Restoring holy order: Is the King James Bible the only version we should celebrate?

It is a cornerstone of Western literature and culture. But as the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible approaches, the authors of two new studies argue that its significance may have been overstated

The King James Bible speaks across boundaries of race, class and education. Its colloquialisms, allusions and proverbs have entered into common speech." That's what PD James wrote in a column entitled "Millennium Masterworks" in a Sunday newspaper in 1999. She goes on to write about the Bible's influential "lapidary cadences", expressions such as "the blind leading the blind" and "eat, drink and be merry", and to assert that: "No book has had a more profound and lasting influence on religious life, the history and the culture, the institutions and the language of the English-speaking peoples throughout the world than has the King James Bible."

It's a well-worn line of argument. I have many times written similar pieces myself. ' And Melvyn Bragg got so carried away recently that he, rather oddly, described the King James Bible (KJB) as the DNA of English. But as the 400th anniversary of the KJB – which was prepared by a committee of 54 scholars and published in 1611 – looms, two radical new books challenge some of those assumptions.

The linguist David Crystal set out to discover systematically and scientifically – rather than relying on casual impression – just how many expressions in English derive solely from the KJB, rather than from earlier versions, or from much older pre-existing proverbs and other turns of phrase.

The result, published in Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, is surprising. After all his scrupulous research, Crystal found just 257 expressions rooted

entirely in the KJB. Although this is a higher number than come from any other source (Shakespeare is, of course, the runner up), Crystal says, "It puts into perspective the sometimes wild claims made about the role of the Bible in the history of the English language, where people talk about "thousands" of influential expressions."

Gordon Campbell's book Bible: The Story of the King James Version intriguingly describes the process by which the "new" translation was the work of an eminent committee of academics whose brief was to use the existing translations – Tyndale, Coverdale, Wycliffe, Geneva, Douay- Rhiems, Bishops and others – as the starting point for what was, in effect, a large-scale editing and pulling-together job, with "some new material" as a modern publisher might say.

Expressions such as "in the twinkling of an eye", "Jesus wept", "the patience of Job" and "armageddon" appear in all six of the translations listed above, as well as in the KJB. Crystal proves that, without doubt, the Bible, in all its forms, has had an enormous influence on the English language. It is very difficult, however, to pin much of this down to the KJB in particular, despite the protestations of the King James Bible Trust and supporters such as Melvyn Bragg, who is writing his own history of the KJB and working on a quadricentennial TV documentary.

"A lot of damage will be done next year by over-emphasis on the KJB," says Crystal gloomily. He would prefer a celebration of Bibles in general rather than the KJB in particular. Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at University of Leicester and an

academic whose refreshing sense of humour permeates his book, agrees. "It is often said that Milton was influenced by the Bible, and of course he was," he says. "But it was the protestant Latin version that Milton knew. He was Cromwell's Latin secretary. He didn't need an English translation. The only evidence that he read the KJB is the one plagiarised line in Paradise Lost: 'She gave me of the fruit and I did eat.'" He points out, in passing, that this monosyllabic line is a perfect iambic pentameter, and that it is lines such as this which make the KJB feel more like poetry than prose.

Warming to his subject, Campbell tells me that, for example, the meeting between God the Father and God the Son in Book III of Paradise Lost doesn't feature in the Bible at all. "But it's in the mystery plays as the 'Parliament of Heaven'. Many of the influences on Milton pre-date all the translations of the Bible."

So it seems that we must learn not to generalise about the KJB, especially in its 400th anniversary year, and to be aware that biblical influence on language and culture is far more multifarious than the "King James-only Brigade" allow. At best, the KJB has been a conduit for popularising expressions and references, rather than the originator of them.

The fact is, though, that once you get over the KJB obsession, the influence of Bibles in general is huge. Both Campbell and Crystal worry that a lack of Biblical background knowledge is inhibiting 21st-century education and learning.

"There is a nervousness about teaching religious texts," says Campbell, "but it's perfectly possible to take a secular stance on all this. As things are, there's a felt obligation to belief or disbelief which impedes the teaching of the Bible and I struggle, for example, with students who cannot make sense of George Herbert's poetry because they lack the Biblical underpinning." Campbell finds that he has to explain to undergraduates the most basic things, such as the significance of the River Jordan, crossed by the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the site of Jesus's baptism in the New."

He also ruefully recalls being in a cave with his wife recently, looking at wall paintings alongside some teenage boys who found the subject matter puzzling. "It's a crucifixion," observed Mrs Campbell, trying to help. "Oh, I thought it was something to do with Jesus," commented one of the boys.

"Yes," agrees Crystal. "Both the Bible and Shakespeare should be studied in mainstream education – especially the New Testament – as a routine part of cultural history." He adds, mentioning Moby Dick as an example, "So many major authors have used it as starting point."

(Shakespeare, too, is clearly influenced by the Bible. Measure for Measure is a reference to Matthew, Chapter 7, verse 1. But the play was written in 1604, so Shakespeare couldn't have taken the title from the KJB, which still lay seven years into the future.)

"We need to get back to the old tradition of valuing and teaching cultural awareness, so that these things are understood," argues Crystal, who would like to see the history of ideas taught as a cross-curricular subject in schools, to prevent "this set of cultural traditions being squeezed out" for reasons of misplaced doctrinal squeamishness.

We teach Greco-Roman legends in schools without any suggestion that students should adopt Classical Greek polytheism, I point out to Campbell. Why can't we do the same with Biblical legends? "It is a no-go territory for many," he says, "and therefore very difficult. As soon as you try to discuss it, there is a sense that you have to take a stand. Few people can distance themselves as they can from a religion in which no one now believes."

Attitudes are very different, however, in the US, where the percentage of practising Christians is far higher and Campbell's academic colleagues find their students generally better informed. While Campbell is trying to get his British students to understand that the first three chapters of Genesis are the same story as Paradise Lost, Book IX, and being solemnly asked which was written first, a colleague in southern Mississippi reports that what her students really want to discuss after reading Paradise Lost is the legitimacy of bishops.

What a lot we've lost in terms of cultural roots. Could we use the 2011 celebrations to claw some of it back?

'Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language' by David Crystal is out now; 'Bible: The story of the King James Version 1611-2011' by Gordon Campbell is published on 28 October (Oxford University Press, £14.99/£16.99)

The extract

The King James Bible

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.'

In the beginning was the Word: Five responses to the King James Bible

Messiah (1742) Charles Jennens' libretto is comprised almost exclusively of verses from the KJB. Which is perhaps why Handel's oratorio gets all the credit.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851). "Call me Ishmail," says the narrator – a wanderer like his namesake, the son of Abraham – of a book dense with Biblical allusions

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) is a parable about the loss of innocence on an Eden-like island. GSCE English-lit exams have also been known to ask about Simon's likeness to Jesus.

The Life of Brian "He's not the Messiah," the Monty Python team insist in their 1979 comedy film classic. The parallels were clear, however.

Quarantine by Jim Crace. The 1997 Whitbread Prize-winner retells the story of Jesus's 40 days and nights in the Judean desert.

Laura Whelan

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