The King James Bible was in no way regarded as the version that rendered all others obsolete. It didn’t even quote itself in its own preface, but used verses from the Geneva Bible, which continued to be the most popular Bible in England and America at least until the 1640s.
But that, in a way, is the point. The Bible produced in 1611 had been commissioned by the king in 1604 but was not the product of the previous seven years. It was the culmination of a process which had been going on for at least a century. The earlier translators, as it says in the KJB’s preface, “deserve to be had of us and of posteritie in everlasting remembrance, that whatsoever is sound alreadie, the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished”. Their purpose was to perfect what they had been given.
Central to that inheritance was the idea that these texts, in language which all could understand, would bring a freedom to individuals’ lives which would not have been possible if a priest – and a papally skewed Latin translation – had intervened.
The King James Bible is soaked in the idea of its own power but the early 17th-century church didn’t rush out to buy it. At Ely Cathedral they waited until 1613, two years after publication, before making an entry in the treasurer’s account book (currently on show at a wonderful exhibition in Cambridge University Library) which read simply “It[em]. For a greate Bible of the latter edition. 50 s[hillings]”.
In fact, it was only during the Civil War and the English Republic, when all certainties were for a time in flux and a hunger for order came to dominate mens’ minds, that Puritan England, including Cromwell, Milton and Bunyan, took up the King James Bible.
The fusing of worldly and divine authority in this English text became a central instrument of empire, sent out to hospitals and schools wherever the British spread. It was certainly in the minds of the Jacobean authorities that the new text of the Bible should buttress and not erode the power of worldly authorities. The word ‘nation’ appears 454 times in the KJB against a mere 100 ‘natio‘s in its predecessor, the Latin Vulgate.
For RS Sugirtharajah, professor of Biblical hermeneutics at Birmingham University, it was used “as wrapping paper for cigars, medicine, sweetmeats and cartridges” and was marketed across the British empire as “the Bible the emperor reads”. That is the second reason it matters: like it or not, this country’s global influence is unintelligible without it.
The King James Bible has been dethroned now. In The King James Bible After 400 Years, an outstanding collection of new essays published by Cambridge University Press and edited by two American scholars, Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W Jones, 14 major translations of the Bible are listed as being produced between 1382 (Wyclif) and 1952 (Revised Standard Version), and four of those were versions of the KJB. Since then, there have been 60 major new translations, a surge of Bible English which even the fevered years of the Reformation could not match.
Nor does this flood of translations take into account the proliferating zoo of new printed and online versions. These include, as a handful from the tombola, the Extreme Teen Study Bible, The Couples Bible, The Policeman’s Bible, The Celebrate Recovery Bible and The One Year New Testament for Busy Moms.
Merely, then, as an historical experience, to look into the pages of the King James Bible is to enter a world of cultural unity which to a great extent coloured the consciousness of English-speaking people from the 1650s to the 1950s. Its particular combination of majesty and freedom, of clarity and richness, was for centuries held, particularly by the Victorians, to be the defining terms of our national identity.
Here English-speakers found a Hebrew-derived sense of obedience allied to a Greek-derived sense of virtue, knowledge and beauty. “And that much,” as Philip Larkin wrote about the cousin-compulsion to enter parish churches, “never can be obsolete /Since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious/And gravitating with it to this ground.”
Page after page reads like organ music. It is full both of rhythmic grandeur and an often heart-gripping immediacy. It appeals, at some deep level, to what TS Eliot called “the auditory imagination”, that “feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word…”
The translation was intended, at least initially, to be read aloud in churches (although quarto and smaller editions for reading at home or in school were being produced within a couple of years) and the final revising process had been based on the editing committee listening to the suggested words. The punctuation is also based on breathing, intended to help someone who is reading it aloud.
This deliberate user-friendliness of the words for those reading and listening to them, combined with an immensely simple vocabulary and a kind of story-telling that is almost always uncompromisingly brisk, makes the King James Bible into the most humane and generous of books. In some ways its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale and power, but the majesty of its music is one that is mindful of man.
“God may be dead,” as The New Yorker critic James Wood says in the new Cambridge volume of essays, “but he can’t easily be murdered. His ghost, slipping in and out of truths, still whispers to us.”
Even in a post-belief culture, the King James Bible continues to enshrine a world vision that connects the physical and metaphysical, that imagines a universe replete with meaning and that fills it not with terror or vengeance but with a quality which nowadays, perhaps a little oddly, we call ‘humanity.’ As such, this is a book that has long provided an imaginative space in which it is good to walk. The American scholars John King and Aaron Pratt have recently discovered, on the flyleaf of a small copy of the Geneva Bible now in the Bodleian, this note written in Queen Elizabeth’s own italic hand:
Adam Nicolson is the presenter of the BBC Four series When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible.