Gilbert: King James Bible At 400

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(HOST) Four hundred years ago – this year – a hugely important translation of the Bible was published.  According to commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert, it’s quite a text – and quite a story.  

(GILBERT) The creation of the King James Bible is something of a miracle.  

In 1604, England’s new King, James I, convened a conference at Hampton Court to discuss matters of church and state.  Out of the conference came a hugely ambitious project – a new English translation of the Bible – supposedly to deal with problems that the Puritans and other factions within the Church of England had with existing translations.  Whatever the Puritans’ concerns, King James wanted – and would get – a translation that emphasized and celebrated – not surprisingly – kingship, order, and authority – a translation in which notions of Godly
majesty and Kingly majesty merge.  

It took seven years – about fifty men working in six committees or "companies"; two of the committees met in Oxford, two in Cambridge, and two in London; each was assigned a number of books of the Bible to translate.  Following the King’s express instructions, each member of each committee translated every passage, and then the committee met together to produce a single, best text.  When a committee had finished a book of the Bible, it was sent to the other five committees for their review, and then, finally, a general meeting worked to assure a unified text.

The notion of making a literary and religious masterpiece by committee – indeed six committees – sounds ludicrous, but amazingly, the effort proved a triumph, producing a translation that might be considered one of the greatest works in the English language: elegant, eloquent, powerful, and poetic – and embodying scholars’ scrupulous care for accuracy, meaning, and nuance.  Adam Nicholson tells this compelling story in his book, wonderfully entitled God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible.  The Special Collections Library at the University
of Vermont is fortunate to have a first edition of the King James Bible.

Its language seems today lofty and old-fashioned.  In fact it was
archaic-sounding even when it was first published in 1611.  Nicholson says that the "grandeur of phrasing and the deep slow music of its rhythms were conscious embodiments of regal glory."  The translators referred to Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic texts as well as other translations of the Bible, particularly one produced by a single man, William Tyndale, about eighty years earlier.  But even Tyndale didn’t hit every note just right, and where appropriate, King James’s translators opted for other words or phraseology.  

Nicholson contrasts the language of the King James Bible with that of not only Tyndale’s translation but also the New English Bible, published in 1970.  What was wanted in 1970, he explains, was not antiquated language, but "timeless" prose, an accessible text that conveyed a "sense of reality."   The result, Nicholson argues, was the banal language of the memo, a style that made the Bible’s extraordinary content sound ordinary, even mundane.

In contrast, the language of the King James Bible, Nicholson argues, was both touching and at the same time majestic.  And it was that "touching majesty" that in turn made possible the inspiring language of some of the greatest speeches we know – including speeches by Lincoln, Kennedy,and King.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Peter Gilbert at VPR-dot-net.

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