This article represents the views of its author, E.G., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.

Manifold Greatness
Bodleian Libraries’ Summer Exhibition 2011
Bodleian Library Exhibition Room, Oxford
22 April - 4 September 2011

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible has brought the predictable surge of celebration, much of it deeply unhistorical. This particular translation has been acclaimed in wildly uncritical terms—and its specific origins in 1611 have been glossed over. One point that is clearly demonstrated by the Bodleian’s superb summer exhibition, however, is that this attitude to the ‘K.J.B.’ took a long time to emerge: in its own period this was one Bible translation among many, and it did not achieve a notable early success. It is certainly true that the Bible in English played a pivotal part in the buildup to the bourgeois revolution of the 1640s—comparable perhaps to that of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Émile in the decades before the great French revolution, or of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? ahead of October 1917. It does not contain the revolutionaries’ programme; but it did much to shape and populate their mental world. As a rule, however, it was not the King James Bible that the Puritans studied. The Reformation of the sixteenth century, together with the growth of printing, had already yielded a crop of contending Bible translations. There existed the Great Bible and the Wycliffite Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, circulating in various editions and favoured by various schools of thought. The learned could consult, in addition, the Latin Vulgate, the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint (Hebrew Bible translated into Greek), and even the Hebrew; but any literate person could compare several English translations. Against this pluralist background, the attempt to produce a unitary English Bible under royal auspices represented a bid to fix down a single reading—perhaps ultimately a single interpretation—of the Biblical text. The translators’ prefatory dedication to King James deliberately locates their work in a political context. Before James ascended the English throne, they write, ‘it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our Sion, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness would so have overshadowed this Land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk; and that it should hardly be known, who was to direct the unsettled State’. But now King James has foiled these ill-wishers’ hopes; reassuringly, everyone does now know who is to direct the state; yet the new Bible and its translators will still be ‘maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil’. An increasingly Absolutist political régime could not easily tolerate people hammering out their own understanding on their own anvils. In the short run, however, the attempt to establish a single official Bible met with stiff resistance. The official text, endorsed by the Established Church and laid at the feet of a Stuart monarch, did not endear itself to religious and political radicals; and it is still the Geneva Bible, not the King James, that echoes through the pamphlet literature of the 1650s and through Milton’s later poetry.

The situation began to change after the Restoration of 1660, when the revolutionary republic collapsed and the latest Stuart heir was brought back as King Charles II. The revolution had cured the bourgeoisie of its heroic, Bible-reading radicalism; this was the age, in Marx’s dry phrase, when Locke took the place of Habbakuk. But the King James Bible, increasingly now the only English Bible available, was finding a new readership. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, deeply rooted in the ‘authorized’ version, was just one of the channels by which the language and cadences of the King James Bible were transmitted into the sphere of Non-conformity and Dissent, the democratic petty-bourgeois opposition in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religion. The Bible of 1611 could be heard not just from the pulpits of the Church of England, but also in the thousands of Dissenting chapels that grew up outside it; and Wesleyan Methodism produced a spectacular flowering of hymns, often based closely on the wording of the King James Bible. Hymns, mass devotional literature, and the habit of regular private Bible study—always more keenly promoted by the Chapel than by the Church—all combined to embed this particular translation in the texture of popular speech and thought. Whatever the intentions of its royal sponsor, the King James Bible became a focus of ideological struggle, alive with the clashing interpretations and experiences read into its words by the Anglican Establishment and by the Dissenting opposition; and this class struggle over the K.J.B. only faded as the terms of ideological debate gradually shifted onto other, non-Biblical ground. Even in the twentieth century, the working-class poet Idris Davies could assume an instinctive, gut familiarity with the King James text (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’) on the part of his readers:

    O timbers from Norway and muscles from Wales,
    Be ready for another shift and believe in co-operation,
    Though pit-wheels are frowning at old misfortunes
    And girders remember disasters of old;
    O what is man that coal should be so careless of him,
    And what is coal that so much blood should be upon it?

One result of the King James Bible’s ingrained familiarity has been a persistent tendency—not least in this anniversary year—to hold it up as a uniquely perfect model of English prose style. The translators, presumably, would have regarded such praise as insulting and irrelevant: their aim, which they largely shared with their sixteenth-century predecessors, was to produce not an elegant paraphrase but a strictly literal account of the original. (One does not translate the inspired Word of God in the same way as one translates secular belles lettres.) In defiance of the FitzGeraldian cliché, these translators consistently prefer a stuffed eagle to a live sparrow: their rendering is full of Hebrew idioms transferred bodily into English, and generations have been baffled to read that Saul went into a cave ‘to cover his feet’ (where modern versions have ‘to relieve himself’). But, while the English yields everything to the original’s literal sense, it concedes nothing at all to the specific literary character of each original document. Prose and verse, sagas and censuses, the toned Hebrew of the pre-Exilic prophets and the scrappy, ungrammatical Greek of the Book of Revelation: all the varieties of Biblical language are indifferently transmuted into the same verbose and energetic ‘K.J.B.’ style. At the absolute height of the English love lyric, poised in time between Philip Sidney and John Donne, the translators still somehow contrive to stretch the Song of Songs into a clattering, almost haunting unmusicality: ‘My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi’. But, as if in compensation, the most routine passages of the Torah come to life in the translators’ diffuse, glinting English: ‘Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth.

It would have been easy to do this exhibition badly—and still to include enough undoubted treasures from the Bodleian and other collections (the Old English Heptateuch, from the eleventh century! Handel’s conducting copy of the Messiah!) to make it unmissable. Helen Moore, the curator, has put on something much better and much more interesting than that. The balance is nicely struck between exhibits reflecting the general history of the Bible in English, from the tenth century to the eighteenth, and items related specifically to the work of the K.J.B. translators. In the latter category, visitors can inspect the translators’ notes and rough drafts, a copy of the Bishops’ Bible (on which they often relied) marked with their annotations and changes, and reference materials ranging from the predictable (Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar) to the possibly unexpected (a work on entomology, to help them track down translations for the various insects mentioned in the Bible). But the insight that is thus granted into the translators’ scholarship and working methods is complemented, throughout the exhibition, by evidence of the intense conflicts that surrounded Bible translation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Anyone interested in how class struggles play themselves out in ideology will find this a rewarding and illuminating exhibition.

The Bodleian Library Exhibition Room is in Old Schools Quadrangle (near the entrance from Radcliffe Square). The exhibition is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm on Monday to Friday, from 9:00am to 4:30pm on Saturday, and from 11:00am to 5:00pm on Sunday. Admission is free. Further details are available from and from

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