Focus On King James

Focus On King James

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The King James Bible's 400th Anniversary in Retrospect

Ellie Gebarowski Bagley

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (KJB) is now over, but what an exciting year it was!  From international conferences to exhibits at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Folger Shakespeare Library, the version of 1611 received great attention and scholarly appreciation, ending no less with a cover story in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic.  Centennials such as this have become major players in shaping scholarly work and publishing agendas, and they have also created welcome opportunities for academics and members of the public to share knowledge of and enthusiasm for a hallowed English translation of the Bible that has influenced so much of western, even global, Anglophone culture, for better or for worse.  With the 500th anniversary of Erasmus's New Testament coming up in 2016, followed by what are sure to be unprecedented celebrations to commemorate Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses of 1517 and his German New Testament of 1522, it's worth taking note of the KJB anniversary year and what it bodes for the future of studies in the Bible's translation- and reception history. 

A persistent theme in the year in scholarship was the collaborative making and ambivalent early reception of the KJB, from its predecessor English versions of the Bible such as Tyndale's New Testament (1526) and the Geneva Bible to early printed editions of the seventeenth century.  Ironically, this work, which explored the collaborative and inter-related nature of English and nearly all vernacular translations of the Bible in the early modern period, illustrated what a non-event 1611 really was in the cultural, scholarly, and theological contexts of the time, both for translators and for readers.  The translators of the KJB sought to preserve the language of the Bishops' Bible, and through it the text of the Great Bible and William Tyndale's NT, all of which had been influenced by previous translations:  vernacular and Latin, Protestant and Catholic.  The earlier formative period, in which Tyndale's New Testament and Coverdale's Bible were published, was given particularly good coverage at "God's Word in English:  The King James Version as Translation," at K. U. Leuven and Lessius University College (Antwerp), Belgium, Mar. 24–25, 2011.  In light of the long-term development of its text, the KJB was the work of a series of international, multi-generational committees that becomes visible to us today only through careful comparative textual analysis among the versions themselves. 

This and more was emphasized in the books by Gordon Campbell (Oxford, 2010) and David Norton (Cambridge, 2011), along with explanations for the lack of fanfare that greeted the 1611 "Authorized Version," in the face of loyal readers of the Geneva Bible and the Catholic Douai-Rheims Bible.  Plagued with typographical errors from day one, the version whose exact date of publication is lost, was met with a mixture of public criticism and apathy, a fact scholars have long known but that received much-needed public exposure, considering the long shadow cast by the KJB in its eventual rise to popularity, along with claims for its inerrancy that are still made in some conservative Christian circles. 

Library exhibitions complemented this scholarly work with physical evidence of the early print history and reception of the KJB.  I was fascinated to see first-hand the notorious error in the so-called "Wicked Bible" of 1631, at the Cambridge University Library exhibit.  Although I had read much about the KJB's early print history, I had not realized this edition with its infamous blooper, "Thou shalt commit adultery," was printed in such microscopic font—small wonder that the error persisted through the final edition.  A slight disadvantage to scholars, however, was the placing of crucial texts under glass for the duration of displays, such as the 1602 Bishops' Bible with revision notes by translators, included in the Bodleian Library's exhibit at Oxford.  Members of the public were able to view the exhibit free of charge and without a reader's ticket; that is, until many items in the collection were shipped over to the US as the basis of a traveling exhibition, with stops in Washington, DC and Austin, Texas.

A second consistent theme was the KJB's influence on literature and the arts, in the seventeenth century and beyond.  The KJB's reputation as a monument of English literature, and as having an incalculable impact on the English language, comes from later centuries, Brian Cummings pointed out in a keynote paper at "Translating the Word in the Reformation," a conference hosted by the Society for Reformation Studies at Westminster College, Cambridge, April 13–15, 2011.  Yet the KJB was also very much a product of early modern culture and language, as shown by Naomi Tadmor in The Social Universe of the English Bible (Cambridge, 2010).  Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Literature at the University of Leicester wrote and spoke eloquently on this topic at dozens of conferences and events in 2011, winning the Longman-History Today prize in 2012 for his contributions.  Hannibal Hamlin's conference at the Ohio State University, "The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife," May 5–7, 2011, also devoted special attention to the literary impact of the KJB, with papers from many contributors to Hamlin's co-edited volume with Norman Jones (Cambridge, 2010) including Stephen Prickett, Robert Alter, and Adam Potkay.  Literary analysis often centered on traditional figures such as Milton and Bunyan, particularly favored at "The Bible in the Seventeenth Century:  The Authorised Version Quatercentenery (1611–2011)," at the University of York, July 7–9, 2011.  Yet the year, and the Hamlin and Jones volume in particular, also pointed to a broadening of the literary canon under examination, with Katherine Clay Bassard's work on the KJB and African American literature and Heather Walton's study of Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Smart. Examination of the KJB's impact on art and music was particularly good at "Texts in Transit:  The Cultural Afterlife of the King James Bible," at the Center for the Reception History of the Bible, University of Oxford, June 25, 2011. 

