06 June 2011

The King James Version has left a lasting Biblical and literary legacy

The title page of the first edition of the King James Version of the Bible

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the Church, parishes, dioceses, bookshops, schools, colleges and other organisations are marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 with public readings, scholarly conferences, historical exhibitions, new books, commemorative services and a BBC television series.

This was not the first translation of the Bible into English, nor has it remained the world’s best-selling or most familiar Bible. Yet, it has deeply influenced the way we speak and has left a lasting literary legacy.

King James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible on a stamp released in 1999

The literary development and maturing of the English language by the beginning of the 17th century, the discovery of new Biblical manuscripts and Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and the combined effect of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the development of printing, all at a time when Britain was entering a period of political and social stability and coherence, brought into being a well-loved version of the Bible that remains an enduring standard in many ways to this day. Although several revisions were made to update and correct errors in its translation and its printing, it was deliberately memorable in its prose and poetry.

But how did we get this version of the Bible? And what is its lasting and enduring legacy?

Earlier translations

Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation and the translation of the Bible depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the early part of the reign of Henry VIII, William Tyndale began translating the Bible into English, using the work of Erasmus as his foundation. In 1525-1526, he published his New Testament and began work on the Old Testament, completing the first five books of the Bible the following year. Most of his work was completed abroad, but the authorities caught up to Tyndale in 1536 and he was burned at the stake. His dying words were: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

William Tyndale ... his labours and his suffering paved the way for the Authorised Version

The English Reformation saw the introduction of the English language for church services and the Bible was soon introduced in a number of English language translations, each building on its predecessor as well as other works of translation.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer ... The Great Bible, printed in Paris in 1539 under his patronage, was revised in the years that followed

The Coverdale Bible, translated by Myles Coverdale, a Cambridge monk, in 1535, drew on Luther’s German translation, the Latin Bible and Tyndale’s work. The Matthew Bible, published by John Rogers using the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, followed in 1537. The Great Bible, printed in Paris in 1539, under the patronage of Thomas Cranmer, was essentially a revision of the Matthew Bible, and was revised again and again in the following years.

By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, more English translations had followed, including the Geneva Bible in 1557 and 1560. It was a scholarly work, using original texts, smaller fonts and the familiar verse format of today’s Bibles, with particular words highlighted to indicate they had been added to emphasise the original. Although this version exhibited many strong biases, It quickly gained popularity, despite its many strong biases, and was popularly known as the “Breeches’ Bible” for its description of the naked Adam and Eve making themselves breeches (Genesis 3: 7).

Archbishop Matthew Parker in a carving at the chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge ... he supervised the publication of the Bishops’ Bible in 1568 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Bishops’ Bible, a revision of the Great Bible supervised by Archbishop Matthew Parker, was published in 1568 and revised in 1578, and remained in use throughout England until the King James Version was published in 1611.

A king’s dream

King James I acceded to the throne in 1603, and called the Hampton Court conference within a year

When King James I of Scotland ascended the throne of England in 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I, he found a country that was suspicious of its new king, who spoke with a heavy Scottish accent and who was seen as a foreigner. Yet one famous comment described him as “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

Although the Bishops’ Bible was being read in churches, it was inelegant, and the Geneva Bible, which was bolder and more accessible, was the choice of both the Puritans and the people. For royalists, and especially for James I, the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible did not sufficiently respect to the divine right of kings, with its references to kings as tyrants and its challenges to regal authority.

In January 1604, James I called a conference at Hampton Court, bringing together the bishops of the Church of England and the leading Puritan scholars of the day. He refused Puritan demands to revise the liturgy, but proposed a new translation of the Bible, without the marginal notes he regarded as seditious.

For seven years, over 50 scholars and theologians worked through the Bible line-by-line for seven years. They worked in six companies or teams, each with eight members, two working in Oxford, two in Cambridge and two in Westminster. They worked on translating the Bible from its original languages, taking advantage of more available manuscripts and increased scholarship.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes ... supervised much of the translation work from 1604 to 1611 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The work was co-ordinated by Archbishop Richard Bancroft and Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the great Anglican divines of the day. The first draft was available in 1609 and was redrafted the following year. The final agreed version was published on 2 May 1611, seven years after King James had called the Hampton Court conference.

