"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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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.