Third, attention to the KJB's reception history after 1700 featured prominently, contrasting the version's rise to prominence with the continued opposition it faced over the years, centered on issues of text, translation, canon, and interpretation.  A lesser-known eighteenth-century perspective on the strengths and limitations of the KJB came to light in Isabel Rivers' work on Philip Doddridge's New Testament (see her essay in Hamlin and Jones, 2010).  Mark Noll drew striking parallels between the celebrations of 1911 and 2011, explaining why our own era is one of significantly lessened public enthusiasm for the version (see Jeffrey, 2011, pp. 71–98).  Sugirtharajah's study of the postcolonial reception of the KJB bodes well for future inquiries into the complex and often troubled legacy of the KJB as a propaganda tool of Bible Societies.

My own work for the year addressed the Catholic reception of the KJB, leading to my forthcoming first monograph, Catholic Critics of the King James Bible, 1611–1911 (Ashgate).  It is true that for many English speaking Christians, the KJB became a national treasure, a monument of literary excellence, of theological and textual accuracy, sometimes all these.  For others, the KJB stood for a very different, oppressive reality of Anglo-Protestant hegemony.  It became for some the Vulgate of Protestantism, a text that could not be challenged without calling into question one's authentic Christianity, the right to self-govern (in Ireland; see Whelan, 2005) and one's patriotism (in the US; see Thuesen, 1999).  These forgotten voices of the KJB's principled objectors deserve continued consideration for what they can teach us about patterns in the rise and fall of major biblical translations and the role of religious controversy in shaping religion, texts, and culture. 

This brings us to recent work on the contemporary legacy of the KJB, and its place among revised English translations of the Bible today. Here is where scholars of literature and of the Bible seem to disagree the most.  Literary critics, and often some historians of religion, lament the eclipse of "biblical English," as the eloquent phrasing of the KJB becomes more and more a thing of the past, giving way to modern translations that cater to busy consumers with little time to read slowly and carefully.  Paul Gutjahr's essay on the "dethroning" of the KJB by the NIV, and the rise of editions like the Light Speed Bible, is a good example of this (Hamlin and Jones, 2010, pp. 164–78).  Biblical scholars, on the other hand, value accuracy and readability above all.  There is no question that contemporary translations such as the NRSV present a version based on the oldest and most reliable Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts.  Serious readers of the Bible appreciate this careful attention to sources, explained in notes such as those in the New Oxford Annotated Bible edited by Michael Coogan, and they get the most out of a translation that reads smoothly and is informed by contemporary spoken Anglo-American English.  Tensions between different expectations of what biblical versions should be and do are certainly not new, as shown in Peter Thuesen's work on the public outcry over the monument of biblical scholarship that was the Revised Standard Version of 1952 (Thuesen, 1999), which was denounced as anti-Christian—even as a Communist translation!  Even today, there remains a lack of consensus as to whether the eclipse of the KJB in mainstream Western culture, and among most readers of the Bible, is to be mourned or praised. 

Yet of course some people still do read the KJB and prefer its text above all other biblical versions for various stated theological reasons and often unstated aesthetic preferences.  Generally missing in the year's celebrations was any serious discussion of those who still read the KJB in this manner, as a sacred text.  The existence of "KJB-Onlyists" was mentioned occasionally in passing, but nothing (to my knowledge) was said about their textual arguments for preferring the textus receptus, which they believe to be more accurate than the modern Greek and Hebrew texts used by scholars and biblical translators (see Cloud, 1995; Beacham and Bauder, 2001).  The religious anthropology of these groups, ranging from Southern Baptist communities in the US to black Pentecostal churches in the UK, needs further study, to help us understand the ongoing afterlives of this version and broader patterns of attachment to traditional versions in the long history of the Bible.  Anyone who truly misses the literary influence of the KJB should study these arguments for the textus receptus, which are a startling reminder that full veneration of the KJB stands ideologically against nearly all that modern biblical scholarship has sought to accomplish:  the search for older manuscripts, for better translations, and for liberating interpretations.

