companies who in 1611 delivered to Archbishop Bancroft of Canterbury kept so much of his work, as they did of Coverdale's and the stricter Protestants responsible for the popular Geneva Bible (the scripture Shakespeare often quotes). These teams of scholars shared an extraordinary depth of learning. Leaders such as Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster, and Miles Smith, the star freelance translator in Oxford, had up to 20 languages, ancient and modern, at their command.

They knew when to leave well alone; and, mostly, they did just that. But when they changed, they changed with a purpose - and one that went beyond the royal order to avoid inflammatory "Puritan" renderings of the sort that Tyndale favoured. He had used "congregation" rather than "church" for the Greek ecclesia, to take the most contentious example.

In essence, the six companies ensured that the KJB was born an antique. They didn't make the Bible new; they made it old. Its celebrated majesty and sonority stem from a decision to ennoble the language with a melodic, otherworldy splendour. Note how Tyndale's "they were marvellously glad" from the 1520s becomes, in the much later heyday of Shakespeare and Donne, "they rejoiced with exceeding great joy". The KJB sounds archaic to many readers now. It sounded archaic to many readers in 1611.

As Gordon Campbell puts it, "the language of the translators reflects their conservatism". They use "thee" and "thou" with an old-fashioned enthusiasm which might have sounded strange on the teeming City streets outside Stationers Hall, where for nine months in 1610 a revising committee sat. Tyndale and his radical confrères aimed for the demotic language of street and field. The KJB crews retain much of that, but channel it into a new, refined and detached, language of pulpit and pew. Old verb forms such as "doth", "hath" and "saith" abound, whereas by the 1590s - in speech, at least - the modern endings would have become more common.

David Crystal, in his entertaining and erudite survey of the migration of KJB phrases (257, by his reckoning) into every corner of popular culture and mass media, notes that only the KJB calls hypocritical pharisees "whited sepulchres". Tyndale named them, simply, "painted tombs". Stephen Prickett, in The King James Bible after 400 years, calls this booming harmony "the King James steamroller", a tone whose stately momentum flattens differences in the cause of laying down a new "Church English", "often high-flown and poetic, related to everyday speech but also at one remove from it".

This retro-fitted grandeur stuck. It did take time. The Geneva Bible, loved as much for its elegant roman typeface, handy formats and explanatory notes as for its Calvinist orientation, kept its audience until new editions ceased in 1644. The official status of the KJB, and the monopoly printing rights of the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge, also eased its passage into popular consciousness.

What really marked a sea-change, though, was the acceptance of the "habitual music" of the KJB (John Ruskin's phrase) by Puritan writers and preachers quite out of sympathy with the king-and-bishop hierarchy that bred it. Soon, John Milton and John Bunyan would draw on the KJB: it colours Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim's Progress from first lines to last.

It crossed the Atlantic early in the 17th century, and came to fix the tones and timbres of American speech and writing even more firmly than in Britain. From Herman Melville to Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway to Allen Ginsberg, American literature could hardly exist without the pulse and flame of the KJB. Today, it suffuses the work of talents as varied as Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy and Bob Dylan – who, in keeping with the seam of radical prophecy that forerunners such as William Blake had mined from the Bible, told us that in changing times "the last shall be first, and the first last" (a direct KJB lift from Tyndale).

The style that its detractors suspected of being an Establishment fudge became a true family favourite. Tyndale's ploughboy - and housewife, and factory-hand, and labourer, and (in the US) slave - did learn the scripture: often in his own words too, even if filtered through the 1611 mesh.

Has that chapter closed? For anyone, religious or not, who cares about the continuity of culture and understanding, Gordon Campbell lets slip a remark to freeze the blood. A professor at Leicester University, he recalls that "When the name of Moses came up at a seminar I was leading, no one had any idea whom he might have been, though a Muslim student eventually asked if he was the same person as Musa in the Qur'an (which he is)".

"Let my people go" (Exodus 5.1), as Tyndale - and the KJB - has Moses tell Pharaoh. In 2011, we may need another kind of Mosaic injunction: Let our people read.