In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture
© 2001 Alister McGrath
In some circles of American Protestantism, the authority of the King James Bible is coequal with the authority of the Bible itself. If other translations were mentioned in my childhood church, for instance, it was only to declare how inadequate, pale, and flaccid they were. Long after I switched to the Revised Standard for reference and reading, I still find myself comparing its passages with those of the KJV. Its words are the ones I was raised with, the ones I hear most often in culture, the ones written into my memory. In the Beginning gives a fulsome history of how the KJV came into being, and then follows this up with much smaller sections regarding its influence on the English language and Anglo-American culture in general.
McGrath begins with the the reformation, naturally, which championed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular throughout Europe so that all people could read the scriptures and decide on what they meant , without any guidance from above. English translations of the Bible were strictly forbidden until the reign of Henry VIII, who — after rejecting the authority of Rome for reasons of state — became marginally more friendly to other ideas of the reformation. Sanctioned English translations began appearing, the most prominent being the Geneva Bible. That bible was the result of Queen Mary’s restoration of English Catholicism, a six-year reign in which Protestant theologians fled to Switzerland, formed their own churches, and began to work on their own Bible. When Mary perished and a more Protestant form of religion returned to England, the Geneva Bible would arrive and begin achieving prominence. One reason it was popular was that it came with an abundance of annotations, annotations which supported other ideas of the reformation and enlightenment-era zeitgeist: namely, a criticism of the divine right of kings. When King James assumed the throne, having long butted heads with Scottish Presbyterians, he determined not to brook any of that anarchic nonsense in England — and so commissioned a translation that would exceed others and omit those anti-monarchical side comments.
There is more to the King James Bible than religion, however, and McGrath provides extensive historical context. He gives, for instance, a brief history of the English language. Englishmen yearned for an English bible not simply because they believed people should read the scriptures for themselves, but because it was English. Medieval Christendom was fading; the age of the armed and passionate Nation State was at hand. For most of their history, when Englishers heard the Bible it was either in Latin or French — and French, after the Hundred Years War, might as well be spoken in Hell, so odious was it. Throughout the medieval period, English re-asserted itself: once the tongue of oppressed peasants, it became the language of State, a source of pride and identity. Indeed, McGrath argues that the King James Bible arrived at an absolutely pivotal time: by the age of Elizabeth and James, English was truly maturing as a Language instead of hodgepodge of dialects, and the KJV was able to set an example throughout the entire island: this is what English is. The KJV’s English provided the standard, rather like newspapers standardized German, French, and Italian later on. When Englishmen traveled overseas and began creating a new life for themselves in North America, the KJV kept their roots planted in England — and shaped the American language, so that it maintained many older words of English long after they’d been forgotten on the sceptered isle itself.
Although In the Beginning is largely a history of the KJV’s inception and execution — and only marginally about its effects on the Anglo-American language and culture — this is a book to consider if one has any interest in the Bible at all. McGrath covers not only the political and cultural genesis of the book, but explains the translation and printing process itself. Considering the sheer scope of the project — Bibles are an enormous amount of text — little wonder bibles used to be considered heirlooms, to be passed down from generation to generation. There’s also quite a few amusing stories in here, like variant editions that resulted from typesetting problems: the “Wicked Bible”, for instance, which commanded readers to commit adultery, and another edition that declared that Israel’s enemies would vex Israel with their…wives. In general, I think this history will foment a greater appreciation for the KJV translation, especially given that it was intended to build on the best of preceding English volumes, and includes their successes along with its own.
Next up in Read of England…..a splash of Inklings, followed by medieval lit or late-medieval history.