Britain gears up to mark 400 years of the AuthorisedVersionOfTheBible come 2011.
LIKE the Tower of London and its attendant ravens, the Authorised Version Of The Bible stands as a monument at the heart of the English-speaking world. We may not often look inside, but we are glad it is there. Like the Tower too, Americans seem particularly keen on it, and we speak reverently of its ageless magnificence while remaining vague on the detail.
In the first decade of the 17th century, it took the new king James from Scotland to hammer out a bible that endured. “It is one of the first British things to be made,” points out the Glasgow-born Neil MacGregor, fresh from his A History Of The World In 100 Objects on BBC Radio 4. “It was made by the whole island to be used by the whole island.”
Now it is used by the whole globe, as though God really were an Englishman. If the last Harry Potter sold 44 million, the Bible has sold 2.5 billion some say, or six billion, say others.
For the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version ( AV), Britain is going Bible bananas. There is a continuous reading of the whole volume at Blackburn cathedral this weekend, learned symposia from Cambridge to Aberdeen, shed-loads of Handel, and a firmament of star lecturers, such as authors Adam Nicolson and Melvyn Bragg. And there are still chapters to be added to the YouTube Bible, a sort of “wiki” venture to post up the whole thing audio-visually.
The Duke of Edinburgh kicked off celebrations yesterday with a party in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, even though there are 162 days to go before the 400th anniversary of its publication, according to the website of the King James Bible Trust, the anniversary’s coordinator.
Note that it chooses King James Bible, the name by which it is known in the United States. In Britain, they call it the Authorised Version. Nor was May 2, 1611, really its birthday, for there were no publication dates in those days.
What we know is that two editions of the new translation were printed in that year – known as the He Bible and the She Bible (according to the pronoun in Ruth 3:15, reflecting uncertainty about whether it was Ruth or Boaz who went into the city). Both editions, of 1,464 unnumbered pages, were big, fat folios.
Appointed and authorised
These bibles were large because they were “appointed to be read in churches”, as the title page says. “Appointed” is not quite “authorised”, but, “that does not mean, of course, that it was unauthorised,” Gordon Campbell, the Renaissance historian, points out in Bible: The Story Of The King James Version (Oxford).
Until 1644, people could buy Bishops’ bibles (a translation from 1568) to read at home, but any new bibles in churches had to be the AV.
Idioms from the Bible
This year, the indefatigable linguist Professor David Crystal tried to work out how many idioms from the AV had entered into the English language, idioms domesticated by the language – such as “salt of the earth” or “two-edged sword”. Prof Crystal, following a strict methodology, came up with 257, which he examines in his entertaining book Begat (Oxford).
Those who actually read the Bible might find such crumbs unsatisfying. For the AV is the sacred text even on the wilder shores of Protestantism beyond the Church of England. The Authorised Version, declared 1,000 Bible churches in the US, “preserves the very words of God in the form in which he wishes them to be represented in the universal language of these last days: English.”
The Authorised Version of today is however not the text published in 1611. Hundreds of changes in vocabulary, grammar, spelling and punctuation were made for a century and a half.
Errors crept in (“Thou shalt commit adultery”; “Printers have persecuted me” instead of “princes”; “The unrighteous shalt inherit the kingdom”; “Let the children first be killed” instead of “filled”). And errors were chased out.
What is published now is the version revised by Benjamin Blayney, an Oxford man, in 1769, and quietly adopted by printers. Even the typeface is important, for in 1611 it was set in “black letter” Gothic type. Words not in the original Hebrew and Greek, but added by translators to elucidate the sense, were inserted in small Roman type, in italics. They looked suitably subsidiary in importance. Our use of italics today is to emphasise, so the modern editions, with the print in Roman and these added words in italics, give precisely the wrong impression.
Obscurities remain. What did the prophet Ezekiel mean when he said: “Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes?” But many a crux in Shakespeare is as hard. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010