A Miracle of Biblical Proportions: 400 years of The King James Bible

Published in The Cambridge Student

Curtains opened on the year 1611 with the soporific masque, Oberon, The Faery Prince and closed with the distressingly debauched drama, John Cooke’s The City Gallant – both now rightly forgotten – while the year’s bestseller was the legendary Coryat’s Crudities, a travelogue so hilariously bad the nation’s leading literarateurs, from John Donne to Ben Jonson, put together a poetic tract devoted to making a mockery of it. Not a good year for literature, then.

Were it not for one book. Published amid little public attention 400 years ago, the King James Version of the Bible has acquired the status of a global literary classic, both by sales, with over a billion copies sold, as well as critical acclaim, considered as it is “the noblest monument of English prose”.

Its cadences are everywhere, from the US Constitution to the lyrics of Paul Simon (just listen to The Boxer). Perhaps more than anywhere in the curious clichés and mixed metaphors of football pundits: how often have you heard, say, Alan Hansen bemoaning a team’s giving up the ghost (Mark 15:47), observing they won by the skin of their teeth (Job 19:20) and lambasting the management as the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)? The KJV’s influence is no less singular in pop-culture than in high culture. Radio 4 may well list it alongside the Shakespeare’s Complete Works on Desert Island Discs (no better arbiter of the literary canon than the BBC of course), but as salt-of-the-earth (yup, there’s another one: Matthew 5:13) a man of the people as Johnny Cash has released a spoken word album of KJV readings.

To what does the KJV owe its phenomenal legacy? To say it holds a prime position in the linguistic lineage of the world’s most widely-spoken tongue is as common a cliché as the hundreds it has bequeathed to us since publication. And there are hundreds. Few, for example, are aware that their casual exhortation at a party to eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes8:15) has solid scriptural sanction. Every time we regret a politician’s tendency to be all things to all men (Corinthians 9:22) or – these banker-bashing days – inveigh against the love of money as the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10), we are quoting the KJV, whose turns of phrase are so ingrained in our everyday speech patterns that we do it unthinkingly. Discovering the extent of this, one might feel like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, enchanted to learn from an expert that he had been speaking something called “prose” his whole life. We’ve been speaking something called the King James Bible our whole lives.

But it’s easy to overstate the case amid all the excitement of the quatercentennial celebrations. Melvyn Bragg has declared the KJV “quite simply the DNA of the English language”. But DNA is in our every cell; it seems absurd to suggest every word we speak comes from the KJV. The nation’s favourite bearded linguist, David Crystal, is somebody keen to challenge this received wisdom – a fly in the ointment, as it were (Ecclesiastes 10:1, if you were wondering).

In his latest book, Begat, Prof. Crystal examines whether it’s true that no book has wielded a greater influence on our language than the KJV. Personally counting the number of KJV-derived idioms that have entered modern English, he finds only 257 against the usual estimate of thousands. What of the KJV’s rival for the title? A quick count in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations finds Shakespeare ahead: 71 pages against 39.

Yet according toCrystal’s own method – to count only those which have entered modern-day parlance – the KJV can claim twice as many idioms as Shakespeare. But modern parlance has displayed a penchant for fiddling with what was once believed to be the inerrant word of God. According to Professor Crystal, only 18 are exact quotes, the rest corruptions. Isaiah invokes the phrase “No peace for the wicked.” This later became “No rest for the wicked”. Nobody knows why. But, as we know from Shakespeare, the best quotes always are misquotes – the odd missing adjective can surely be forgiven. (The same cannot be said for missing negatives: the 1631 version, printed here inCambridge, made mandatory the practice of adultery, commanding in Exodus 20:14: “thou shalt commit adultery”; the printers narrowly escaped death.)

More iconoclastically, Crystal’s research shows only a minority of these phrases are original to the KJV. Most are found in Tyndale’s 1534 translation or even the 14th century Wycliffe Bible. The OED cites the KJV as first evidence for only 43 words. The Wycliffe, by contrast, originated over 1400.

Nevertheless, it is the KJV that has over 400 years popularised these expressions, even if it didn’t originate them. Indeed, many of these expressions are inept, very literal translations of Hebrew idioms, non-sensical in 1611, but today, so intimately familiar that it’s hard to believe they’re not English in origin. “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” So went the slogan spouted by anti-immigrant Republicans in the US, but it actually makes some sense.  And the classics of English literature, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Waugh’s Vile Bodies, have imbibed the KJV (those titles included), sometimes verbatim. “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”Paradise Lost Book X or Genesis?

Curiously, modern English literature’s pre-eminent Christians, CS Lewis and TS Eliot, both shuddered at the thought of considering the legacy of the KJV in such secular terms as language. As the historian Gordon Campbell argues in his recent door-stopper, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, the KJV’s enduring allure is religious. “It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of Christians who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others.”

Arising out of the arcane theological disputes of 17th centuryEngland, the 54 scholars working on the text (a third here in theUniversity ofCambridge) struck the middle ground between Puritanism and Papism to make the text as amenable as possible. Most British, one might say. Americans, though, beg to differ: according to a TV poll, the KJV is the “most American” book. It was, of course, usually the only book carried by colonists as they trotted the globe, where it’s been taken to heart with as much aplomb. The King James Bible unites the world’s English-speakers more than any other book. Who would have thought as parochial a place as the Divinity Fac. – and four centuries ago at that – could be responsible for so global and timeless a phenomenon?

As former Poet Laureare Andrew Motion extols: “To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity”. And as Alan Hansen might say, the King James Bible simply refuses to give up the ghost. Or was it the Apostle Mark?