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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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Of course, they didn’t start from scratch. Officially, the King James was a revision of the Bishops’ Bible, which was a reworking of the Great Bible, which drew on Miles Coverdale’s efforts and John Roger’s editions—both of which came out of William Tyndale’s translations. David Crystal found only 257 common English idioms born in the King James because he excludes the ones that the translators simply took over from the burst of scholars, from Erasmus on, working in the century before.

Nor was the text strictly defined. As Campbell notes, even the first year of this official Bible “appointed to be read in churches” saw two editions: the He Bible and the She Bible, which vary the ambiguous pronoun in Ruth 3:15, uncertain whether Ruth or Boaz has entered the city. Innumerable small and unannounced changes in wording, spelling, and punctuation followed over the years, until Oxford’s Benjamin Blayney established the modern text in 1769. “Printers have persecuted me,” declared one edition, misprinting “princes,” and readers could well believe it. Although the typos were surprisingly few for a 1,400-page book at that stage in the history of printing, the early editions were famous for their (sometimes intentional?) misprints. “Let the children first be killed,” one edition explained, instead of “filled.” “The Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great asse,” in place of “greatness.” “The unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom.” And of course, the Wicked Bible of 1631, which commands, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Nonetheless, the King James Version won. It arrived at the right moment of political history in England, enforced by law during James’s 22-year reign, and acceptable enough that it eased the worries of Protestants from the highest of high-church Anglicans to the lowest of low-church Puritans.

It arrived, for that matter, at the right moment of linguistic history. Here’s an example: English would shortly undergo its transformation into what’s known as a “polite language,” the formal use of the second-person plural (the “vous” constructions) driving out the familiar use of second-person singular (the “tu” constructions). The King James correctly uses thou, thy, thine—all the singular forms of you, particularly to refer to God. It preserved them, in fact, far beyond the disappearance of those constructions from general speech, with the curious consequence that modern readers often hear thou not as familiar but as formal: a more ceremonial and polite way of speaking to God.

Which is surely a major part of what a translation of the Bible is supposed to provide. Looking back on the efforts, from the 1952 Revised Standard Version onward, to provide a text for modern readers, one has to say that they were profoundly misguided. The text of the King James was stable enough for over 300 years that biblical phrases could enter common speech and biblical rhythms shape literary prose.

Whether it should have dominated or not—the Douay-Rheims Bible, completed in 1610, may have been a better translation—the King James provided the language both a rich connection to the past and a general seriousness of reference. It was English, the living root. And it was public Christianity, the perpetual flower. What could possibly have possessed us to abandon it?

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.