Happy 400th, King James Bible! (and why you should care as a writer)

We owe it so much that it's easier to just take it for granted, but this year, the King James Version of the Bible turns 400. That's four centuries of borrowed expressions and turns of phrase. Four centuries of influence imposed on our language by the books of Genesis, Revelation, and everything in between.

Nowadays, it might seem that we're too enlightened, too comfortably embedded in our own secular humanism to need the Bible anymore. Sure, we can turn to it for a good story from time to time, but does it really deserve much more attention than that? If you've ever written the phrase, "from time to time" (Ezekiel 4:10), then it does. That quote comes as a direct courtesy of good old King James. If you've ever claimed to be "broken-hearted" (Luke 4:18) then you've quoted from the Good Book. In fact, there's a good chance you use biblical expressions every day. During an argument, you've probably asked someone not to "put words in your mouth" (Exodus 4:15) — or you've told them not to act so "holier than thou" (Isaiah 65:5) — or you've felt like a "scapegoat" (Leviticus 16:10)— or your words turned out to be a "two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12) — or, "woe is you" (1 Corinthians 9:16), you saw a precious relationship crumble "in the twinkling of an eye" (1 Corinthians 15:52). Or whatever. The English language is more than a repository for Biblical phrases, but the sheer scope of the Bible's influence is incredible. The expressions it spawned have seen their religious overtones erode. Now they are part of what we live and speak. They're secular things.

One word that recurs throughout accounts of how the King James Version came to be is "risk". Four hundred years ago, this translation was a dangerous thing to even conceive of, let alone undertake. When William Tyndale (born in 1494) began, in secrecy, to translate the Bible into English, he was taking a risk that ended up costing him his life. Tyndale wanted to get away from the Latin, from Rome, from the shackles of the Vatican. Back then the Church oversaw most of society. It was not in the Vatican's interests to let the stupid masses have direct access to the holy texts on which the system had been founded.

So they had Tyndale murdered. He was burned at the stake decades before King James, an unusually learned man and scholar, made the, uh, fucking tricky political move of commissioning an English-language version of the Bible. This would serve him well: on the one hand, his name would be forever associated with the first authoritative English-language translation of the most important book in the world, so that all the other partial (and perhaps heretical) translations would lose their use. On the other hand, to have "one doctrine and one discipline, one religion in substance and in ceremony" would help him to consolidate his power. There were many objections. He ignored them.

The work that William Tyndale had started but never finished (we now call it the Tyndale Bible) served as the most important reference point for the newly appointed translators: over fifty of them, brilliant men who came up with a proto-democratic arrangement for how things were to be done. Some of them would focus on the Old Testament, others on the New. Particular parts were scrutinized and argued over for lengths of time we might today consider a tad excessive. Overseeing all of this work was King James himself.

While some problems arose (one early edition of this Bible omitted the "not" from "Thou shalt not commit adultery," leading, no doubt, to many sexy misunderstandings) and some of the language was purposefully archaic, even by the standards of the time, the result of this enterprise was a masterpiece of the highest literary merit. A book with lines so memorable that they quickly slipped into the way people expressed themselves when the Bible was closed and they were off living their lives. The King James Bible was, in a great number of ways, the starting point for Really Highbrow English Literature. Authors from William Blake, the Brontes, Coleridge, and Defoe on through Herman Melville and William Faulkner (and more recently Cormac McCarthy) have all grappled with the legacy that the KJV left behind.

And this year marks the 400th anniversary of this enormous book. You don't need to believe in God (I don't) to believe that the book was a miracle (I do). If you haven't cracked open the Bible in a while, or ever, then give it a try and see. Read the Gospel of John and drink a beer.

Praise be to Tyndale, King James and the English language.

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.'s picture
. November 29, 2011 - 9:46am

Awesome article Phil.

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. November 29, 2011 - 10:33am

The Bible is a masterpiece. The Bible is one of the greatest works produced in the world. The people who only have the Bible actually are set up for life. Not only do they have a spiritual vision given to them, but artistic fulfillment. They don't even recognize just the pleasure of dealing with this epic poetry and drama. Everything is in the Bible. - Camille Paglia, athiest.

