“Words to Live By” The King James Bible and its Legacy to the English Language

JamesThe story I want to tell is the story of the creation of the King James Bible, and its enormous influence on the English language. For over 400 years this was the Bible for the English-speaking world, the best selling book of all time, and still the most frequently purchased translation.

It lasting legacy to English is incalculable. It is the Bible that Abraham Lincoln learned to read with, and its sounds and rhythms can be heard in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, as it can in Melville’s Moby Dick, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

How did we get this extraordinary work of literary art that has made such a place in the story of English? It was published in 1611, but there is considerable backstory that needs to be shared before we get there, and so we need to go way back. The English still refer to it as the Authorised Version (AV), but I will use the more popular American title, the King James Version and its abbreviation (KJV.) 

Our first question is, what is the Bible? The word itself comes from the Greek Ta Biblia, which simply means “the books.” That seems simple enough, but which books?

There is another whole Monday Evening Club paper that could be written about this subject, the choosing of various books for a canon, but for our purposes tonight relative to the King James Bible, “the Bible” is the following:

1. The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, comprising the 24 books of the Masoretic Text recognized by Rabbinic Judaism. These were written in Hebrew with a smattering of Aramaic. These same books (but in different canonical order) are recognized by Protestant Christians, who follow the Hebrew canon, as the Old Testament. Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, who followed the canon of the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, have additional books called variously deutero-canonicals or the Apocrypha. The King James Version put some of these books between the two Testaments.

2. The New Testament, comprising 27 books agreed on by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox. These were all written in Koine’ Greek, which was the common Greek of the Hellenistic marketplace.

So it took a very long time for English-speaking people to get a Bible translated from the ancient original languages into their own tongue.

Tonight’s paper will tell the story of why it took so long, and how it finally happened. More importantly, I want to trace the influence that this one English translation has had on our language. On its 500th anniversary in 2011 many articles praising the KJV were written. Some of them were by atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who praised it as a literary work.

So this is not a paper about the religious significance of the King James Bible, although it will touch on that, rather I want to tell the story of how the language we all speak, whatever our religion, has been so profoundly shaped by it.

To tell this story we need a little European history lesson to look at the fascinating confluence of societal and technological changes that took place in the several centuries before 1611.

Before the King James Version was published in 1611 for over a thousand years in Europe “the Bible” typically meant the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Jerome and others, which dates from the beginning of the 5th century AD.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which took place from the late 4th to the early 5th century, was the beginning of the so-called “Middle Ages,” a time when much of the learning and education retreated to the monasteries, where books were hand copied by monks in scriptoriums.

Literacy was uncommon, and the few who could read Latin were mostly churchmen. In medieval Europe the Roman Catholic Church played an important political function, and literate churchman were regularly employed throughout the region by monarchs and nobles to handle correspondence, translate documents, and foster statecraft. We have this embedded in our language, as a “cleric” came in time to mean not just the clergy, but any literate person, a “clerk.”

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire new societal patterns emerged. By the 9th century the feudal system had developed in Europe. Feudalism was an intricate set of political and military rules in which the holding of land was exchanged for labor or service. Feudalism consisted of three estates: the warrior nobility, the church, and the peasants. Under this arrangement the land-owning nobles developed over time into a powerful hereditary aristocracy, and the church became a wealthy landowner and powerful political broker.

These arrangements began to crack in the 13th century, when Europe experienced strong economic growth through trade, especially sea trade, and a growing mercantile class began challenging the old feudal aristocracy for wealth, power and influence.

By the opening of the 14th century there was a series of grave economic setbacks. Severe climate change threatened agriculture, causing periodic famines. The Hundred Year’s War between England and France disrupted the sea trade, further putting the economy into a long recession.

The most serious catastrophe was the plague known as the Black Death, in the mid 14th century, which so decimated the population of Europe that it took 150 years to return to pre-plague numbers. In its wake there was widespread social disorder, riots and worker strikes. The inability of the Church and the old feudal aristocracy to stem the plague lost them authority in the eyes of many.

It was in these times of disturbance and social unrest that writers such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio emerged, and a new interest in literature and learning flourished. In 14th century central Italy, in cities such as Florence and Sienna, we can see the earliest flowering of what became known as the European Renaissance.

