Sunday, July 10, 2011

'The KJV at 400'

Yesterday, the American Bible Society in New York City hosted "On Eagles' Wings," a symposium commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Four academic lecturers spoke at length on different aspects of the subject, from the political machinations that helped inspire the King James Version of the Holy Bible to contemporary efforts in the Caribbean to standardize Christian worship. After the lectures, producer-director Norman Stone screened his new film KJB: The Book That Changed the World. The daylong celebration complements the exhibition that opened Friday at the Museum of Biblical Art titled "On Eagles' Wings: The King James Bible Turns Four Hundred," which runs through September 18. The two institutions are located at 1865 Broadway (at 61st Street).

It actually requires at least one day of lectures, Q&A, film, and display of Bibles to broach the topic of the KJV and its global significance. What began as one item on a lengthy list of grievances submitted to King James I of England by a council of Puritan elders seeking religious liberty culminated in the production of a sacred text on which diverse religious and political factions could agree. Fifty scholars -- linguists, theologians, classicists, and more -- collectively dubbed God's Secretaries, labored for seven years to produce a Bible for not only England, but for the Americas also.

Dr. David Norton
David Norton is Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His first book, A History of the Bible as Literature, won the Conference on Christian Literature Book of the Year Award in 1994. He edited the text of the King James Bible for Cambridge University Press. Dr. Norton is a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and of the New Zealand Academy of the Humanities. His latest book is The King James Bible: a Short History from Tyndale to Today published by Cambridge University Press.

Being first to speak, he had the biggest job of explaining history, theology, publishing, and related contexts, beginning with the evolution of Christian holy texts in the centuries previous to the coronation of Scotland's King James VI as England's King James I. Parts of the story are deceptively simple. For instance, 83 percent of the KJV text is the language of William Tyndale's Bibles of the 1520s and '30s. Tyndale (1494?-1536) was an early translator of Bibles for English readers, which made him a man wanted by authorities of both church and state. To avoid arrest, he fled to Europe where the publishing took place, however a reprinting of his revised New Testament was run in 1535 under the patronage of Anne Boleyn, and is the first volume of Holy Scripture printing in England. A skilled translator of Greek with a gift for language, Tyndale produced reliable texts that established a standard for Reformation thinking. He was arrested by Catholic authorities in Antwerp in 1535, and was tried, executed, and burned.

The major Bibles used in England that followed in Tynedale's path include the Coverdale and Matthew versions of the 1530s and, more significantly to this story, the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishops' Bible (1568) -- both Reformation favorites -- and the Rheims New Testament (1582), a standard text in Roman Catholic churches. It was the Bishops' Bible's 1602 edition that was the Church of England's standard text at the time James commissioned a new version; Norton used Powerpoint to illustrate some telling differences between the two.

Frontispiece of the 1602 edition of the Bishops' Bible.

The frontispiece of the 1602 edition of the Bishops' Bible is a busy piece of printing. To decode some of it: At top, the Tetragrammaton. Left side, representations of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Right, the Twelve Apostles. Beneath the text, a lamb, slaughtered and seemingly ready for the spit. The Four Evangelists are at the corners outside the text area.

Frontispiece of the first edition of the King James Bible, 1611.

The frontispiece of the first edition of the King James Bible retains some of the same imagery. The Tetragrammaton (cut off in this photo) is at top. The Apostles underneath, with the Agnus Dei. The Evangelists remain at the cardinal corners of the text box. What's new is Moses and Aaron flanking the text, and in the text itself is the conspicuous credit: "by His Majesty's special commandment," a controversial hint at giving James almost godly authority, a phraseology that would be abandoned in 1629.

The title pages of the 1602 Bishops' Bible and the first King James Bible.

A comparison of the two title pages reveals a few differences, like the promise of a new text based on translations of the original tongues, which isn't exactly the case. Hebrew and Aramaic, of course would be the original languages for the books of the Hebrew Bible on which the Old Testament is based; and Greek would have been the mother tongue from which to translate original New Testament books. As stated above, based on what several of the lecturers said yesterday, 83 percent of the KJV comes from Tynedale's Bible. So what are the differences?

Let me start with language. Four hundred years on, we reflect on the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras as the birth of modern English and the golden age of English prose and poetry. Shakespeare, Milton, and their remembered contemporaries are, to most, the fathers of our language. At their time however, things were different. The people of the English-speaking world c. 1600 would have laughed at the notion that their mother tongue could in any way comprise an art form. The term "English literature" would have been considered an oxymoron, Norton said, and the KJV revolutionized nothing on its advent in 1611; it would be decades later, years even after the death of its patron the king, when the KJV began to be accepted widely (the Geneva, for one, was an enduring favorite), and it wouldn't be until the 18th century that it became THE Bible of the English-speaking Christian world. This Bible, Norton added, holds a unique status. There were other Bibles, but the KJV from 1660 on was the Scriptural text that served as a book of both truth and language, and over the next century and a half, when people eventually caught up to it in the mid 18th century, it became the English-speaking Protestants' word of God. This must be appreciated for the feat that it is, considering that dialects were many and varied in England itself, never mind the diversity found in the Americas and elsewhere.

There were folio-size editions for the clergy's use in church, and there were quartos for sale to individuals and families for use at home, but that's largely just commerce. To be clear, the King James Bible was crafted specifically for being read aloud in church.

The Gospel of John, Chapter 1, 1-5:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

It is one of the most famous verses in English letters, theology notwithstanding.

