The King James Bible is 400 years old this year, and the music of its sentences is still ringing out. But what exactly made it so good? Ann Wroe gives chapter and verse...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011
Like many Catholics, I came late to the King James Bible. I was schooled in the flat Knox version, and knew the beautiful, musical Latin Vulgate well before I was introduced to biblical beauty in my own tongue. I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.
The King James now breathes venerability. Even online it calls up crammed, black, indented fonts, thick rag paper and rubbed leather bindings—with, inside the heavy cover, spidery lists of family ancestors begotten long ago. To read it is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts: Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields, serving girls in Sunday best, and every schoolboy whose inky fingers have burrowed to 2 Kings 27, where Rabshakeh says, “Hath my master not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”
When it appeared, moreover, it was already familiar, in the sense that it borrowed freely from William Tyndale’s great translation of a century before. Deliberately, and with commendable modesty, the members of King James’s translation committees said they did not seek “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”. What exactly they borrowed and where they improved is a detective job for scholars, not for this piece. So where it mentions “translators” Tyndale is included among them, the original and probably the best; for this book still breathes him, as much as them.
In both his time and theirs this was a modern translation, the living language of streets, docks, workshops, fields. Ancient Israel and Jacobean England went easily together. The original writers of the books of the Old Testament knew about pruning trees, putting on armour, drawing water, the readying of horses for battle and the laying of stones for a wall; and in the King James all these activities are still evidently familiar, the jargon easy, and the language light. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward”, runs the wonderful phrase in Job 5: 7, and we are at a blacksmith’s door in an English village, watching hammer strike anvil, or kicking a rolling log on our own cottage hearth. “Hard as a piece of the nether millstone” brings the creak of a 17th-century mill, as well as the sweat of more ancient hands. In both worlds, “seedtime and harvest” are real seasons. This age-old continuity comforts us, even though we no longer know or share it.
By the same token, the reader of the King James lives vicariously in a world of solid certainties. There is nothing quaint here about a candle or a flagon, or money in a tied leather purse; nothing arcane about threads woven on a handloom, mire in the streets or the snuffle of swine outside the town gates. This is life. Everything is closely observed, tactile, and has weight. When Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves together to cover their shame they make “aprons” (Genesis 3: 7), leather-thick and workmanlike, the sort a cobbler might wear. Even the colours invoked in the King James—crimson, scarlet, purple—are nouns rather than adjectives (“though your sins be as scarlet”, Isaiah 1: 18), sold by the block as solid powder or heaped glossy on a brush. And God’s intervention in this world, whether as artist, builder, woodsman or demolition man, is as physical and real as the materials he works with.
English, of course, was richer in those days, full of neesings and axletrees, habergeons and gazingstocks, if indeed a gazingstock has a plural. Modern skin has spots: the King James gives us botches, collops and blains, horridly and lumpily different. It gives us curious clutter, too, a whole storehouse of tools and knick-knacks whose use is now half-forgotten—nuff-dishes, besoms, latchets and gins, and fashions seemingly more suited to a souped-up motor than to the daughters of Jerusalem:
The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers,
The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the
headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings,
The rings, and nose jewels,
The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the
wimples, and the crisping pins… (Isaiah 3: 19-22)
“Crisping pins” have now been swallowed up (in the Good News version) in “fine robes, gowns, cloaks and purses”. And so we have lost that sharp, momentary image of varnished nails pushing pins into unruly frizzes of hair, and lipsticked mouths pursed in concentration, as the daughters of Zion prepare to take on the town. These women are “froward”, a word that has been lost now, but which haunts the King James like a strutting shadow with a shrill, hectoring voice. Few lines are longer-drawn out, freighted with sighs, than these from Proverbs 27:15: “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”