As we noted in “Chapter and Verse” (“In Essence,” Summer 2010), the King James Bible, published 400 years ago this year, has a long history of shaping Western literature and culture. It has also engendered innumerable modern translations, whose more colloquial language—meant to appeal to everyone from “extreme teens” to “busy moms”—could not be further from the “thees” and “thous” of the original. But, as Diarmaid MacCulloch observes, the King James Bible had strong competition even in its own time, principally from the Geneva Bible of the 1550s and Miles Coverdale’s 1538 edition, which formed the basis for the Book of Common Prayer. Why did the King James version prevail?
The idea for the new translation came from King James VI of Scotland, who later became King James I of the newly conjoined kingdom of Great Britain. He objected to “the bitter notes” in the Geneva Bible, marginalia that, in his view, often took on the tone of a hectoring minister. When James ascended the British throne in 1603, “a remarkably efficient and scandalously underfinanced set of committees” produced the new bible in just seven years.
Much of its success resulted, MacCulloch believes, from the committees’ reliance on “a single early Tudor translator of genius, William Tyndale,” who translated the sacred text from Hebrew and Greek in the 1520s, and on Coverdale’s Psalm translations. But the King James version also appeared at a fortuitous historical moment, just as the English and Scottish churches were “grudgingly moving together under King James’s guidance, and before English Protestantism had irretrievably fragmented.” The King James Bible became “a uniting symbol for English-speaking Protestantism” rather than “a totem of royalism, as it so easily might have done.”
As a result, after the upheaval of the English Civil War, the Interregnum, and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Anglicans, English Protestant Dissenters, and the Established Church of Scotland emerged as “people of a single book.” And they took that book with them when they moved across the oceans to new lands.
MacCulloch, who teaches theology at Oxford and whose latest book is A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, recounts these developments in the course of reviewing several books published in conjunction with the quadricentennial. In one of these, an essayist “chronicles how successful a handmaid of empire the KJB proved.” Unlike other bibles, for instance, it translates four different Hebrew words to mean nation, which helped inspire “a new vision of Britishness as a nationality with a mission.”
The King James Bible still exerts a powerful influence on culture and language in the English-speaking world. But MacCulloch reports that scholar David Crystal, who uses Google searches to explore “the continuing background hum of Jacobean sacred text” in modern vernacular, finds that the influence is uneven. Of the 257 phrases from the King James Bible that Crystal says remain in wide use, only a few come from the Old Testament. Among them, from Genesis, is one that has become a “treasured part of English usage”: Go forth and multiply.