A few days ago I was surprised to hear an NPR story about the 400th anniversary of the completion of the King James Bible (KJB) in 1611. The story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty was entitled "Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns"
One of the themes of the celebration is to honor its general status as one of the great masterpieces of world literature. The early 17th century was indeed a great era for literature since it comes roundly in Shakespeare's time. Perhaps for this reason one of the celebrating events in a marathon recital of the King James Bible at London's Globe theater with 20 actors working in rotation to present all 69 hours of this historic book.
The NPR story was interesting to me because it not only covered the language of the KJB, but some of the background history about how it came to be written. Interestingly there were several poltical-religious ingredients starting around 1603. That's when King James I, whose name leads in KJB, ascended to the English throne after ruling Scotland. According to Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester the English were suspicious of this seemingly foreign king, He may not have been born in Kenya or a Hawaii-like distance but he:
"spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him."
This was timely because England was warring over 2 earlier English translations of the Bible. There was the Bishops' Bible which was read in churches, but was clunky & inelegant. Then there was the Puritan choice, called the Geneva Bible which was more accessible and "bolder" because it included "marginal notes" according to David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor University historian). From the point of view of the royalists, and the new King there was a executive problem:
"these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings."
Shades of Social Justice Christianity! The notes referred to kings as tyrants and challenged regal authority. Good King James needed another, more favorable version. Perhaps they had PR and Presidential Commission folks back, because they got the bishops and the Puritans together like 2 opposing groups to compromise and work out the differences. The hidden agenda was to eliminate the Social Justice flavored notes while losing the clunky language that hindered the kingly message.
What astonishes many is the quality of language that could emerge from something started with such devious motives. It's not every committee compromise that produces poetry of extraordinarily high quality. The KJB's pleasant phrasing has allowed it to find a home in our language, thoughts, customs and laws. As one commenter summarized it:
"It's memorable. It's beautiful. And in the KJB, it's distinctively the voice of God."
Of course as we've seen how it was engineered to be that kingly voice. It's been reworked to have an impact.
Examples offered of its powerful language include:
Isaiah 40 , where God speaks out of the whirlwind saying:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
Hagerty's article summarizes many English Phrases which seem to have been coinage in the KJB. These are mostly non-religious and include:
- A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)
- A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)
- A man after his own heart (Samuel 13:14 or Acts 13:22)
- A wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15)
These are all fine and good, but I think that admirers of Mark Twain can find equally good ones that were inspired more recently and didn't take a committee of bishops. For example:
- You can't reach old age by another man's road.
- Honor is a harder master than the law.
- Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.
- Honesty is the best policy.
- A penny saved is a penny earned.
- A place for everything, everything in its place.
- Lost time is never found again.
But there's more. I happened to have attended a talk by the noted philosopher A. C. Grayling a few days ago. He happen to also talk about the history of the Bible and had a few additional things insights(from what we might say is a Secular Perspective) about how the the language came about and its influence.
For one thing Grayling pointed out that the 6 committees of 50 translators did not achieve remarkable quality, clarity and consistency by themselves. They all drew heavily on an earlier 16th century translation by William Tyndale (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tyndale) As noted in Wikipedia "Although the authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation."
The Catholic Church in particular did not like much of Tyndale's translations which in their opion did not provide a proper view- using words like "overseer" where they preferred "bishop," "elder" for "priest" etc. So “In 1535, Tyndale was arrested by church authorities and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536."
However, the KJB committees liked the tone of Tyndal's archaic language. They could use this is set a proper kingly tone for god. As Grayling notes, groups tweaked Tyndale translation to suit their purposes. This is part of a long history or reworking it to suit particular messages. Folks redact what they don't want and enhance what message they are selling. The translated Bible, like Shakespeare's works, draws heavily on prior work, making an older story into a bolder more digestible one. Old testament tribal leaders are made to seem like 17th century Kings and societies from 2500 years earlier are made to seem more like nation states than tribes. Great Scott! Mark Twain would have had fun with this if he gotten a chance as he did with the Romantic era's view of a King Arthur!
We don't have Twain to deconstruct the KJB, but A. C. Grayling has gone one better. He has constructed a new version, "The Good Book: A secular Bible." Like the KJB this is intended to make bold but is easy to digest since it can be taken in small bites such as "Be gentle since life is short."
This Good, or I would say Wise Book, mirrors the Bible in both form and language, but is a manifesto for rational thought. Grayling calls the work "ambitious and hubristic – a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who've really experienced life, and thought about it". To do this he draws on some classical secular texts from both east and west. So he has sources like Hume, Socrates, & Cicero. But he has reworked them into a "great treasury of insight and consolation and inspiration and uplift and understanding in the great non-religious traditions of the world".
While the book begins with a scientific view of our genesis it ends with a secular humanist version of the 10 Commandments. The Bible's has God giving Moses a small list include laws forbidding idol worship along with prohibition of killing and stealing. In Grayling's secular alternative, he mines and refines past secular humanists to give the reader these 10 commandments:
- "Love well,
- seek the good in all things,
- harm no others,
- think for yourself,
- take responsibility,
- respect nature,
- do your utmost,
- be informed,
- be kind,
- be courageous: at least, sincerely try."
Thank you Dr. Graylin. I was so charmed by the effort and his talk I bought a copy for my son. Something to grow on.