Nicely said Phil. Sometimes it is nice to be reminded of the ingredients of the literary soup we swim in here in the Western world.

I recently listened to a free bible study podcast (http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/understanding-scriptures/id188387749) and although I am a theist so I was listening for its religious content I ended up realizing it held quite a lot of great information for writers (godless or not)  about historical writing, typology, forshadowing, literary genres, and writing to your audience. It made me wonder if anyone has approached a bible study from the viewpoint of what it has to teach writers and storytellers. I haven't investigated that question yet so if anyone knows of any such studies I'd love to hear about them.

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle November 29, 2011 - 10:56am

This is a great article.  Thanks!

There are two really good books by Jack Miles that deal with the Bible as literature, taking God as the central character.  God: A Biography (which won the Pulitzer), and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  I'd highly recommend both to understand some of the literary complexity of the Bible.  It's really a phenomenal compendium!

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 29, 2011 - 11:21am

So we've got the Bible and Battlefield Earth. Any other great works of fiction that have inspired a major religion?

Kasey's picture
Kasey from the morally and physically challenging plains of Texas is reading 12pt. Courier font November 29, 2011 - 11:48am

It was not in the Vatican's interests to let the stupid masses have direct access to the holy texts on which the system had been founded.

Well, more like it was not in their interest to allow the masses to know the truth (that old song and dance) about the false doctrines upon which their power and influence was fabricated and enforced.

In Tyndale’s time, England was a Catholic country, and at the age of 21 Tyndale was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, a student who excelled in Greek and Roman. But he wanted the common man to have access to the Bible than they were getting, so in 1523 Tyndale travelled to London to seek “permission” form the reigning bishop, one Cuthbert Tunstall.  Keep in mind, during this period of time a movement known as the Lollards, were dying in significant numbers for distributing Wycliffe’s translation of the bible, they being deemed “heretics’ by the Church.

After a letter of introduction and a letter granting a formal interview were both snubbed by Tunstall, Tyndale took matters into his own hand.  Whoops. 

A high-ranking clergyman who was involved in this issue said: “We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s.”  So Tyndale had his answer, The Pope is bigger than God, so stick to his words versus His words.

Fleeing to Germany where cooler reformer heads prevailed to the tune of Martin Luther, Tyndale then had to smuggled his printed, English Bible back across the channel, hiding them in bales of hay and seeking sympathetic merchants who would take the risk (death) of transporting these truly dangerous goods.

Why were the clergy so bitterly opposed to Tyndale’s translation? Whereas the Latin Vulgate tended to veil the sacred text, Tyndale’s rendering from the original Greek for the first time conveyed the Bible’s message in clear language to the English people. For example, Tyndale chose to translate the Greek word a•ga′pe as “love” instead of “charity” in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. He insisted on “congregation” rather than “church” to emphasize worshipers, not church buildings. The last straw for the clergy, however, came when Tyndale replaced “priest” with “elder” and used “repent” rather than “do penance,” thereby stripping the clergy of their assumed priestly powers. David Daniell says in this regard: “Purgatory is not there; there is no aural confession and penance. Two supports of the Church’s wealth and power collapsed.” (William Tyndale—A Biography) That was the challenge Tyndale’s translation presented, and modern scholarship fully endorses the accuracy of his choice of words.

King James fun fact:

The "authorized" edition that bears his name did not originate from between his own ears, rather he was petitioned by the Puritans of his day for a new translation. John Reynolds, Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, moved that there might be a new translation of the Bible. Why? “Those which were allowed in the raignes of Henrie the eight and Edward the sixt,” he said, “were corrupt and not aunswerable to the truth of the Originall.”

KJ, just got the naming rights, like a football stadium, because he 1) had the funds, and 2) as a king could wave around terms like "authorized".

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading November 29, 2011 - 12:32pm

I like having you around, Kasey. And all of you. Thanks for the nice words everyone.
Kasey: Thanks for the extra details. The whole story is fascinating. I'd write more but I'm on a train and about to see a show.

NotMarilyn's picture
NotMarilyn from Twin Cities, MN is reading Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn November 29, 2011 - 2:11pm

Very nice article. I like that you brought to light that you don't have to be religious (I'm not) to appreciate the Bible (I do).