"Behold, It Is Written": The King James Bible at 400

Like the Beatles discography or the screenplay for Casablanca, the King James Bible is a rare instance of true collaborative genius.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible turns 400 this year, and while the milestone has been lavishly celebrated already, I’d like to add my toast before the party ends. In principle, a good book can always use another recommendation.

Like the Beatles discography or the screenplay for Casablanca, the King James Bible is a rare instance of true collaborative genius. In fact, it’s history’s most distinguished example of literature by committee (unless you count the epics of Homer, in which case the “collaboration” likely took place over generations). It may also be the greatest feat of translation ever achieved. Of course, it didn’t hurt the translators to have strong source material, as well as some stellar existing versions in their own language—including the Tyndale Bible and the Geneva Bible, which would have been the standard text for Shakespeare.

Almost none of the individual contributors is widely remembered today, with the possible exception of Lancelot Andrewes, who served as a kind of general editor for the project and whose sermons were praised (and pilfered from) by T. S. Eliot. And yet the sonority of the KJV’s prose poetry hasn’t been equaled in English before or since; in fact, along with Shakespeare’s works it defines sonority in the language. The gravitas of poets like Eliot and Dickinson, novelists like Melville and Faulkner, essayists like Emerson and Baldwin, orators like Lincoln and King derives overwhelmingly from the diction, rhythms, and imagery of the King James. And that’s just in American literature.

I don’t believe in any religion, but I do believe in great sentences, and I’m aware that for many people—including thinkers much brighter than I am—the two things have been difficult to separate. Those famous lines from John, for example—“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: / And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”—are easy to dispense with as science or philosophy, but as verbal music, hard to forget. Translated into another language, they started Raskolnikov on the ambiguous path toward healing; in the King James version, they’re the rock on which many a believer's faith has been founded. Not all public skeptics realize that they’re battling literature as well as ignorance, or grasp the corresponding need for literature that subverts rather than disputes.

Even for the average writer simply trying to sound profound without sounding pious, the KJV’s influence is sometimes frustrating. Its authority over the language can seem, well, godlike. “For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether…”

Luckily the Bible is not a unified book but an anthology of multiple literatures, and the KJV is a translation that does all parts roughly equal justice. That means the various chapters do an excellent job of arguing against each other. Without rehashing the discrepancies among the Gospels or the hopelessly ambivalent attitude toward killing expressed across the two testaments, I’ll say that my favorite parts of the Bible are those that seem miraculous for having made the editorial cut. The borderline nihilism of Ecclesiastes, the worldly eroticism of the Song of Songs, the unsettling quasi-punchline at the end of Jonah are all avenues leading away from Christianity as most sects practice it, and possibly from faith altogether.

To believe that the Good Book, like all books, is a messy human creation is to give yourself the luxury of drawing different lessons from it than the writers and editors intended—even to cull from it a more inspiring anthology of your own. With its authority, memorability, and attention to irony, the King James translation is beautifully conducive to this purpose.

The year 1611 was a charmed one for English literature; as near as scholars can tell, it also saw the first appearance of The Tempest, the last full play written by Shakespeare and a work whose anniversary I’ll commemorate in a future post.

[Image of Bible via Shutterstock.]

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