Cultures of biblical memorization, prominent in some evangelical circles and with parallels in Muslim communities, also await further exploration.  Offset somewhat by the NIV, the KJB remains the central text in use by youth Bible Quizzing teams, in which children ages 8–18 memorize up to an entire book from the New Testament each year and compete at regional and national quiz tournaments.  An ethnographic study in this area would be very worthwhile and would move the center of KJB-scholarship closer to the present time, where the version is still being put to many uses in living faith communities, some preserving rich oral, educational, and religious traditions.  Other uses are unfortunately less benign, such as those denying the rights of women and the full spectrum of human sexuality.  This, too, is a part of the KJB's living legacy, and should not be swept under the rug or unintentionally marginalized if we are to study its influence honestly and with the hope of evoking positive social and religious change in the future. 

With even bigger Bible anniversary years coming in 2016–26—celebrating 500 years of Erasmus's Greek New Testament (1516), Luther's New Testament (1522), and Tyndale's English New Testament (1526)—the celebrations of 2011 have done much to energize reception history studies and give recent testimony to how anniversary years ought to be organized in the 21st century.  A colleague in England  remarked to me in July of last year that he was already "sick to the teeth" of KJB celebrations!  This kind of intellectual fatigue will no doubt play a role in future anniversary years, with conferences and exhibitions galore.  Yet a very productive momentum began to build toward the end of the year.  The last few conferences in the autumn were the best of the year because all the groundwork had been laid, the obvious historical backgrounds examined already, freeing up (and demanding) that speakers present innovative research and point to the future.  Even the title of the British Academy's conference in November—in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams gave the keynote address—signified the shift to a more balanced, critical perspective:  "The King James Bible at 400:  Celebration or Valediction?" on Nov. 4, 2011.  (See the Archbishop's Nov. 16 sermon on the KJB here).

Another reason I personally enjoyed the conferences later in the year is because they reflected more attention to diversity of presenters, an important detail I hope organizers for 2016 and beyond will not neglect to consider.  In particular, the Folger Institute's conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, Sept. 29–Oct. 1, organized by Lori Anne Ferrell and Kathleen Lynch, presented an exciting lineup of speakers on the transatlantic history of the KJB with an admirable gender balance among junior and senior scholars.  Other conferences, planned by well-intentioned and extremely knowledgeable experts in the field, got off to a poor start, in my view, by slating all white male senior scholars for the first half of the conference, then turning to a token few women, maybe one person of color toward the end.  A flyer I saw for a day-conference at a Midwestern college featured a lineup of eight all-white male speakers.  I was shocked and immediately disinclined to attend, to say the least.  These things really do matter:  representation and diversity are essential for the viability of the field in future years and I hope will be taken into careful consideration as plans for all of the coming 500th anniversary celebrations take shape. 

Heading up the charge for 2017 is Refo500, an international organization based in Europe and partnered with Protestant and Catholic universities, seminaries, and museums, all jointly planning events and conferences to commemorate the historic and continuing impact of the Reformation.  But even as scholarly attention turns to Luther's contribution to biblical studies and the reception history of his translation, the KJB will not be soon forgotten.  We will certainly hear more on the KJB within its wider European scholarly contexts, as was nicely anticipated at "Translating the Word in the Reformation," hosted by the Society for Reformation Studies at Westminster College, Cambridge, April 13-15, 2011, and at Joanna Weinberg's midsummer conference at Exeter College, Oxford, called, "The King James Bible:  the Scholarly Context."  In the coming conference and publishing venues, we stand to continue broadening knowledge of what is unique about a version that came of age amid the Reformations of Europe, in a world of advancing printing technology and colonial expansion, and also what parallels exist with other major versions of the Bible, such as the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, which each took centuries to become more or less standard texts in general use and cast long shadows of influence and controversy. 

It has been exciting, instructive, and rewarding to see scholars and members of the public come together as they did, to celebrate what for many individuals is a complicated relationship to the KJB's text and legacy.  I myself grew up reading and memorizing it as biblical truth and now study and read it with quite a different perspective.  I'm not alone in admiring its literary beauty while at the same time lamenting the oppressive uses to which the KJB has been put.  Perhaps the real significance KJB is its value as a snapshot of one culture's reinvention of the Bible and how it in turn affected the Bible's impact on different cultures, for better or for worse.  If nothing else, these later abuses illustrate the dangers of keeping the Bible in that one snapshot for too long.  It needs to be retranslated and interpreted anew, to ensure that the legacy of the Bible is not just one of tradition and history, but also of liberation and change for the future.


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