Monday, May 16, 2011
by Charles Piddock
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, once said: “I have always imagined that Heaven will be a kind of library.”
Interesting idea. If it is true, at the very center of that celestial library, for English speakers at least, would be one shining work of genius: the King James Bible. Over the past four centuries, this book has transcended numerous generations, impacted millions of people, and greatly influenced our culture. It is simply impossible to overestimate or exaggerate its influence.
The King James Bible was born (maybe we should say “begat”) on May 2, 1611---the product of seven years labor by a remarkable group of 54 scholars. Your program this morning has a brief insert telling the story of how it came to be made.
Let me begin where the insert ends, and focus on its influence in English-speaking America---not at the very beginning in Jamestown (settled in 1607, before the King James Bible) or Plymouth in 1620, where the Puritans used the favorite Puritan text, the Geneva Bible.
An Early Best-Seller
As English settlers began pouring into the colonies, however, the bible they brought with them was not the Geneva Bible, but the King James Bible. In the 18th century it was universally used in the colonies---and it was a best-seller, although all the Bibles were still printed in England and shipped to America. The first English Bibles printed in the colonies were printed in 1771 by Robert Aitken of Philadelphia. When the American Bible Society was founded in the early 1800s, it distributed millions of King James Bibles.
The Bible quickly became the mother’s milk of the new nation. Despite its old-fashioned and sometimes difficult language, not only was the King James Bible read in churches from New England to the western frontier, but it was quoted by politicians, inscribed on public buildings, taught in school reading classes, and read aloud in homes far and wide, often before each meal of the day. Millions learned from its carefully crafted words how sentences should be written, how stories should be told, and how to use elevated words for solemn events.
(Even at the time it was first put together, the KJB was deliberately old fashioned in grammar and phraseology; an expression like “yea, verily,” for example, had gone out of fashion some 50 years before the translation was made. The translators didn’t want their Bible to sound contemporary, because they knew that contemporary quickly goes out of fashion.)
Made to be Read Aloud
In early America the King James Bible was most often read aloud, as its translators intended. It used simple concrete words and punctuation to establish an oral prose rhythm and pace suitable for the divine story it told, blending simplicity and majesty, as in Luke 2, verses 7 to 10:
“And she brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said until them, Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
The words in the passage are simple; they tell a story, and are just enough words to tell the story as its subject demands, no more, no less.
Luke 11, verses 9 and 10, provides another such example: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh, receiveth; and he the seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”
Copyreaders today often say you should never begin a sentence with “and.” And yet the KJB does this constantly: In the book of Genesis, for example, there are 31 verses in the opening chapter. Twenty-nine of them begin with And. And God did this. And God did that.
The effect of the punctuation, and also the use of “and” and “or” to establish a rhythm, is designed to capture the hearer’s ear, and though the ear, the imagination. It is what the poet T.S. Eliot, in talking about the King James Bible, calls the Bible’s evocation of the “auditory imagination,” the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word;…”
The celebrated American journalist Dorothy Thompson was aware of this as a child:
“Every morning before breakfast we assembled in the sitting room and my father read a passage from the King James Bible, followed by a prayer….Somewhere, as my father read, I became excitedly aware of something more than the story: of the beauty and glory of the words; of the images they can evoke and the thoughts they can enkindle.”
Every American president in the early days of the Republic had his feeling for words shaped by the King James Bible, perhaps none so much as Abraham Lincoln:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” used by Lincoln in his acceptance speech for the candidacy for the Senate, was taken directly from Mark 3, verse 25. There is no better illustration of Lincoln’s indebtedness to the King James Bible than his Gettysburg Address. The address is overwhelmingly biblical, with 269 of its 272 words appearing in some form in the Bible:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty…”
The formula threescore and fourscore occurs dozens of times in the KJV, with Psalm 90:10 coming closest to Lincoln’s opening phrase: “The days of our years are threescore and ten. Also, Lincoln’s use of “conceived” and “brought forth” comes from Old Testament prophets and the nativity story in the Gospels.
‘I Have a Dream’
The most famous referencing of the King James Bible by an orator in modern times is found in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
The King James Bible lives on in this speech, partly in the elevated style and affective undertow of the speech and partly in explicit allusions. Amos 5:24 is present as King declaims, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Isiaih 40: 4—5 asserts its presence when King said: “I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Of course, the King James Bible has also been a major influence in American writers, from Melville to Faulkner to Hemingway to Toni Morrison to many others.
Eudory Welty: “How many of us, the South’s writers-to-be of my generation, were blessed…in not having gone deprived of the King James Version of the Bible. Its cadence entered into our ears and our memories for good. The evidence lingers in all our books.”
Like other major novelists, Toni Morrison has taken some of her novel titles from the Bible: such as Song of Solomon. Her fictional characters often bear biblical names---Magdalene, Ruth, Pilate, and Hagar in Song of Solomon, for example.
