Monday, May 16, 2011
The Book that Changed the World
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