Book of the month

Philip Corbett on the wide array of literature surrounding the KJV anniversary


There can be few books that have had so great an influence as the King James Version of the Bible.

As a translation it has spawned a vast array of books about every detail of its creation and content. Whether you are word-smith, a theologian or an historian, there is a book for you.

The quatercentenary of the KJV this year has added another shelf or two to the KJV library of secondary material. Indeed so large is the array of books, television programmes and musical items it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps if we begin with words and move on from there, for the study of words is surely one of the least controversial ways to examine the KJV.

David Crystal’s Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (OUP, 320pp, hbk, 9780199585854, £14.99) seems a good place to start. This is a fascinating book which reminds the reader just how many of the phrases we use today come from the KJV. From ‘a fly in the ointment’ to ‘how the mighty have fallen’ and on to ‘wheels within wheels’, no other book, Crystal asserts, has had so great an influence on the English language by way of idiomatic or ‘quasi-proverbial’ phrases as the KJV. Crystal’s book is certainly an entertaining one; the very fact that the word ‘begat’ appears so many times in the KJV seems to fascinate him and the reader cannot help but be carried along with his enthusiasm for words.

He goes to some length to point out that it is difficult to say whether these phrases originated in the KJV or whether they were brought together by the various translators. What is clear is that because the KJV was appointed to be read aloud in all churches the influence of the text is second to none, and thus to this day biblical phrases appear in all aspects of our daily lives from soap operas to newspapers.

Melvyn Bragg also has an interest in the words and influence of the KJV. In his latest book The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611–2011 (Hodder and Stoughton, 384pp, hbk, 1444705156, £20) Bragg is keen to point out that the KJV has ‘branded’ English literature and the English language for four hundred years. All of our major authors have been influenced by its words and phrases; in a wonderful phrase Bragg refers to the KJV’s ‘watermark’ in the vocabulary of English-speaking people.

The influence of the KJV is not simply however to be seen in the realms of literature. Brag examines how the KJV had an effect on the spread of Protestantism, its use in the Civil Wars of England and America, and its great influence on politics and social movements.

It had never occurred to me that the KJV must have been carried by so many people during times of war and brought comfort to so many soldiers on the front. There cannot be many who have not heard Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech; even fewer, perhaps, who realize that part of his text was lifted from the KJV [Isaiah 40.4-5]: ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low’. Bragg’s book points the reader to more and more places where the ‘watermark’ of the KJV is clear for all to see.

Of more interest to the historian are Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version (OUP, 256pp, hbk, 9780199557592, £16.99) and Derek Wilson’s short book The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version (Lion Hudson, 224pp, hbk, 0745953514, £14.99). Wilson’s assertion is that we cannot simply look at the KJV as a work of literature but rather as an icon of religious certainty for generations of people. An interesting aside in Wilson’s book is the fact that editors and publishers continued to make corrections to the text. Negatives, he points out, seem to have been a constant problem for editors and printers alike.

Wilson also makes an interesting study of comparing the KJV to other versions which raises the interesting question of just how readable the KJV is. Is it possible to study the KJV as a Christian or should it be simply relegated to the lectern and read only on the first Sunday of the month when there is a Prayer Book Service? Wilson left me wondering whether the KJV will ever regain its influence on the Church and the world or whether it is destined simply to become a museum piece.

Gordon Campbell’s excellent book certainly points to the KJV as being part of a living tradition. Campbell begins by setting the KJV in context and looking at who the translators were. He then goes on to discuss the methods of translation and most interestingly the methods of revision.

The nineteenth-century revisers had a set of eight rules proving, if proof was needed, that whilst doing things by committee is not normally a wise move in the case of biblical translation it seems to be almost essential. Whilst Campbell’s book lacks colour illustrations, the illustrations of textual variances and alterations is fascinating and his appendix on who the translators were is utterly fascinating.

Lord Macaulay commented that ‘if everything else in our language should perish, this book alone would suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power’ and the historian Froude wrote that the KJV was ‘a literature in itself’. It is certainly one of those desert island books one would not be without, and if you could take with you the library of books the KJV has spawned you would have enough reading matter to last a lifetime, if not three. ND

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