November 29, 2010
Celebrating 400 Years of the King James Bible
— Martin E. Marty
Thanksgiving weekend gave those who live off or for the media an excuse to slow down, turn off some signals, and settle back to football, turkey, and family—or to shop. For those who keep the Christian calendar, yesterday was also a significant change-of-pace day, since it was the beginning of a new church year. Readers of Sightings who are distant from Christian observances cannot have escaped the carols and wreaths which resound and decorate public spaces. Looking for ways to celebrate the season and anticipate 2011, we were aided by an editorial from the Observer in the UK.
Here’s the deal: 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, an event that merits observance far beyond the circles of librarians, antiquarians, and classicists. Anyone who keeps files on the fate of the KJV in the twentieth century and ever since will find many controversies to pass on the way to the book and its cultural import. Thus I have files, books, and personal recall of the way defenders of the King James edition fought off new translations. The Revised Standard Version, backed by the National Council of Churches, was scorned as “Stalin’s Bible” because it seemed to some to slight the virgin birth of Jesus. Burnings of the Bible at mid-century, when the Revised Standard Version appeared, drew attention just as the planned burning of the Qur’an recently did.
Expect debates all anniversary year over whether the authorizer of the KJV, King James I, was homosexual, bisexual, or falsely pointed to as “different” in his time as in ours. When fundamentalists have a slip of tongue or memory and speak of him as the “Saint James Bible,” selective readers of the evidence will pounce and proclaim him as a homosexual saint. This is a second distraction on the way to the celebration.
And there is much to celebrate, as the Observer editorial makes clear. More than any other writing, including the plays of Shakespeare, KJV did so much to formalize written English and do so with majesty. The Observer: “as well as selling an estimated 1bn copies since 1611,” it went into our literary bloodstream. Shakespeare needed 31,000 words to bless that bloodstream, while the KJV needed only 12,000.
Among the 12,000 words that the translating committee of King James adopted from the Hebrew and Greek were “long-suffering,” “scapegoat” and “peacemaker.” We might need all three as the antagonists line up on both sides of “Stalin’s Bible” and the sexually-complex battles mentioned above. Those who mourn the loss of the Version’s hegemony will side with Raymond Chandler, who said that the Bible was “a lesson in how not to write for the movies.” It was a lesson in how to write for elites and masses alike.
Although “secular, multicultural Britain” will celebrate the quartercentenary, Robert McCrum sounds rueful: “Some 450,000 people each month do google searches for King + James+ Bible, of which fewer than 10% originated in the UK.” The Observer editorialist looked west across the Atlantic and observed how the KJV was used by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Theodore Roosevelt declared that “the King James Bible is a Magna Carta for the poor and oppressed: the most democratic book in the world.” One hopes that controversies of the sort I mentioned here will bring this Bible to front pages and prime time.
Robert McCrum, “How the King James Bible Shaped the English Language,” The Observer, November 21, 2010.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.