The Enduring King James

Article excerpt

AS WE NOTED IN "CHAPTER and Verse" ("In Essence," Summer 2010), the King James Bible, published 400 years ago this year, has a long history of shaping Western literature and culture. It has also engendered innumerable modern translations, whose more colloquial language-meant to appeal to everyone from "extreme teens" to "busy moms"--could not be further from the "thees" and "thous" of the original. But, as Diarmaid MacCulloch observes, the King James Bible had strong competition even in its own time, principally from the Geneva Bible of the 1550s and Miles Coverdale's 1538 edition, which formed the basis for the Book of Common Prayer. Why did the King James version prevail?

The idea for the new translation came from King James VI of Scotland, who later became King James I of the newly conjoined kingdom of Great Britain. He objected to "the bitter notes" in the Geneva Bible, marginalia that, in his view, often took on the tone of a hectoring minister. When James ascended the British throne in 1603, "a remarkably efficient and scandalously underfinanced set of committees" produced the new bible in just seven years.

Much of its success resulted, MacCulloch believes, from the committees' reliance on "a single early Tudor translator of genius, William Tyndale," who translated the sacred text from Hebrew and Greek in the 1520s, and on Coverdale's Psalm translations. But the King James version also appeared at a fortuitous historical moment, just as the English and Scottish churches were "grudgingly moving together under King James's guidance, and before English Protestantism had irretrievably fragmented." The King James Bible became "a uniting symbol for English-speaking Protestantism" rather than "a totem of royalism, as it so easily might have done. …