By the opening of the 15th century, as the plague receded, this new class of traders and bankers grew, and with what has become known as “the rise of the middle class,” a demand for new goods, especially luxury items for the newly wealthy.

Among the luxury goods in demand were books, as literacy, previously the possession of learned clerics, began to spread to the educated middle class, and was viewed as a sign of sophistication and culture.

But books were expensive, copied by hand in the monastic scriptoriums, they were written on vellum, or stamped from woodcuts that were laboriously cut by hand and used but once.

Here is where the economic and social revolution met the technological one. Around 1439 Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, developed metal moveable type that could be used more than once, and the printing press was born. The printing press made books cheaper to make and more widely available.

We have witnessed the growth of mass communication in our own time with the rise of mass media and the invention of the Internet. The printing press was the Internet of its time, and it changed the world, wresting sole control of information and communication away from the church and the state.

In 1455 Gutenberg produced a beautiful Bible. At 30 florins, or roughly three year’s pay for a clerk, it still wasn’t cheap. Just how many of these Bibles were printed is not known, but 48 of them have survived. There are nine here in the United States. There are two in the British museum (that you can compare on-line). But Gutenberg’s Bible wasn’t in the vernacular; it was still the Latin Vulgate, and that leads us to the next chapter of this story, the demand for Bible translations in the peoples’ common tongues.

The rising middle class wanted books in their own tongue, as national languages were emerging. Those 14th century Italian Renaissance writers and poets I mentioned like Petrarch and Boccaccio left Latin behind and wrote in vernacular prototypes of what would become modern Italian. Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in a language he called “Italian,” which was a vernacular from Tuscany.

And in England in the 14th century we have our first significant English translation. The dissident philosopher and theologian John Wycliffe had argued for a Bible in the common tongue, and in 1382 he and his associates published an English translation of the entire Bible, translated from the Vulgate.

Wycliffe is often called “the morning star of the Reformation” for his theological views, which influenced Jan Hus and Martin Luther in the 15th and 16th centuries. But the Roman Catholic Church condemned Wycliffe’s views, and those of his followers the Lollards, and his Bible was strongly suppressed. His translation pre-dates the printing press, so it was in manuscript, and few copies have survived. After Wycliffe died the church declared him a heretic, and his body was exhumed and burned.

Ironically, the scare of Wycliffe is one factor in why it took so long to get other English translations, as they became associated in the minds of “the powers that be” with heresy and dissidence against the church and monarchy. Incidentally, the phrase, “the powers that be” is itself an idiom created by the KJV (for Romans 13:1).

In 1401 Parliament codified these fears, making it illegal to publish the Bible in English, a crime punishable by death.

But, suppressed or not, the views of Wycliffe and Hus spread across Europe. In the early decades of the 16th century an Augustinian monk and university professor in Wittenberg, Germany, named Martin Luther would formulate the ideas that would eventually lead to a break with the Roman Catholic Church and mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther himself translated the New Testament into German in 1522, and after teaching himself Hebrew, translated the Old Testament in 1534. This translation, the Luther Bible, became widely available because of the printing press, and had a profound influence in shaping the German language. It was also an important influence on the English Protestant William Tyndale, whose English translation is the single most important influence on the King James Bible.

TyndaleIf there is a hero to the story of the making of the English Bible it is William Tyndale. His translation was the first English translation made from the original languages, and estimates are that over 80% of his Bible was retained by the King James translators. Because it was illegal to make an English Bible in England Tyndale had to make his Bible in secret in Antwerp.

Tyndale’s version threatened the bishops. For example, he translated the Greek presbyteros, not as “priest,” but as “senior” and in a later edition as “elder.” He translated ekklesia not as “church,” but as “congregation.” These were, in fact, more accurate translations, and represented Protestant views which were considered dangerous to established order.

Tyndale was eventually betrayed and in 1536, even as King Henry VIII was separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he had Tyndale arrested and executed, as you might know if you have read Hilary Mantel’s great novel about the time Wolf Hall.

