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A Reading Life

The power and glory of King James Bible

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, a book whose phrases and cadence link us to a time unabashed by time, to a world which saw no chasm separating it from that inhabited by biblical figures. Until the middle of the last century, this book served as a great repository from which English speakers, from the Founding Fathers to P.G. Wodehouse, could draw allusion and trust that they would be understood. That universe of shared meaning, of allusive wit and wisdom, is fast disintegrating, but works hoping to cash in on the quadricentennial are nonetheless showing up, for, as antiquated professional readers never tire of saying, “of making many bookes there is no end’’ (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

A couple of hopefuls sit before me, both published by Oxford University Press, both additions to the publisher’s extensive KJV product line — and that, I am afraid, is the only way to describe them. In writing “Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611 – 2011’’ ($24.95) Gordon Campbell seems to have been constrained in a work-for-hire straitjacket, grinding through background, development, diversification, rival products, and consumer response. “New translations and the revision of old translations,’’ he reports with a consultant’s discretion, “have not satisfied all readers,’’ and “these versions never became as popular as the publishers had hoped.’’ The entire book is written in this bland, annual-report flavored style, made all the more ludicrous by the majesty and grace of its purported subject.

David Crystal’s “Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language’’ ($24.95) takes up its subject only to crush the life out of it under the weight of an extremely bad idea: calculating the exact number of English expressions that came from this Bible alone — and not from the earlier versions it drew from or any other source. Along the way he investigates the meaning and origins of countless familiar phrases, but the central task, this obeisance to the strange god of calculation, leaves us feeling that “hee is caste into a net by his owne feete, & he walketh upon a snare’’ (Job 18:8).

Adam Nicolson’s “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible’’ (Harper Perennial, paperback, $13.99), first published in 2003, is the book to read this year. Nicolson, who has a limber style and a strong point of view, begins with the character of the Bible’s sponsor, James I, son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. Intelligent, vain, prickly, and suspicious, James, as Nicolson notes, had another side, one “which breathed dignity and richness: a desire for wholeness and consensus, . . . for a reality . . . that stood outside all the corruption and rot that glimmered around him.’’

James longed for peace and unity in a kingdom marked by furious religious discord between conservatives and reformers, which spilled into politics. The two sides represented, as Nicolson notes, “two entirely different and opposing worldviews, and two views of the nature of human beings.’’ On one side, conservatives embraced hierarchy, tradition, ritual, and mystery; on the other, reformers abhorred precisely those things as corruptions and obfuscations of a faith in which God’s truth was accessible to individual reason through the study of his Word. As such, translations of the Bible were key, and the official, if clunky, Bishops’ Bible (1568, 1572) was losing to the Geneva Bible (1560) with its Calvinist torque and mischief-making marginal notes.

In planning for the book that would bear his name, James caused “companies’’ of translators to be formed and set down rules that would govern their work. In going through these rules, Nicolson shows their unstated intentions and political implications, chief among them, subtle support for monarchical government, an element of which was instilling respect for an inherited past. Indeed, a very large part of the translation was a transcription of the Tyndale Bible of the 1520s and ’30s; thought radical in its time, it now represented continuity. On the other hand, the translators were warned not to use, as Tyndale did, terms pernicious to ecclesiastical authority, “congregation’’ for “church’’ being the prime example.

As for those provocative marginal notes, James decreed that there would be none “att all.’’ Doctrinally vexatious words were meant to be left in ambiguity. This, says Nicolson, was to be “the heart of the new Bible . . . an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace.’’ But further than that, it is exactly this “deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text’’ that, he says, creates “the feeling which the King James Bible has always given its readers that the words are somehow extraordinarily freighted, with a richness that few other texts have ever equaled.’’

Nicolson presents vivid, often amusing, portraits of the personalities and points of view of the most influential men involved in bringing the Bible to press. Many times he illustrates the perfection of this Bible’s pacing, its noble composure, the subtle resonance and satisfying rightness of the words chosen, the palpability of its imagery, and, in sum, its superiority over other translations. He follows the book’s vicissitudes, among them the appearance of the Revised Version of 1885, whose translators embellished the text of 1611 with additional archaisms which had never appeared in the original.

Nicolson is a partisan of this great work as a vessel containing the inherited glory and grace of the English language, gifts of the past squandered by the vandals who are forever creating more “accessible’’ versions of the Bible. The King James Bible, writes Nicolson, “is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority.’’ You don’t have to be an Anglican or even believe in God to see this, to see the dimensions of imagination and aesthetic pleasure that the King James Bible opens to us and to lament its disappearance from our culture.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at pow3@verizon.net.