The bible that even atheists worship
Wednesday, 22 December 2010
King James I of England has not always had a good press. His disdain for parliament, his dodgy favourites, the extravagance of his court and his pro-Spanish foreign policy did not do him any credit. He was the founder of that unhappy line of English kings, the Stuarts.
But whatever his faults, he was clever and he loved a good intellectual argument and all credit to him for assembling an elite crowd of bishops and scholars to Hampton Court, in January 1604, to discuss such meaty questions as: “Do we need bishops?” and: “If so, must they dress up in such swanky garments?”
The conference itself did not achieve a great deal but out of it, seven years later, came one of the most venerated works of literature in this or any other language, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the 400th anniversary celebrations of which are now under way. King James convened the conference because hundreds of English Protestants who had fled abroad during the reign of Queen Mary, the last Catholic to occupy the English throne, had returned with accounts of how much simpler and more “pure” church services were in Protestant countries. These “puritans” had hoped that Queen Elizabeth would import the stripped-down service into the Anglican church, but she disappointed them.
She was hardly cold in her grave when her successor received a petition, reputedly bearing more than 1,000 signatures, pleading with him to rid the English church of “popish” practices. Actually, James had no intention of subverting the authority of the bishops or abolishing the traditional vestments and ceremonies that offended the Puritans; and even if he had wanted to, he would have been opposed by a powerful high church lobby, represented in Hampton Court by a phalanx of bishops led by Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury.
On the other hand, the King did not want the Puritans to leave the conference empty-handed and disaffected. So when their leader John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, suggested that he commission a new English translation of the Bible, he shrewdly seized upon the idea.
The standard English text then was the Geneva Bible, so named because it was compiled by Protestants who had taken refuge in Switzerland during Queen Mary’s reign.
It included notes in the margin which the King did not like, because they implied that there were extreme circumstances under which it was right to disobey a monarch. The King did not want that sort of loose notion of a citizen’s duty being spread around. He therefore welcomed a new Bible with no editorial commentary.
After a slow start, six teams of writers, were set to work, and almost seven years after the conference, a thoroughly checked and revised edition was ready for the printer. Though the King had authorised the translation, he never authorised its publication.
“Nobody knows why,” David Spriggs, of the Bible Society said. “My guess is that King James got tired of it. He was a very clever man, a linguist, a fine intellectual debater. I suspect that, like lots of clever, intellectual people, he got bored quickly.”
Fortunately, the new Bible was printed, without his authorisation.
There were two versions, a “He” Bible and a “She” Bible, which differed over whether it was Ruth or Boaz who “went into the city” in Ruth Chapter 3 Verse 15. Each member of the Privy Council was presented with a copy. The Cecil family, descendants of Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser, still have their copy.
Celebrations of the 400th anniversary started last month with a reception in Whitehall and will last a whole year. The Queen will attend a service in Westminster Abbey in November.
The celebrations are not all religious. The opening words of the mission statement of the King James Bible Trust are to “celebrate the cultural importance of the King James Bible; its contribution to the English language and its impact on subsequent generations throughout the World.”
A guest speaker at the reception was the atheist historian Niall Ferguson, who paid tribute to the KJV for its vast influence on the culture and language of the English speaking world.
He is far from being the only non-believer who is bowled over by its quality. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and perhaps the most potent enemy of Protestant dogma, is another prominent member of the KJV fan club.
The King James Bible Trust posted a video of him on YouTube, quoting some of the KJV’s “proverbial phrases that echo in people’s minds”, including “beat their swords into plough shares” and “fallen on stoney ground”.
He adds: “It’s important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.”
The Labour MP Frank Field, who is chairman of the King James Bible Trust, says: “What we hope is that the campaign will be so successful that nobody will have to be reminded of the importance of the King James Bible when it comes to the 500th anniversary. If you have to pick one book which shaped the English language and gave us a cultural commonwealth around the world, it’s this book.”
A book translated by a plethora of committees may not sound like something that [was] going to last for centuries, but the people who worked for seven years producing KJV were among the most highly-educated scholars of their day. The First Westminster Company, whose brief was the Old Testament from Genesis to 2 Kings, was led by the Dean of Westminster, Lancelot Andrews, about whom TS Eliot wrote a famous essay in 1926, equating his sermons with “the finest English prose of their time, of any time” – no small praise from a poet to a priest who was a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Also, the committees were not starting from scratch. The KJV was not the first English Bible. There was a translation from the Latin produced by followers of the theologian John Wycliff circulating in the fourteenth century. The first printed English bible was produced by William Tyndale, whose earthly reward was to be strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536.
Although the committees checked everything against the Greek and Hebrew texts, they kept as close as they could to the earlier translations. “There was a reason for that, of course, because new was bad in their time,” says David Spriggs. “If it was new, it was trivial. For them, things that had some antiquity had value. The language was archaic, even in 1611. They deliberately copied anachronistic word endings and verbs to give it gravitas, because it was to be read in church.”
One striking example is the constant use of the word “thou”. In first recorded conversation in Genesis – and the earliest known earliest known example of someone passing the buck – Adam told God: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.”
By 1611, it was a resounding insult to address an adult as “thou”. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch offered Sir Andrew Aguecheek this advice on how to insult someone: “Taunt him with the licence of ink; if thou thou’st him some Thrice, it shall not be amiss.”
When Sir Edward Coke was prosecuting Sir Walter Raleigh for treason in 1603, he railed at him: “Thou Viper; for I thou thee, thou Traitor.” Yet in the Bible, people “thou” one another and even “thou” God, causing no offence at all.
Many of those famous phrases that have gone into the language were not, therefore, the work of Jacobean scholars, but of those earlier pioneers who risked everything to make the Bible accessible to the English laiety. This fact destroys one of the many popular myths about the King James Bible – that it contains a hidden tribute to Shakespeare. It is a fact that if you turn to Psalm 46 and count the words from the beginning, you find that the 46th is “shake”. Start counting backwards from the final word: “refuge”, and the 46th word you come to is “spear”. Work on the King James translation was nearing completion in 1610, the year when Shakespeare turned 46 and probably had his head down writing what is believed to have been his last play, The Tempest.
History does not record who it was who first stumbled upon these curious facts, but once found they naturally caused people to jump to the conclusion that the translators had decided to pay tribute the greatest living English wordsmith. The sort of people who think Elvis Presley is alive even cite Psalm 46 as the proof that Shakespeare wrote the King James Bible. Sadly not. Turn to the Matthew Bible, printed 37 years before Shakespeare was born and you find “shake” and “spear” in the same places.
Those of us who were once gullible enough to believe this myth should grow up and confess that “when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly…”