But Tyndale’s Bible, passed hand to hand against the authority of church and state, was so popular that it forced Henry’s hand, and just a year later Henry authorized the first official translation in English. A flurry of English Bibles appeared, the Coverdale Bible in 1535, the Matthews Bible in 1537, the Great Bible in 1539, the Geneva Bible in in 1560, the Bishops’ Bible in 1568, and the Douai-Rheims Bible from 1582-1610. None of these Bibles attained the standing that the KJV would, but they are all an important part of our story, because the King James translators in 1604 to 1611 would have all these translations to consult when they made their translation.

But at this point in the story a question emerges. Why did it take so long to get an English translation of the Bible? The answer to has more to do with politics and culture than with religion.

I have already touched on the association of an English translation with heresy and dissent from the Wycliffe scare. But that was only one part of the prejudice against English. Until not too many years before 1611 the English elites had long looked down on English as a crude and inelegant language. The aristocracy frequently had their children tutored in French, which since the Norman invasion of 1066 had become the language of the nobility. English was for peasants.

And it was not merely the nobility that were prejudiced against English; it was also the universities and the church, which clung to Latin as the lingua franca of European communication and scholarship. The dons of Oxford and Cambridge might deign to talk to their servants in English, but among themselves they spoke Latin. Even when the KJV translators discussed which English words and phrases were to be chosen for their Bible, they had that discussion in Latin (and the other ancient languages.) This new English translation they were making was not for them, but for the common people.

Even in our time I experienced this reverence for Latin in the Universities. When I spent a term at Oxford in 1989 during my first sabbatical, Martha and I went to a graduation ceremony that was conducted entirely in Latin, with the audience even laughing at the appropriate time to humorous remarks. The nightly grace before dinner in the refectory at Mansfield College, Oxford, was recited from memory in Latin, as it was in the other colleges. So Latin ran deep in the academy, and even some Renaissance humanists such as Erasmus argued against the use of the vernacular, fearing it would eroded the ability of scholars to be in conversation trans-nationally.

The church, of course, had other reasons to resist a vernacular Bible, as only the Latin-speaking clergy could read and interpret it. An English translation would erode that authority, and with it social and political control of the populace.

But after Tyndale the seal was broken and the flurry of translations began. These tributaries that flowed into the King James Bible came at a particularly turbulent time in English history. While the Reformation in Europe had been for primarily religious reasons, the English Reformation began in the statecraft of Henry VIII, who left the Roman Church when the pope denied him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, who had not provided a male heir.

Henry’s break with the Roman church left a Church of England that was neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, and for the next century England yo-yoed between Roman Catholic and Protestant sympathies. Henry’s own sympathies remained mostly Catholic, which is why the Protestant Tyndale met with his fate.

But Henry’s daughter, Mary, was a staunch Roman Catholic and avidly persecuted Protestants. She was widely called “Bloody Mary” for the savage intensity of her persecutions. These were later chronicled in the polemical Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a popular Protestant polemic published after Mary’s reign. During the Marian persecutions many Protestant leaders and scholars escaped to Europe.

It was these Protestant exiles that fled England for Geneva that produced the strongly Puritan Geneva Bible, about which I will say more. When Mary died at the age of 42 her half sister Elizabeth became queen, stabilized the country and enjoyed a reign that lasted over four decades.

Queen Elizabeth 1st was an astute politician and knew she couldn’t maintain power if these religious wars continued to tear her country apart. She sought a middle way, a moderate Protestant church. To achieve this she tolerated those who were loyal to the crown, and imprisoned or exiled the extreme Puritans on the one side, and the Roman Catholics who wanted a return to Rome on the other.

When “Good Queen Bess” died without children in 1603 the Tudor line came to an end, and her distant cousin, the Scottish King James 6th of Scotland became James 1st of England and began the Stuart line of monarchs. This is our King James whose name is forever attached to the Bible he commissioned.

I need to say a few things about King James. In Scotland he had reigned over a second-rate (maybe third) European power, and he had been exposed to the Puritan ethos of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. But James was no Puritan. He saw England as a rich land, and on his accession began the high living and big spending associated with the Jacobean period.

