Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011

by gordon campbell
oxford, 256 pages, $24.95

Pen of Iron:
American Prose and the King James Bible

by robert alter
princeton, 208 pages, $19.95

When television viewers tune in this year, as they do every year, to see Linus explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about, they will hear him read Luke 2:8–14 from what is officially called the “Authorized Version” but is commonly known as the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” This use of an archaic translation first published in 1611 is not surprising; the KJV has for centuries been one of the most widely read and influential of biblical translations. It would, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, “alone suffice to show the whole extent of [the English language’s] beauty and power.”

On the eve of its four-hundredth anniversary, Gordon Campbell, a professor of English Renaissance literature at Leicester University, gives us an “affectionate biography” of the KJV. Bible: The Story of the King James Version provides a brief but thorough history of how the KJV came to be, how it changed, and how it came to occupy a preeminent place in the hearts of English-speaking Christians.

The KJV was not, in fact, a new translation of the Bible but, as the translators explain in the preface, an attempt to “make a good one better.” Campbell begins, therefore, with a narrative of the Bible in English, the brevity of which is reminiscent of the genealogical lists of Genesis. In the days following Erasmus’ new Latin translation of the New Testament, William Tyndale set out to “defy the pope and all his laws” and published an English translation. And the Tyndale Bible begat Miles Coverdale’s Bible, the Psalms of which became the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer. And Coverdale and Tyndale begat John Roger’s Bible, called the Matthew’s Bible. And the Matthew’s Bible begat the Great Bible. And the Great Bible begat the Bishops’ Bible. And the Bishops’ Bible begat the King James Version.

James I commissioned the revision of the Bishops’ Bible that would be the KJV as a concession to his Puritan subjects, who were bridling at some of the Church of England’s more “popish” tendencies. A translation authorized by the monarch was also an opportunity to reinforce the idea of a national church. It was a goal further emphasized in the dedication to King James as “principal mover and author” of the translation—not unlike God, as Campbell observes, the “‘first mover’ and the ‘author of all things.’”

The KJV project was undertaken by six groups of scholars at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. It was, Campbell notes, the most ambitious collaborative translation of the Bible since the seventy elders gathered in Alexandria produced the Septuagint in the third century B.C. Campbell suggests that a collaborative project of a similar size might be unrepeatable today. As he observes, “The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators.” The translators of the Revised Standard Version might contest the point, but it’s perhaps better understood as Campbell’s effort to defend the KJV against those who would dismiss it as the work of the “benighted people of the seventeenth century.”

The history of the KJV includes often humorous printing errors. Initially, each letter on each page had to be set individually; it is no surprise, in such a lengthy volume, that “and” occasionally appeared as “aud.” But some errors were more egregious. In a 1612 edition Psalm 119:161 read, perhaps as a foreshadowing of future errors, “Printers [rather than princes] have persecuted me without cause.” A 1631 edition is known as the “Wicked Bible” because of its blasphemous errors: Exodus commands, “Thou shalt commit adultery,” and Deuteronomy 5:24 reads, “The Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great asse” rather than his “greatness.”

Despite these hiccups along the way, the King James Version was to become not only the most widely known but also the most beloved English translation of the Bible. Campbell offers several theories as to how this came to be. In the first place, the KJV was the Authorized Version. The title page informed readers that this Bible was “appointed to be read in churches.” While this did not mean that every church had to replace its Bishops’ Bible with a King James Bible, it did mean that, as churches needed to replace their Bibles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they replaced them with the KJV. It also helped that the most popular alternative to the KJV, the Geneva Bible, was suppressed in England; it went out of print in 1644.

The KJV was introduced to consolidate the already unifying consensus of the English Protestant church by providing a scriptural focal point. It largely succeeded. When dissenting groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists separated from the Church of England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they took the KJV with them. As a result, the KJV was, for a long time, the Bible read by nearly all English-speaking Protestants.

A more modern reason for the KJV’s popularity has been its aesthetic appeal. The “uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible . . . the convert hardly knows how he can forgo,” lamented Catholic convert Frederick William Faber in 1853. The appreciation of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the KJV’s aesthetic qualities is in many ways odd because the translators’ chief intention was not to produce beautiful prose but to render the original texts as accurately as possible. In fact Tyndale, whose translation heavily influenced the KJV, strove to make Scripture “speaketh after the most grossest manner.”

In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter takes up the ways in which the aesthetic qualities of the KJV were appreciated by and exerted an influence on the prose style of American novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than view this deference to the King James Version as a Romantic appreciation of simple, yeoman language to be embraced in spite of the Bible’s religious content, Alter suggests that these authors chose to contend with the language of the KJV in their own writing because of its “set of values” and particular way of “imagining man, God, and history.” To say “chose” is not quite right, however. As Alter points out, Americans from the time of the Pilgrims have been “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk.” If an author does not engage the language of the Bible, he fails to engage the fullness and depth of American life.

In his chapter on Melville and Moby-Dick, Alter shows how Melville uses a form of parallel sentence structures found in the Hebrew Bible and followed in the KJV. Melville writes:

Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard.

Melville does not use a biblical lexicon here, and he does not evoke clear biblical themes, but his sentence follows a classic biblical form: parataxis, the tumbling sequence of parallel clauses joined by a recurring “and.” Parataxis, Alter tells us, was a device foreign to English until employed in the KJV, which “generally, though not invariably, follows the pattern of the Hebrew.” Using parataxis in this passage allows Melville to contend with a biblical viewpoint: Even as the theological notion of the world under Divine Providence is evoked by the biblical form, that notion is called into question by the chaotic and wild scene that the form describes.

Melville follows another biblical pattern—one that intensifies, in the second half of a parallel structure, the themes presented in the first. In Moby-Dick Ishmael speaks of the treacherous sea as “worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned.” The sea’s crime of killing its floating guests is ratcheted up to filicide in the second half of the sentence.

Alter’s strength is his careful attention to nuance, a virtue he demonstrates as he goes on to consider Faulkner, Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy, among others. At times, though, Alter seems to be looking too hard for the KJV. For example, he suggests of the Gettysburg Address: “The very use of a language that is both plain and dignified, resonant in its very ordinariness, is in part inspired by the diction of the King James Version.” As C. S. Lewis pointed out, “At the regatta Madge avoided the river and the crowd” need not necessarily be drawing on the KJV just because it shares the same rhythm as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

But if some of the connections Alter draws seem tenuous, the book as a whole is a masterful argument for the importance of style in the novel”an obvious point, but one often neglected by literary scholars busily studying gender identity, race, or the “evils of late capitalism and globalization.” And Alter’s sensitivity to literary nuance does more than just remind us of the subtle textures of modern literature. It also encourages us to return to the King James Version for a more careful read.

Meghan Duke is an assistant editor at First Things.