“The Bible wasn’t part of my reading,” says Morrison, “it was part of my life.”
Our Common Speech
The King James Bible not only influenced writers and speech makers; it also has entered our common speech through a number of expressions. Biblical phrases have entered the language so seamlessly that many people don’t even realize from whence they come, yet they use them nearly every day. The list is practically endless. In fact, Bartlett’s Bible Quotations---a separate volume of currently used phrases, all taken from the King James Bible---is over 200 pages long.
Here’s just a sample:
drop in a bucket;
skin of one’s teeth;
apple of one’s eye;
feet of clay;
pearls before swine;
fly in the ointment;
fight the good fight;
eat, drink, and be merry;
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The Land of the living (Job 28:13)
At their wits end (ps. 107: 27)
There is no new thing under the sun (Eccles. 1:9)
The salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13)
The signs of the times (Matt. 13:57)
In the twinkling of an eye (1Cor. 15:52)
The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
Fire and brimstone (Ps 11:6)
A law unto themselves (Rom. 2:14)
Labor of love (1 Thess. 1:3)
As a lamb to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7)
Fell flat on his face (Num. 22:31)
Why has this book been so singularly successful and monumentally influential? How did a committee of 54 scholars at the beginning of the 17th century produce such a lasting masterpiece? Without a doubt, divine inspiration played a role:
“The translation was extraordinarily well done,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, himself an atheist, “because to the translators what they were translating was not merely a curious collection of ancient books written by different authors in different stages of culture, but the word of God divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes. In this conviction they carried out their work with boundless reverence and care and achieved a beautifully artistic result…they made a translation so magnificent that to this day the common [person] accepts and worships it as a single book by a single author, the book being the Book of Books and the author being God.”
As a postscript, here are some KJV facts:
· An estimated 1 billion or more copies have been published since 1611.
· It contains 788,258 total words, of which 14,565 are unique
· The original book was very large: approximately 17 inches tall, 30 inches wide when opened, and it weighed around 30 pounds
· The first 1611 Bibles were expensive and were chained to the front pulpit of churches, to prevent them from being stolen.
· 169 original 1611 King James Bibles are in existence today
The Making of the King James Bible
by Charles Piddock
Slightly over 400 years ago, on May 2, 1611, a new translation of the Bible came off the press in England. Those opening its covers first came upon, not the book of Genesis and the creation of the world, but a fulsome dedication to King James penned by Miles Smith, Bishop of Gloucester. The dedication was addressed: “To the most high and mighty prince JAMES by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. The Translators of the Bible wish Grace, Mercy, and Peace through JESUS CHRIST our Lord.”
The newly translated Bible was “the authorized” version, meaning it was authorized to be used in churches by King James, but it wasn’t long before it acquired the name it has today: the “King James Bible.”
James, in fact, had a lot to do with the Bible that now bears his name. He ascended the throne of Scotland as James VI during a time when religious passions were high. In Scotland, he was constantly badgered by quarreling Presbyterians who did not believe in the divine right of kings or the concept of bishops, which they felt was a vile Catholic practice that had nothing to do with true worship.
When Elizabeth I died, James, who was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the closest living relative of Elizabeth, was elevated to the throne of England as James I. He could not have been more delighted. England, of course, was a much richer country than Scotland. Its climate was a great deal better, and it was a great European power. But England, as Scotland, suffered from religious quarrels and divisions. The country was safely Protestant, due to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the Protestants continually argued and fought amongst themselves. Calvinists and Puritans, in particular, felt that the English established church retained too many Catholic elements and wanted it purified.
This religious difference also included the English bibles churches used. The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568 by leaders in the Church of England by the authority of Queen Elizabeth, was the official Bible used in churches. The Geneva Bible, produced in 1560 by exiled Protestant leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, had been adopted and embraced as the bible of the Puritans and others who followed Calvinism.
The Conference at Hampton Court
James felt that he was appointed by God to bring agreement and harmony to these Protestant factions. Accordingly, in January 1604, the king convened a conference of church leaders at Hampton Court palace to look for ways to calm religious differences. (The conference was originally scheduled to take place in 1603, but an outbreak of bubonic plague in London caused Church leaders to flee into the safety of the countryside.)
At the Hampton Court conference, John Reynolds, the head of the English Puritan Church, proposed a new English translation of the scriptures. Reynolds said that such a translation would go a long way toward uniting the churches and people of England. James received Reynolds’ proposal with alacrity and the king ordered English church leaders to begin work on the new Bible translation.
The first step was to pick the men who would translate the new Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Later that year, James approved a list of 54 prospective “revisers,” from which 47 Translators (capitalized) were selected. They were divided into six committees, called “companies” working separately at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Each of the committees was to take a different part of the bible to translate.
