Oxford £8.99 (281pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Gospels: Authorized King James Version, Edited by WR Owens
Friday 04 March 2011
Though the King James Bible is customarily read for divine revelations, this 500th anniversary edition from Oxford World's Classics tells us much about the book as literature. In his introduction, Owens notes that we are indebted to the King James Version of the Gospels for such everyday phrases as "the salt of the earth", "made light of it", "signs of the times", "in his right mind" and "a den of thieves".
Surprisingly, "eat, drink and be merry" first appeared in Luke. That such ringing, vivid and accurate expressions emerged from a committee of 54 Biblical scholars, divided into companies of nine men, is only a little less miraculous than the events covered in the text they were translating. The translators leaned heavily on previous English Bibles, particularly that of William Tyndale from 1534, though Owens points out their subtle improvements. He notes that their revision of Tyndale's sentence "Come unto me all ye that labour and are laden, and I will ease you" achieves a "marvellous rhythmic enactment" in "Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The emphasis of "heavy" and the use of "rest" greatly increases the solace of this gentle imperative.
We learn that the King James Version stuck with Tyndale's use of "thee" and "thou" though "you" and "your" had replaced these words in southern English during the 16th century. The Authorised Version was an instant bestseller, with 140 editions appearing in the 30 years after 1611.
Covering Biblical matters large and small, the footnotes of this edition are particularly fascinating for the non-theologian. They don't come much smaller than the widow's mite in Mark, which was a copper coin worth half a farthing. We also learn that the whited sepulchre in Matthew was a result of whitewashing tombs before Passover to prevent pilgrim accidentally touching one and "thus become ritually unclean".
The author of Mark ("it seems unlike that the four Evangelists were the real authors") is ticked off for "clumsy syntax" and "not having a very secure grasp of the geography of Palestine".
For those who have only a fleeting knowledge of the Gospels, it may come as a surprise that Jesus's cry on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" – surely the most touching words in The Bible – are a quote from Psalm 22.
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