But James saw himself as a peace lover and unifier. He inherited from Elizabeth a Church of England whose Puritan party, long suppressed, was deeply unsatisfied and more than impatient with the Elizabethan compromise. Elizabeth had required vestments of the clergy and had retained bishops, both signs of “popery” to the Puritans. They wanted the Reformation to be completed in England. James was met by a delegation of Puritan divines on his way from Scotland to receive his crown. They had with them a petition signed by a thousand ministers of the Church of England. He promised them a conference to hear their concerns.

The conference that took place was at Hampton Court in 1604, with James himself presiding. The Puritans surely were disappointed by their representation there, as James and his court had hand picked men mild in their views and loyal to the crown.

Nonetheless, although it isn’t in the agenda or the minutes for that meeting, when it was over a new English translation was commissioned. One has to wonder, why would James and his court accept the idea of a new Bible?

The answer is that he wanted a Bible for all the people in his new reign. The Geneva Bible of 1560, translated by the Puritan Marian exiles, was tremendously popular. It had maps and charts and marginal notes, many of them challenging the authority of both monarchs and bishops. The Puritans loved it; the bishops hated it.

So the bishops of the Church of England published their own version, the Bishop’s Bible, as their rejoinder 1568. The problem with the Bishop’s Bible, hastily and poorly translated, was that few bought it or used it.

James and his court wanted a unifying Bible produced by and appealing to all the parties. James himself spoke and wrote in broad Scots. No matter. He was no longer the king of a backwater, but the most powerful Protestant King in Europe. And he believed in the divine right of Kings. His new Bible was to be a sign of James’ own majesty as the King of all his people.

The plan was to pick the finest scholars in the land to be on the translation committees. And although it is true there were men of all sympathies on the committees, no one with extreme or controversial positions would be chosen. Still there were High Churchmen and Puritan scholars sitting side by side. Many of them knew each other; they had gone to university together, and though they had different views, they were an intellectual aristocracy of high learning.

There were to be six of committees of translators: two at Westminster, two at Oxford and two at Cambridge. They were to translate from the original languages, but also consult the several English translations available to them. This is part of the genius of the KJV; the translators could compare the accuracy and the sound of the work of previous translators.

And compare they did. After six years of hard work each committee brought its product to a final editorial committee of six scholars in London. They went through it line by line, listening to it as it was read out loud. They stopped only to ask questions or to make suggestions and changes. We only know this because one of the translators, John Bois, kept a diary of the proceedings. And in the 20th century some copies of their workbooks were found with notes to the proceedings.

Unlike the Puritans, who wanted the same Hebrew or Greek word always rendered as the same English word, these translators were interested in the sounds of the words and phrases. This was to be a Bible to be read aloud, a Bible to be heard, a Bible to be read in public worship.

And that is what they produced. It is hard to believe a translation made by a committee could be so beautiful, but it is, a strange and wondrous combination of Puritan light and simplicity with Jacobean ornamentation and majesty.

It contains a spare 8,000 words. In contrast, Shakespeare, its contemporary, combed through the lexicon to find a torrent of new and diverse words. But the KJV translators wanted a Bible accessible to the common people.

Ironically, this translation so much praised for its eloquence is “eloquent by accident.” (McGrath, p 254) The idea of the Bible as literature won’t be around for centuries. And nowhere in their instructions were the translators told to make it beautiful or eloquent, only accurate. They were more interested in truth than in beauty, but they were also fortunate to be living in a time when English had matured into an elegant living language. Their Bible was published the same year as Shakespeare’s last great work, The Tempest.

It is also the most Hebrew of English translations to that time. Unlike the translations from the Vulgate the KJV translators had the Masoretic text in front of them, and they often made literal translations of Hebrew idioms, which have become enshrined in our English tongue.

There are too many of these to cite here, but let me share some examples: “to lick the dust,” “to fall flat on his face,” “a man after his own heart,” “to pour out one’s heart,” “sour grapes,” “ from time to time,” “pride goes before a fall,” “the skin of my teeth,” “to go from strength to strength.”

Altogether the KJV has contributed over 250 idioms to the English language. Here are just a few of them:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Can a leopard change his spots?

Eat, drink and be merry

The apple of his eye

Signs of the times

At their wits’ end

The powers that be

Labor of love

A thorn in the flesh

The root of all evil

The fat of the land

The sweat of thy brow

To cast pearls before swine

The shadow of death

These idioms are so familiar to us that we forget they were not part of English before 1611. There is an old joke about the student who, upon finally reading the Bible, said that it was not as profound as he expected: “It’s just a bunch of clichés and well-known sayings strung together.”

