A segment of the first page of the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible.

The Book of Books: 400 Years of the King James Bible

I wonder what your relationship with the King James Bible has been.  And how has that relationship evolved over time?  It’s been around all our lives – and for most of us, of a certain age, it held an important place in the British culture of our childhoods.  Over the years I’ve listened, enthralled, to its stories, absorbed its imagery, snickered at all the ‘begatting’, felt irritated by language I didn’t understand and been tongue tied by all the ‘thees’ and the ‘thous’ and ‘thithers’ and ‘whithers’.  In Religious Studies lessons as a teenager the New English Bible arrived on the scene and we were all delighted to have at last a translation we could understand.

But understanding isn’t everything.  A bit like Melvyn Bragg, in the reading we heard earlier on from his work ‘Book of Books’, as a child in primary school I was asked to read a Bible passage in school assembly.  The day before, our headmistress Miss Foster handed me the opening passage of John’s Gospel that Stephanie read for us – ‘in the beginning was the Word’.  She said to me quietly ‘I think you’re a girl who’ll be able to make sense of it’ and I swelled with pride.  Having read it through I was too shy to admit I didn’t understand it one little bit – and so I battled through – reading it slowly and clearly as Miss Foster had told me to, in front of the whole school.

I didn’t know then what I know now.  That the King James Bible had been designed for just that purpose – to be read aloud, at times by people and to people who wouldn’t understand it all.  Its translators had been told it was to be authoritative, with a uniform voice, suitable for reading aloud in churches, and to be, if possible, a force for unification in the English church.  The 16th and 17th centuries were turbulent times and religion was one of the causes of strife.  The history of biblical translation in this country is full of brave scholars who wanted to bring the Bible to ordinary people, full also of political and religious authorities who used the Bible as a source of power and wanted it to remain in archaic Latin that only they could interpret.  Many a liberal minded scholar ended up languishing in jail or being executed for their work of translating the Bible into English – perhaps most notably William Tyndale, who was executed in 1536.  Also worthy of mention is John Wycliffe, the Oxford scholar who back in 1382 had organised the very first translation of the Bible into English and lost his life because of it.

Yet by the early 1600s various translations of the Bible into English were circulating in private, and still hidden, ownership – especially Tyndale’s and a version known as the Geneva Bible.  When new monarch King James brought a group of church men and scholars together at Hampton Court, in the hope of avoiding the religious strife that had plagued Elizabeth the 1st’s reign, the idea emerged of creating a new translation – an authorized translation of the Bible into English, that perhaps could bring the people of England together – through the power of the word.

It was an immense task, and a remarkable feat of collaboration by all accounts, carried out by six different groups of scholars in Oxford, Cambridge and London.  They made their separate translations – based often on the Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s work, and then came together to create one document published in 1611, 400 years ago – the King James Bible.  Those 54 scholars could not have imagined that their work would have lasted into the 21st century and have held such sway over British culture for so very many years.  No book written in English has sold more copies and even though it has been superseded by later translations – yet its imagery stays with us, even now.

‘To lick the dust’, ‘seeing through a glass darkly’, ‘the skin of my teeth’, ‘a man after his own heart’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘well done good and faithful servant’, ‘a fly in the ointment’, ‘casting your pearls before swine’, ‘how are the mighty fallen’, ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, ‘no peace for the wicked’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, ‘to rise and shine’ and of course ‘let there be light’.

According to linguist David Crystal there are 257 everyday phrases such as these to be found in the King James Bible – from two main sources.  Some were everyday idioms of the time whilst others were created by the translators who went back to medieval manuscripts and made literal translations of Hebrew imagery.  Our language today is made more poetic by their work. Crystal writes that the King James Version has “contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatics or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source”. 

Interestingly the style of English that the translators chose to use was considered old fashioned even in the early 1600s – they stuck to ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ – even though ‘you’ was by then in popular usage; they did not use the pronoun ‘its’ which had by then arrived in everyday speech.  Perhaps intentionally, by using somewhat archaic forms of language their translation had an authoritative feel from the start, some gravitas.  It was designed to read aloud.  Sentences were short and simple in structure yet the translators used quite complex rhetorical features so that passages had a cadence, a rhythm that pleased the ear.

Listen to these opening verses from the Book of Genesis… In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.   And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

The translators reduced the stylistic differences between the various books of the Bible and between the Old and New Testaments – so effectively that to this day some people imagine as the George Bernard Shaw quote on the front of today’s order of service states – that this is one book – the Bible, with one author, God.

“They made a translation so magnificent that to this day the common … citizen  … accepts and worships it as a single book by a single author, the book being the Book of Books and the author being God.”

The translators of the Geneva Bible had filled it with footnotes – containing commentary on the wording and the translation.  King James did not want footnotes – again a way to make this translation easy to read and with a seeming authority – it was indeed to be seen as the word of God.

Any work of translation is affected by the era in which it was produced.  The translators changed the Bible’s linguistic style; they also to some extent changed the content.  Its many references to polygamy and slavery were reduced and sanitised; its earthiness was softened.  Yet even so, the history of the Bible with regard to its effect on women and slaves is a chequered one.  This Book of Books was used for centuries to justify slavery; it was also used by abolitionists such as Wilberforce to campaign against slavery.  It became a source of deep comfort to the slaves themselves – who found parallels to their own sufferings in the struggles of the Hebrew tribes people in both Egypt and later in Babylon.  ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for thee Zion.’

For anyone concerned with the position of women in society this translation of the Bible can be seen as a damning work of oppression, yet from the work of Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1700s to more recent years, feminist theologians have also found within it imagery of strong and resourceful women and a feminine form of the divine.  And at a time when women were denied an education the Bible provided sometimes their only source of literary inspiration.   Like any great work of literature the King James Version is endlessly explorable and open to interpretation and renewal.  No wonder than that it has had such a profound effect not simply on the English language but upon literature itself.  Over the centuries this Bible was oft times the only book that a family possessed.  It was used in educational establishments throughout the English speaking world.  Indeed Winston Churchill said of it:

“The scholars who produced this masterpiece are mostly unknown and unremembered. But they forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world.”      

If I try to sum up the influence that this work has had on my own life, three aspects of its message come to mind:

-it taught me, especially through the powerful imagery of the gospels, that there is a right and proper way to live my life

– it helped me to accept that there is a mystery at the core of existence that we humans are unlikely ever fully to comprehend

– and through the pleasure I’ve gained in exploring this and other translations of the Bible I’ve decided that we humans are at our best when knowledge is freely available and study is encouraged. 

It is good to make sacred texts our own.  Let’s never forget the struggles for freedom that led to this translation in our own language, for it indeed is a ‘pearl of great price’.  Amen

Rev. Sarah Tinker

Sermon – 17th July 2011