Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611–2011 & Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language

Justin Champion enjoys some clinical dissections of the King James Bible, from its massive influence on our language to the delicacy of translating the original 1611 edition

Bible: The Story of  the King James Version 1611–2011
Author: Gordon Campbell & David Crystal
Publisher: OUP
Reviewed by: Justin Champion
Price (RRP): £16.99 (Bible) & £14.99 (Begat)

The dangers and powers of the vernacular printed Bible were made very obvious in the 1631 edition, which reproduced the injunctions of Exodus 20:14 as “Thou shalt commit adultery”. The printer of the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ was duly punished for his mistake.

These two short but very fine books are in the vanguard of studies that will pour from the presses to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version next year.

Crystal’s slim volume is a forensic examination of the commonplace claim that no book has
had a greater influence on the English language. He concludes that there are some 257 expressions where a reasonable influence canbe detected. Contemporary
usage by sports commentators, American presidents and others establishes the range of expression in the worlds of “basketball, comic strips, dentistry, engineering, pornography and social networking”.

The New Testament rather than the Old Testament supplies the bulk of phrases: and in the latter the books of Exodus, Genesis and Ecclesiastes dominate.

Working through the material in 42 short chapters, Crystal’s volume is entertaining and informative – it will be a book many derive pleasure and insight from, certainly a platform for further reflection and specific research.

Gordon Campbell’s affectionate biography of the 1611 edition of the Bible takes a more historical and material perspective, exploring the fashioning, reception and long afterlife of the publication into the late 20th century.

The men who translated for King James set about their delicate and sensitive project armed with a daunting array of erudition. The ambition was not to make a new ‘version’ (a rather sensitive word itself given contemporary beliefs about the complete and accurate status of biblical revelation).

As Miles Smith noted in the preface of the translators to the readers – they did not set out to make “a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”.

Through the history of printed English-language Bibles can be seen the challenges of the Reformation in these islands. It is difficult today to appreciate quite how challenging and significant having the revealed word of God in printed form was, both to individual Christians, and to governors in church and state. The decision to allow access to the laity was a turning point in the history of religion in the west.

Theologically, reading the Bible posed all sorts of problems: undisciplined encounters might well produce any number of heresies or misunderstandings.

The King James Version was an attempt to ensure that doctrinal and theological complexity was managed by contemporary ecclesiastical institutions. After the production of Roman Catholic editions at Rheims and Douai, the challenge of alternative readings was profound.

The 1611 edition was also a publishing success: the text was revised under very strict rules, but it was also printed with careful presentation. Ultimately it was accompanied by 74 pages of additional preliminary materials (helpfully described in Campbell’s appendix) which enabled the Bible to become a handbook for the working life of the church in all aspects.

Bible also carries the story of the evolution of the printed volume forward into the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is an element of triumphalism in both books – and indeed there were many moments of profound and serious challenge to this religious and cultural legacy. However, for a reader wanting intelligent orientation these are superb platforms for further reflection.

Justin Champion is professor of the history of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London

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