The impression makes sense. When I went to seminary I discovered that many of my parents’ axioms and epigrams were from the Bible. My mother would often say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.” In seminary I learned it was from KJV of the Sermon on the Mount. It wasn’t my mother after all, but Jesus! It certainly sounds more profound to me than the NRSV’s “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” My minister daughter reports having a similar experience when she went to Divinity School. “Dad. All those things you used to say are from the Bible!”

In fact, in 2005 the famous sayings from the King James Version were extracted from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and made into a book, which contained more than 200 pages.

One reason the KJV has had such an important influence on the shaping of modern English is its timing. It was created at the very time of the emergence of national languages in some standard form.

There was no standard English in Jacobean England. A Northumbrian could scarcely understand someone from Cornwall. The translators spoke a dialect of southeastern English, the language of London and Oxford, of Cambridge and Canterbury, and through the widespread acceptance of the KJV that became standard English.

And there was also no uniformly accepted spelling of words in the 17th century. The names of the translators themselves often have several variants. But once the translators settled on a spelling it made its way into English over hundreds of years, becoming the standard.

The words themselves, their spelling, the rhythm and cadence of their phrases created a thought-world shared by the readers throughout the English-speaking world

Yale Theologian George Lindbeck said that until recently “Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world.” “During the years of its dominance, the King James Bible was the omnipresent force in any cultural sphere that we can name—education (especially childhood education), religion, family and home, the courtroom, political discourse, language and literacy, choral music and hymns, art and literature. For more than two centuries children in England and America learned to read by way of the Bible.” (Ryken)

But should we think of it as an historical artifact? Apparently not. A recent study advised by historian Mark Noll concludes that the KJV is still the most widely read translation as well as the fastest growing in sales.

“The 55 percent who read the KJV easily outnumber the 19 percent who read the New International Version (NIV). And the percentages drop into the single digits for competitors such as the New Revised Standard Version, New America Bible, and the Living Bible.”

So concludes “a lengthy report by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), funded by the Lilly Foundation.

Last year’s American Bible Society (ABS) “State of the Bible”report, using the pollsters the Barna Group, found that 52 percent of Americans read the King James or the New King James Version, compared with 11 percent who read the NIV.

So why don’t we all just read the King James Version? There are two very good reasons. The first is that we know so much more about the Bible than the King James translators. In the five hundred years that have passed we have many more recent and better manuscripts than they did.

We now have unprecedented access to older and better manuscripts and other texts. These can correct thousand of years of scribal errors. Perhaps a sleepy monk missed a word or a pious monk “corrected” a text he considered impious. These scribal errors would have been continually repeated in the scriptoriums.

Chief among the modern breakthroughs is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, nearly a thousand texts, found in dry caves in the 1940’s and 50’s. To take but one example, a complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah was found in 1947 that is a thousand years older than the text we had previously. Newer and better texts give contemporary translators an advantage that the team in 1611 didn’t have.

The second reason we all don’t just read the KJV is that the English language has changed considerably in 500 years, and certain words and phrases have become unintelligible or worse, they now mean the opposite of what they meant in 1611.

As beautiful as the KJV is, there are great patches of it that are difficult or impossible for the modern reader to understand. Those of you who struggled through the original of the Canterbury Tales in school will know what the King James Bible sounds like to young contemporary ears.

Still, this Bible shaped our language as no other work, even Shakespeare, the other font from which English has drunk deeply. For hundreds of years it was the one source of English that all shared. We’ll never see such a thing again.

Bibliography

Benson Bobrick. Wide as the Waters. The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001

David Daniell. William Tyndale, A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin, 1986, 1992.

Alister McGrath. In the Beginning. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Adam Nicolson. “The Miracle of the King James Bible.” National Geographic Magazine, December, 2011.

Adam Nicholson. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Leland Rykin. “How We Got the King James Bible.” The Wall Street Journal. August 26, 2011.

I delivered this paper to the Monday Evening Club on April 28, 2014 in Pittsfield, MA.

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