A Distinguished Group
The Translators were a distinguished group. They included such men as Lancelot Andrewes (1555—1626), dean of Westminster, later Bishop of Winchester, and a scholar of some 15 ancient and modern languages. It was said of Andrewes that he could have been “interpreter general” at the Tower of Babel; John Overall (1561—1619), dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and former regius professor of divinity at Cambridge; Miles Smith (1554—1624), expert in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and eventual author of the Bible’s preface. Dr. Smith was a man so impatient that he had famously walked out of boring sermon and went off to a pub; the Puritan leader John Reynolds (1549—1607) mentioned above, who was president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a number of scholars too long to mention here. The chief overseer of the project was Richard Bancroft (1544—1610), Archbishop of Canterbury.
King James, in his instructions to the Translators said he did not want creativity or invention in the translation. What he cared about was clarity, simplicity and (very important!) doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard at these instructions; yet they also spent a lot of time adjusting and tweaking each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph in the text in the interest of euphony and musicality. After all, this was an age when the Bible was to be read aloud. This was also the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the golden age of the English language. Time and time again the words the Translators put into the new Bible almost unconsciously fell into poetic rhythm. The Translators also made use of repetition and even dramatic pauses. Notice how the commas require pauses and help create the rhythm: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the Earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Greatest Monument of English Prose
It took seven years of translating, arguing, debating and fine-tuning until the bible was printed in 1611. What emerged (after most of the typos of the first printing were corrected) is now recognized by some as perhaps the greatest monument of English prose and poetry. According to British writer Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible “is not the poetry of a single mind, nor the effusion of a singular vision, nor even the product of a single moment, but the child of an entire culture stretching back to the great Jewish poets and storytellers of the Near Eastern Bronze Age.” The Bible has “a sense of an entirely embraced and reimagined past.”
“[The] translation was driven by the idea of a constant present, the feeling that the riches, beauties, failings and sufferings of Jacobean England were part of the same world as the one in which Job, David or the Evangelists walked. The KJ translators could write their English words as if the passage of 1,600 or 3,000 years made no difference. Their subject was neither ancient nor modern, but both or either. It was the universal text.”
The Anniversary Year
In the 400 years since its first printing, the King James Bible has consciously and unconsciously influenced just about every American writer from Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln to William Faulkner to Toni Morrison. Its phrases have entered into the common tongue to stay. In this anniversary year, hundreds of events are scheduled in Britain, the United States and other English-speaking countries this year to celebrate the King James Bible. They include lectures, reading marathons, symposia, concerts, conferences and television documentaries. Here in America, celebrations are scheduled in Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana. A conference at Ohio State University will explore the influence of the KJB on writers such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Yesterday I sat mesmerized with the student body and faculty of Kents Hill School as actress Susan Stein brought the complex Etty Hillesum to life. “Etty’s” writings, diaries and letters to family and friends, are receiving increasing public attention. This very real young women records her inner struggles and daily challenges navigating the Nazi occupation of Holland. She is no stereotypical saint. Depressed, sexually prolific, guilt-ridden by her work for the Jewish Council, work that allows her to keep her own German/Russian Jewish family off the deportation lists, Etty manages, with great effort, to hold wide open her perspective on the tumble of humanity around her.
As I walked back to the office, the character in Etty’s reflection I found myself mulling was a young boy, nameless, who hid when it was his time to be put on the transport train. When one refused, or didn’t show up, many were added, an incentive for the Jewish community to cooperate with the process. Virtual fingers wag at this very young man, failing to go along with smooth and certain march toward annihilation. Who is he to speed the death of so many of his neighbors? What Etty glaringly and intentionally does not say is, of course, the point. What power does he have? What power do they have? Who’s really responsible for this horrible assembly line deconstructing a people?
Inescapably, my contemplative context is the death of Osama Bin Laden, another engine of death and destruction, now taken down with members of his own household who he put at risk. I wonder where and when he made the critical choices that turned such obvious talent and ability into tools of hate, instead of the good he could have done.
And wrapped around my whole thought process is the Easter season we are in. Could anyone really expect that young Dutch Jew from the 1940s to go as grace-fully to his death? Should we expect him to do what Jesus did or can we grow in our knowing that Jesus’ death puts God in a new relationship with him, and all those others throughout history who were not themselves God, just human beings caught in horrible situations. One of my favorite resurrection images is of all the human beings that ever lived being caught up in the act of God’s life-remaking leap from the grave. Ripped into redemption, it would be hard to resist the flow of the Spirit, to not be overcome by God’s desire to sweep us along in love’s flow. Hard, but not impossible as long as we are the freely created imago dei, not manufactured clay pots.
There’s been a hubbub in Christian circles recently about the notion that God might love everyone too much to ultimately constrain any to hell’s eternity. Personally, I’m glad the scripture tells us to leave those things up to God. What I do know is that the wounds we carry into God’s presence are healed there. Not as though they had never happened, but as though it matters that they did. Healing can be a painful process. Healing requires the willing cooperation of the damaged person with the healer. May we be open to God’s grace and power so that, in our lives, they move the world toward healing.