Words, phrases, and understanding are the crux of translation, and when revising a text already in the same language, the decision to not change something is equally potent as the act of changing a word, phrase, or understanding.

William Tyndale's New Testament c. 1530, Gospel of John, Chapter 1, 1-5:

"That which was from the beginning declare we unto you, which we have heard which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life. For the life appeared, and we have seen, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the father, and appeared unto us. That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you that ye may have fellowship with us, and that our fellowship may be with the father, and his son Jesus Christ. And this write we unto you, that our joy may be full. And this is the tidings which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

The Bishops' Bible of 1568, Gospel of John, Chapter 1, 1-5:

"In the begynnyng was the worde, & the worde was with God: and that worde was God. The same was in the begynnyng with God. All thynges were made by it: and without it, was made nothyng that was made. In it was lyfe, and the lyfe was the lyght of men, And the lyght shyneth in darkenesse: and the darknesse comprehended it not."

What also distinguishes the KJV from previous Bibles is the absence of marginal notes. These brief doctrinal notes next to the Scriptural verses existed to offer context and clarity, but to King James, some of them were intolerable. The Geneva Bible is the Bible of the Reformation, of the Puritans, and the Pilgrims; it was the first Bible brought to America and was the standard text for Christian worship in America until the KJV came to dominate. In the Geneva Bible's John 1 there were notes opining opposition to monarchial rule. To James, as editor-in-chief (he was highly knowledgeable in matters of theology and church) the doctrinal notes generally were undesirable, but those introducing ideas of disobedience to kings especially had to go.

But philosophically, the justification of a new Bible for the Church of England -- James never did succeed at introducing a revised Scripture for his native Church of Scotland -- was stated in the colorful prose of the preface. (The American Bible Society published in 1997 a book containing this introductory message in three formats: 1) a facsimile of the original 1611 pages, 2) the original wording, but in an orthography to accommodate modern American readers, and 3) an entirely modern format, with all Greek and Latin quotations, and all archaic English words and idioms rendered in modern standard English. This book, titled The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited is available through Amazon and other vendors.) Excerpted: "Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against, that hath been our endeavour, that our mark. To that purpose there were many chosen that were greater in other men's eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise."

Dr. Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity and the historical Jesus. He is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, in Chicago. Dr. McKnight has given radio interviews across the country, has appeared on television and regularly speaks at local churches, conferences, colleges and seminaries in the United States and abroad. Dr. McKnight earned his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham.

McKnight complemented Norton's talk by sharing additional information on the KJV's place in England, explaining there were two main rival texts, the Catholic version of the Holy Bible and the Protestants' Geneva Bible. The latter was very popular, thanks to its quarto size, Roman font, and accessible notes. The Catholic Church's Bible, called the Rheims New Testament, was the first English language Catholic Bible. First published in 1582 in France, it is interesting how the Church did not complete and authorize its own version of the Old Testament until 1610. Both Testaments are based on Jerome's Vulgate, the Latin translation from the fourth century, making them inaccurate and scorned by non-Catholics. At stake was more than who had the best translations of the Hebrew and Greek source materials; the King James Bible was to satisfy both Anglican and Puritan alike, and carry on the Protestant tradition at a time when Roman Catholicism vied for both ecclesiastical supremacy and control of the state.

There were times where choice of specific words had significant implications: church versus congregation; priest versus minister; and baptize versus wash, to cite three examples. The accord of Greek original text with desired context made for the winning formula, and so in devising a New Testament in the best obtainable language based on the original Greek, James I was said to have freed five from prison: the Four Evangelists and Paul the Apostle. In the latter's case, Romans Chapter 5 was cited as an illustrative instance of bearing toward the Greek by replacing "sin" with "offense."

Dr. Euan Cameron
Euan Cameron attended Eton and Oxford Universities, where he graduated with a BA in History and received a D.Phil. He taught History at the University of Newcastle upon Tynein, became the first Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History, at Union Theological Seminary in New York; and held a concurrent appointment in the Department of Religion in Columbia University. From 2004 to 2010, he also served as Academic Vice-President in the seminary.

Dr. Cameron added more context to the story, explaining, among other things, that the King James Version was the right Bible for the right time. Reformation's "heroic confrontational phase" was embodied by William Tynedale early in the previous century, but by the time James had commissioned his Bible, it was time for "a more measured quality" to the voice of the Church of England. It was time for Anglican ascendancy.

However the success of the KJV is not due to its establishment within the Church of England alone. It is because it is the embodiment of the Reform-minded Christian message that all the faithful can embrace.

Mr. Norman Stone, director and producer of KJB: The Book That Changed the World.

After the lectures, it was time for the film premiere and discussion with the director of KJB: The Book that Changed the World. Produced and directed by Norman Stone, this 90-minute film documents the creation and significance of the King James Bible. Created for the translation's 400th anniversary, it features acclaimed British actor John Rhys-Davies as chief storyteller and guide.

Stone was youngest television producer/director at the BBC. He wrote and produced the highly acclaimed A Different Drummer about the blind and deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo in 1980. Four years later, his career was established with the international success of Shadowlands, a drama on the love and grief of C.S. Lewis.

The movie tells of the turbulent politics (e.g. the Fawkes plot) of the Jacobean era and the intrigues in both state and church that were behind the creation of this holy text that changed the world.

As always, any errors or omissions in the reporting here are mine, and not the speakers'.