While in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit the exhibition I mentioned in this month’s recommendations: ‘Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible’. Just before going, I happened upon Diarmaid MacCulloch’s review piece, ‘How good is it?’ in the London Review of Books (3 February 2011). In it, MacCulloch states, ‘The story of the KJB and its influence has often been told, and we will hear it repeated to distraction in this quartercentenary year. If one wonders whether it’s worth telling again, well, like the KJB itself, it sells, and good luck to publishers who turn an honest penny by it’. If ever you’ve booked yourself into a hotel and had a rummage through the bedside table drawers, you’ve probably found yourself a KJB. I have a copy or two of the KJB myself, as I imagine lots of Irish households do, and though its language can be excessively formal, flowery, and archaic, especially in an atmosphere in which there is an ever-increasing number of translations that target twenty-first century readers with twenty-first century language (here I’m thinking specifically of The Message), the KJB remains a bestseller today, four hundred years after it was first produced.
Part of the KJB’s continued attraction is the transformation it effected in seventeenth-century English social, religious, and cultural life as well as the ongoing effect it arguably still has on many facets of twenty-first century life. In an article published in The Guardian last November, Robert McCrum calls the KJB ‘a number one bestseller of unprecedented literary significance’ that has fundamentally ‘shaped our imaginative landscape’. With stronger language still, McCrum claims, ‘As well as selling an estimated 1bn copies since 1611, the KJB went straight into our literary bloodstream like a lifesaving drug’. He further notes that many well-used words – ‘scapegoat’ and ‘long-suffering’, for instance – as well as favourite idiomatic sayings – ‘fighting the good fight’, for example, or ‘see the writing on the wall’ – come directly from the KJB.
McCrum’s glowing tribute to the KJB struck me as almost as flowery as the KJB itself, but there’s certainly something to be said about the KJB’s lasting influence, not just in religious, but also cultural circles. With less enthusiasm, MacCulloch maintains that the KJB ‘possesses undoubted literary merit’, but he also notes that its eventual publication as well as dominance over competing translations and editions was largely enabled by ‘a great deal of luck’. Much of the history of this extraordinary luck was charted in the ‘Great and Manifold Blessings’ exhibition. A small but impressive display of rare editions, illuminated manuscripts, journals, and correspondence, the exhibition traces both the events that led to the publication in 1611 of the KJB and the continuing translation and production activities that followed. Such artifacts emphasize the complex, often dangerous, task it was in the sixteenth century to attempt English translations of a text still generally considered forbidden to the average English-speaking punter. William Tyndale’s pioneering English translation of the New Testament, completed in 1524, for instance, met with much controversy and outrage from ecclesiastical authorities in England, forcing him to flee for safety to the Continent. Copies of his translations were thereafter burned, and Tyndale himself was later murdered by the joint will of Church and State.
In contrast, the KJB was authorized by King James VI of Scotland, who first proposed a new translation in 1601. The project was then pursued in 1604, after James’ ascension to the throne of England. Although it came to dominate earlier translations like Tyndale’s in the following years, the KJB drew heavily from existing editions to produce a kind of conglomerate text notable not just for the number of earlier texts it compared, copied, and compiled but also for the sizeable team of translators entrusted with its completion.
As interesting as all of this history was and is, however, the most fascinating bits of the exhibition focused on those instances in which production went disastrously, if laughably, wrong. One edition of the KJB published in 1631 by the royal printers, for instance, and commonly known as ‘The Wicked Bible’, mistakenly printed the seventh commandment as ‘Thou shall commit adultery’, thus glibly excusing all manner of marital infidelity with one omitted word. I wouldn’t like to have been the one to make that mistake!