The Magazine

The Good Book

How the King James Version came to be.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The King James Bible—the Authorized Version of Holy Scripture, dedicated to James I as “principal mover and author”—is not really a triumph of translation. Not, at least, if perfect accuracy and re-creation of the original narrative voice are the proper goals of translation.

Photo of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, holding the King James Bible

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the King James Bible

WENN Photos / Newscom

The examples typically seem minor, but they’ve nagged at scholars for the past 400 years. The King James Version always had a little trouble with Hebrew verb tenses, for instance, and the problem shows up as early as the Bible’s second verse, famously translated as “And the earth was without form, and void.” The verb form there is hayah, which the King James correctly gives as became just a few pages later in Genesis: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” More theologically significant are such stumbles as perpetuating the misreading of ’azazel as ’ez ozel in Leviticus 16—the proper name of a demon transformed into the word for an innocent scapegoat, punished for sins not his own.

For that matter, the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 was not an unalloyed triumph of religion. A narrow set of Puritan and Roman Catholic scholars have always insisted that the Church of England was established primarily by force, imposed on a mostly reluctant nation by the government’s power of pikes and scaffolds. But only over the past 20 years—particularly since the publication of Eamon Duffy’s magisterial study The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (1992)—has popular awareness gained much sense of just how extreme the exercise of that power
really was.

When James VI came down from Scotland at the death of Elizabeth in 1603, there was considerable relief at the lack of violence in his succession to the English throne and a reasonable expectation that the harsher elements of the Elizabethan religious settlement would be eased for Catholic and nonjuror Protestants. Unfortunately, early agitation against James, from the Bye and Main plots to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, embittered him. He quickly settled into the coercive mode of his predecessors, and the King James translation became a key element of that mandatory nationalizing of religion: the only Bible that churches were allowed to purchase.

And yet, if it wasn’t the best translation, or a genuine high point of Christian faith, the book was a triumph of rhetoric. In fact, the King James Bible remains the single greatest monument of the English language ever constructed. More than Milton, more than Shakespeare, more than Spenser, more than Chaucer, the 47 scholars who worked from 1604 to 1611 managed a feat unrivaled in English literature. They gave reality to the idea of a unified Great Britain by drawing together in a single tongue the separate nations of the islands. They gave America the vocabulary that would become the sole public idiom of the Protestants’ new world. And they established, once and for all, the rhythms of English rhetoric: the way the language wants to go, the repetitions and patterns into which, like traps, it always falls.

The first copy is thought to have been printed on May 5, 1611, and publishers have been pouring out commemorative editions of the translation and popular studies of its effect. In Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, for example, the British scholar David Crystal documents 257 idioms, from “salt of the earth” to “two-edged sword,” that derive solely from the King James. In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, the American Robert Alter argues that the book’s way of “imagining man, God, and history” infested the nation’s “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk” and thereby created American literature.

Meanwhile, here in Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011, Gordon Campbell provides an “affectionate biography” of the translation’s origins, printings, and effects. Six groups undertook the work at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, and Campbell argues that even today it would be difficult to assemble as literate a set of translators:

The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators.