Wednesday, 9 February 2011

King James Bible: 400th anniversary

The most important thing that ever happened to me was when, as a little boy, I was made to memorise the twenty-third Psalm from the King James Bible. I've loved the Bible and the English language and the 17th century ever since. I still remember that moment of exhilarating shock as I heard my own voice pronouncing the strange intoxicating syllables for the first time: "my cup runneth over". Anyone who denies the connection between words and magic is a fool; all my life I've been reeling from the shock of that first moment, and I suppose the main business of my life has been the mystified repetition of those disorienting, homely syllables. (Disorienting only because they are so homely, because they are so much more familiar than anything I merely know.)

Although I tend half-grudgingly to use the NRSV and the Greek NT in formal ways (classes, sermons, etc), I always prefer to read the King James; and when I'm quoting from memory, it's usually from this version. Probably my favourite copy for general reading is the gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition (currently out of print), The Bible: Designed To Be Read As Literature. I admit this edition has a number of glaring deficiencies, but I still always find it a joy to read and handle: the thick sturdy paper, the lavish cloth binding, the big colour plates, the large Roman typeface, the single-column layout so that the text is encompassed by enormous fields of white, the omission of verse numbers (let's face it, all those numbers are vulgar and distracting: the holy prophets were poets and dreamers, not accountants), and most importantly the formatting of narratives into paragraphs and poetry into stanzas. The only real drawback of your typical King James Bible is the idiotic verse-by-verse layout: once you've turned them into paragraphs and stanzas, you're all set. If you can also get rid of all the numbers and double columns while you're at it, so much the better.

I must admit, I even enjoy listening to Alexander Scourby's legendary audio reading of the KJV – especially his marvellous performance of some Old Testament books. My only complaint against Scourby is the way the inflections of his voice were imitated by whoever was responsible for those bad American animated Bible stories that I was forced to watch as a defenceless little boy. If some Bible stories – the Battle of Jericho, for instance – still provoke a dull instinctive shudder in me; if I often find myself presupposing that God is basically angry, vindictive, self-righteous, and precise; then I blame it mainly on those cartoon episodes, and on the grimly homourless, lawyerly intonations of their American narrators.

Anyway, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the 1611 Bible, and there are stacks of interesting new publications to mark the occasion.

I'm especially excited about Oxford UP's King James Bible: 400th Anniversary Edition. It's not a facsimile, but it follows the 1611 text page-for-page and line-for-line, reproducing all misprints rather than correcting them, plus including all the original preliminary matter (genealogies, maps, lists of readings, etc). Looks like a huge, gorgeous, beautifully typeset edition.

The American-Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura has produced what looks like a stunning illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels (h/t Alan Jacobs). It's pretty expensive, though you can also get it as a cheap iPad app.

There are major new studies by Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 (Oxford UP) and David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford UP), as well as an edited collection by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones, The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge UP). You can see a review of these three here, emphasising the political significance of the "retro-fitted grandeur" of the KJV. Much of its language was already archaic in 1611, and this helped it to trump the popularity of earlier (politically radical) versions, even though a great deal of the KJV was just lifted word-for-word from Tyndale.

I've mentioned this one before, but it needs to be mentioned again here: Robert Alter's vivid and memorable book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton UP). This is about the way the rhythm and texture of the KJV (primarily the Old Testament – that's one of the most interesting parts of his argument) were woven into the fabric of American prose and American speech. There are chapters on Melville's Moby-Dick, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's a gripping account; I read it in one sitting, over an unnaturally long Saturday breakfast. A delightful book by a critic who really knows the Bible (he has also translated much of the OT), and who really knows how to read.

David Norton also has a new one coming out, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge UP); and Leland Ryken has just released a general introduction, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Crossway). And I don't know anything about this one, but it sounds like a lot of fun: David Teems' new biography of James I, Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (Thomas Nelson). The dandyish King James was, you know, quite a character.

PS: While we're on the topic of English Bibles: this one isn't having any anniversary parties this year, but I'd highly recommend Hendrickson's facsimile edition of the 1560 Geneva Bible – an extremely valuable resource for all students of Protestant theological history.

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