Living testaments to the faith which spread love of language
LOVE, it is said, covers a multitude of sins. Such a simple saying, and one now commonplace in our everyday parlance. But these poetic words did not originate from the pen of Shakespeare or Wordsworth - they fell straight out of the Bible.
But it was no ordinary translation of the scriptures that threw up instantly recognisable catchphrases like that, and others such as "Great men are not always wise" and "Eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we will die". They come, in fact, from the King James Bible, a defining achievement of King James VI and I. It still stands as one of the most important works in the English language.
Delve into the historical tome and one discovers that its influence in today’s society is far reaching. More widely recognised as the Authorised Version, it is credited with establishing literary trends. The beautifully poetic prose and fragrant language, which flows throughout, has been described as the greatest example of English literature, and by some as even superior to Shakespeare, and one of the most significant influences on the development of the English language.
Set amid the religious tensions of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I and VI, the background to the King James Bible is complex and, at times, murky. The conference between Anglicans and Puritans at Hampton Court in 1604, when the King gave the initiative the go-ahead, is well documented.
But three years earlier at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, held in Burntisland Parish Church, at which King James was present, plans had already been floated to authorise a new translation of the Bible. This crucial titbit of historical information is sometimes brushed aside as a seemingly minor detail.
After Hampton Court a team of scholars was established to start work on the translation. They were divided into six panels, with three working on the Old Testament, two on the New Testament and one on the Apocrypha. Each of the men revelled in the complex nature of the Biblical languages and the task-force was dominated by intellectual heavyweights.
Take Lancelot Andrewes for example. He was a leader of the Old Testament translators and had been chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. Not only was he fluent in 15 modern languages, as well as Hebrew and Greek and the Biblical languages, he also served as Dean of Westminster and later as Bishop of Winchester.
His colleague John Bois was fluent in Hebrew and Greek and apparently was confidently skimming through the Hebrew Old Testament when he was only five.
The men used the Bishops’ Bible as their basis and also consulted earlier versions, namely the Geneva Bible, which was widely used in Scotland at that time, and William Tyndale’s translation which had a remarkable influence. An estimated 80% of the words used in the Authorised Version’s New Testament can be traced back to Tyndale’s version with phrases such as, "The powers that be" and words like "atonement" and "scapegoat". Although they were to deliver a modern, updated translation of the Bible, the teams were advised to retain old ecclesiastical terms such as ‘Church’ for ‘Congregation’ and ‘Baptism’ for ‘Washing’.
The scholars worked through their task with remarkable speed. Starting in 1607, it took them just two years and nine months to prepare the manuscripts for printing.
The team had paid meticulous attention to their translations of the Hebrew and Greek languages and ensured that the stories of the Scriptures flowed smoothly. Everything was run past the poets on the team who would listen intently before nodding their approval or stating, "This is an unhappy phrase".
When it first appeared in 1611, in large folio volumes, the King James immediately superseded the Bishops’ Bible used in churches. But it did not have a hugely significant impact on the popularity of the radically Protestant Geneva Bible, which was King James’s main aim. The two versions competed with each other for around 50 years. The Geneva Bible had been the preferred choice of the Scots and it took half a century for the Authorised Version to grow in popularity so much that it overtook its main rival.
Nowadays, four centuries after its publication and with numerous modern translations so widely available and used, it is rare to go to church and hear the Authorised Version being read. However, its influence is still apparent and it is still used by some at special occasions such as Christmas or Easter.
King James could not have foreseen the ripple-like effect the Authorised Version would still be having four centuries after it was published. It stands to this day as one of the most significant achievements of his reign.
• Lorna Hill is the feature writer for Life & Work, the editorially independent magazine of the Church of Scotland.
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