Labour of love which was the apple of King James’s eye

October 9, 2010
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 9th October 2010

It’s one of the best sellers of all time, dwarfing even the formidable achievements of J. K. Rowling. It’s a supreme monument of the English language. More than any other book it shaped the birth of the modern, giving rise to two revolutions, the English in the seventeenth century, the American in the eighteenth. It is, of course, the King James Bible, whose four hundredth anniversary we celebrate next year.

The medieval Church had forbidden translations of the Bible, knowing that knowledge is power, therefore best kept in the hands of the priesthood. But by the beginning of the seventeenth century, three things had changed this irrevocably. First was the Reformation, with its maxim Sola scriptura, “By Scripture alone,” placing the Bible centre-stage in the religious life. Second was the invention, in the mid-fifteenth century, of printing. Lutherans were convinced that this was Divine Providence. God had sent the printing press so that the doctrines of the reformed church could be spread worldwide.

Third was the fact that some people, regardless of the ban, had translated the Bible anyway. John Wycliffe and his followers had done so in the fourteenth century, but the most influential was William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament, begun in 1525 became the first printed Bible in English. He paid for this with his life.

When Mary I took the Church of England back to Catholicism, many English Protestants fled to Calvin’s Geneva, where they produced a new translation, based on Tyndale, called the Geneva Bible. Produced in a small, affordable edition, it was smuggled into England in huge numbers. Eventually King James realised that there had to be an official Bible that could replace the Geneva edition.

There would be one major difference. The new Bible would not contain marginal notes. The reason was simple. The Hebrew Bible is a highly seditious document. It speaks about prophets unafraid to challenge kings. It contains the first recorded instance of civil disobedience: the Egyptian midwives who refuse to obey Pharaoh’s order to kill every male Israelite child (Exodus 1: 17). The Geneva Bible in its marginal notes commended their example. This was not something a king would naturally wish to see promoted. That aside, the Bible that appeared in 1611 was recognisably in the great Tyndale tradition.

It was the golden age of English literature: Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Johnson had just written their masterpieces. John Donne was writing metaphysical poetry and incomparable prose. John Milton, three years old when the King James was first published, would eventually transmute its opening chapters, half a century later, into one of the greatest poems in the English language, Paradise Lost. There was no better time or place for the Bible to be reborn as the key text of a new age.

And what a magnificent text it is. Its phrases are part of our vocabulary: “my brother’s keeper,” “no new thing under the sun,” “fat of the land,” “chariots of fire,” “from strength to strength,” “a lamb to the slaughter,” “by the skin of my teeth.” It is only a translation, the word of God at one remove. You need to listen to the original Hebrew to understand its texture and tonality, nuances and inflections. But the King James remains English literature at its most stately and serene.

At the height of one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King moved seamlessly into a two verse quotation from the King James translation of Isaiah 40, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and 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." It was a moment of history-changing power, and it would have been impossible had his audience not known the Bible.

The texts a culture teaches its children shape their landscape of literacy, their horizons of aspiration. People who can quote the Bible walk tall. They carry with them a treasure no one can take away from them. They sing with the tongues of poets, walk with the wisdom of Solomon, find solace in the soul-music of the Psalms, and hope in the blazing visions of the prophets. In an age of blogs and twitters, the King James translation remains the Beethoven of the soul, the imperishable music of spiritual grandeur.