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KING JAMES BIBLE
OF BIBLICAL IMPORTANCE
A number of books have been published to celebrate the quatercentenary of the Authorised Version of the Bible. CHRISTOPHER HOWSE explores the best of them
It’s the 400th anniversary of the dear old Authorised Version of the Bible, although as Gordon Campbell points out in Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford, £16.99), there was no actual publication day in 1611, so we can go on celebrating all year. Practically all the books that have come out for the occasion, even though they insist on its importance for the English language, call it the King James Bible, an Americanism.
Never mind, its importance is certain. If the last Harry Potter sold 44 million, the Bible has sold 2.5 billion, some say, or six billion, say others. Professor Campbell follows its history since 1611 – not just its effect but also its contents, for it has not been left untouched. Indeed it was a surprise to me that in 1826 the British and Foreign Bible Society dropped from their Bibles the whole of the Apocrypha – depriving millions from India to the Caribbean of Maccabees, Tobit, Susanna and the Elders and all. Daisy Hay in the Observer delighted in the obscurity of one sentence in the Authorised Version (from the prophet Ezekiel): ‘Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and makes kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls.’
In Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford, £14.99) the indefatigable linguist Professor David Crystal tried to work out how many idioms from the Authorised Version had entered into the English language – idioms domesticated by the language, such as ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘two-edged sword’. Following a strict methodology, his answer was not thousands but 257. Tom Payne in the Daily Telegraph thought the professor should have included ‘bricks without straw’, which would have brought up the total to 258 at least, but one gets the idea.
If you already have a copy of Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the
Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, then don’t buy his When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible (HarperPress, £9.99), for it is exactly the same book retitled by the cheeky publishers. It is, to be sure, a jolly good read; Mr Nicolson writes well and tells the story of how the translation came to be made, focusing on some of the extraordinary
If the last Harry Potter sold 44 million, the Bible has sold 2.5 billion, some say, or six billion, say others figures involved. One of these, as the late Geoffrey Moorhouse pointed out in a 2003 Guardian review for the original book, was ‘Richard Thomson, fellow of Clare, Cambridge, who hob-nobbed with the fast set in London (where he rarely went to bed sober) and was notorious for his witty translations of Martial’s most obscene epigrams’.
The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg gives his own history of the influence of the
Authorised Version in The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611–2011 (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). Henry Hitchings in the Observer found it ‘breezily readable where other studies can feel dense and recondite’. ‘It is an inspiring and fascinating tale,’ thought Peter Stanford in the Independent, ‘relevant today even to militant non-believers.’ Stuart Kelly in Scotland on Sunday called it ‘a woolly defence of the woolliest kind of Anglicanism, which Bragg admits is two parts nostalgia and one part being nice.’ Philip Hensher in the Spectator was puzzled ‘to find a section on the influence the King James version had on Shakespeare, since it was published after Shakespeare had finished writing his plays.’
Perhaps the best bargain of the year is King James Bible: 400th Anniversary Edition (Oxford, £50, but on Amazon at £34). A big book of more than 1,500 pages, in hard covers and a slipcase, it follows the 1611 text and its spelling, page-for-page and line-for-line, but set in an easily read roman font instead of the crabbed black-letter type of the original.
A selection of common idioms which have their origins in the
King James Bible
‘my brother’s keeper’ ‘a fly in the ointment’ ‘a man after our own heart’ ‘the salt of the earth’ ‘a two-edged sword’ ‘a rod of iron’ ‘the skin of his teeth’ ‘let there be light’ ‘how are the mighty fallen’ ‘so help me God’ ‘a thorn in the flesh’ ‘new wine in old bottles’ ‘fight the good fight’ ‘fell flat on his face’ ‘ye of little faith’ ‘sour grapes’
Summer 2011 Review of Books THE OLDIE 3