The king’s instructions to the translators guarantees their work would reflect the king’s authority and the episcopal structures of the Church of England. They agreed to use the word bishop instead of overseer or supervisor, and accepted words that positively expressed kingship, kingdom and royal authority. In a triumph for James I, the new translation upheld the king in his rule and the bishops in the established Church of England.

A page from the King James Version shows the original typeface and layout of 1611

To appreciate the literary legacy of the KJV, it is worth comparing successive translations of Matthew 6: 34b:

● For the daye present hath ever ynough of his awne trouble (Tyndale).
● Every daye hath ynough of his owne travayll (Coverdale).
● Sufficident unto the daye is the travayle therof (Great Bible)
● The day hathe ynough with his owne grief (Geneva)
● Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (KJV).

Lasting literary legacy

No further revision was made to the King James Version for a further 270 years, apart from a few amendments introduced in the 1700s. The Revised Version was published in 1881, and since then there have been many more versions, each with its own nuances or emphasis, including the New English Bible, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version.

The King James Version had an incalculable effect on peoples’ lives. Although its language and terminology seem archaic today, it reflects the every-day parlance of ordinary people at the beginning of the 17th century. Ever since, its language has become part and parcel of our language and our literature.

It has been well said that without the prose of the KJV, “there would be no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Negro spirituals, no Gettysburg Address.”

The KJV is the poetry that inspired Handel’s Messiah. Even secular novels are drenched in the prose and poetry of the KJV. F. Scott Fitzgerald used its language when he named his books This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned; so too with John Steinbeck and East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath or William Faulkner with Go Down Moses and Absalom Absalom.

The language of the KJV has captivated modern musicians and songwriters too. The Byrds sang from Ecclesiastes in Turn Turn Turn, proclaiming there is “A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, a time to reap, A time to kill, a time to heal.” Simon and Garfunkel echoed the Gospels when they sang, Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down.

In moments of tragedy or turmoil or change, leaders have often turned to the King James Version. When the Revd Dr Martin Luther King dreamed, only the King James Version would suffice. He quoted from memory, and although his wording was not exact the poetry and passion came straight from the Prophet Isaiah in the KJV: “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 straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

In 1995, President Bill Clinton quoted Proverbs after the bombing in Oklahoma City: “Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind.”

The language of the King James Version language has formed hundreds of everyday phrases. Consider: “How the mighty are fallen” (Samuel 1: 19), “Can a leopard change its spot?” (Jeremiah 13: 23), “The writing is on the wall” (Daniel 5: 5-6), and “The blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15: 14). Phrases like these illustrate how the King James Version has been foundational in the English-speaking world, and has had a lasting impact on the way we express and understand our faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.This essay was first published in the June 2011 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough, and the Diocesan Review, Diocese of Cashel, Ossory and Ferns

Some common English phrases derived from the King James Version:

A broken heart.
A house divided against itself.
A man after his own heart.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth
The apple of his eye.
At their wits’ end.
Can … the leopard [change] his spots?
Cast the first stone.
Chariots of fire.
Eat drink and be merry.
Fell by the way side.
Fallen from grace.
Fight the good fight.
Fire and brimstone.
Flesh and blood.
Fly in the ointment.
From strength to strength.
Gave up the ghost.
Heart’s desire.
Holier than thou.
How are the mighty are fallen.
In the twinkling of an eye.
It is more blessed to give than receive.
Labour of love.
Lamb to the slaughter.
Law unto themselves.
Let there be light.
Manna from heaven.
Many are called, but few are chosen.
My cup runneth over.
Neither cast ye your pearls before swine.
Nothing new under the sun.
O ye of little faith.
Out of the mouth of babes.
Peace offering.
Pride goes before a fall.
Put words in her mouth.
Put your house in order.
Reap what you sow.
See eye to eye.
Set his teeth on edge.
Signs of the times.
Sour grape.
Tender mercies.
The blind lead the blind.
The ends of the earth.
The fat of the land.
The love of money is the root of all evil.
The powers that be.
The root of the matter.
The salt of the earth.
The skin of my teeth.
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The straight and narrow.
Two-edged sword.
Voice crying in the wilderness.
The wages of sin.
White as snow.
Woe unto me.

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