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.


Anonymous said...

Baylor University is hosting a KJV 400 Conference April 7 - 9. Robert Alter and others will be speaking. Further info:

Terry Wright said...

I didn't realise the Folio Society edition was so highly esteemed! My late mum bought it for me years ago, and it's always sat gathering dust on the shelf. Perhaps it's time to crack it open.

Pamela said...

I've been teaching scripture to kindergarten students for six years and in the lesson on "The Lord's Prayer" I usually explain the prayer in language a 5/6 yr old child will easily understand. This year I'm going to try the King James Version prayer - I have a feeling it'll go down well (even if I do have to explain 'indebted')!

kim fabricius said...

The Folio Society edition - "Designed To Be Read As Literature"? Here is T.S. Eliot (in "Religion and Literature" [1935]):

"Those who talk of the Bible as a 'monument of English prose' are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity... [J]ust as the work of Clarendon, or Gibbon, or Buffon, or Bradley would be of inferior literary value if it were insignificant as history, science and philosophy respectively, so the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God. And the fact that men of leters now discuss it as 'literature' probably indicates the end of its 'literary' influence."

philq said...

Penguin has a KJV that is published like a regular Penguin paperback. It's in paragraphs and is written in just one column like a normal novel. But it does keep the pesky verse numbers. The main drawback is it's in one volume so it's cumbersomely large.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Phil, I didn't know about that Penguin edition. 2000 pages sounds a bit ominous, but the layout looks lovely – three cheers for paragraphs and verses! I'm disturbed, though, by the Amazon reviewer who notes that archaic spellings have been updated in this edition - e.g. "digged" to "dug", "spake" to "spoke", "thine" to "thy" (!!), "mine" to "my", etc. (Imagine if they updated Martin Luther King's speech: "My eyes have seen the glory...") Still, it does look like an exceptionally nice layout.

Kim, thanks for the great quote - couldn't agree more. I don't mean to endorse the "Bible as literature" fantasy - but for such a nice edition, I can even forgive the pretentious title.

It's harder to forgive the fact that the Folio Society italicises all the poetry (yes, every single psalm! what nincompoopery!), or that they blithely omit a whole section of Job which the editor didn't like that part - but like I say, it has some glaring flaws...

Anyway, this is why I'm hoping to find some solace in the new OUP anniversary edition.

kim fabricius said...

And, Ben, I suspect that the contemporary novelists covered in Alter's book, viz. Robinson and McCarthy, would also agree.

Anonymous said...

Symposium on Shakespeare and the Bible at Rhodes College (Memphis), November 11, 2011:

philq said...

Ben you're right about the updated spelling. I've been struggling all week trying to resist buying the OUP edition and remembered I had bought the Penguin 3 years ago and never really read it. So I busted it out last night and was really annoyed with all the updates. Thus I just ordered the OUP plus Pen of Iron for good measure. My wallet doesn't thank you at all :)

But, in defense of the Penguin editor, he makes a good point. He says that the KJV was updated regularly until the mid-18th century (1758? I forget the exact year) and that the "nonupdated" version is thus totally arbitrary.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Ben, Dr. Christina Hitchcock and I are throwing a KJV party this summer in Sioux Falls, SD, USA.

Bible readings. Ale. Modern scenes translated to middle-late English. Elizabethan humor. Questionable English cuisine. Catholics and Protestants in anxious company together.

Let us know if you're in town.

Ben Myers said...

Nathan, that sounds pretty great. I think I might have to steal your idea, and have a KJV party here in Sydney;

Bobby Grow said...

Good post, Ben! The first book I ever read, when I first learned to read, was the KJV; I still love it myself. The only version I have right now is Oxford's Scofield edition; Scofield was your favorite, right? ;-)

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