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PostPosted: 19 Feb 2011, 11:48 
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Jeanette Winterson, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Alexander McCall Smith, Michèle Roberts, David Crystal and Diarmaid MacCulloch on the importance of the King James version

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The Guardian, Saturday 19 February 2011
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William Tyndale (1494-1536), English translator of the Bible, being tied to a stake before being strangled and burnt to death. Photograph: Hulton Archive
Jeanette Winterson

My mother taught me to read from the Book of Deuteronomy because it is full of animals – mostly unclean. So while other children had horses, bunnies, kittens and ducks, I had hoopoes, sloths, snakes, rock badgers, rams, swine and shellfish.

Mrs Winterson was in charge of language in our house. Morning and evening she made her way through all 66 books of the King James Bible – Creation to Apocalypse – took a week off for reflection, and started again. I did not find the language difficult and I was not unusual. The King James translation was written to be read out loud – and that simple overlooked fact changes every argument about "difficulty" and "comprehension". Even now, the phrasing of the King James has a naturalness to it. Awkwardness disappears within a few chapters of vocal reading – providing that you will trust yourself and trust the text. I say that because children are not brought up to read out loud any more, at home or at school. This is a new problem in the history of language development. Until mass literacy, reading aloud was essential and a pleasure.

As every poet knows, words begin in the mouth before they hit the page, and it is our experience of learning language. The King James karaoke nights, common to households where long familiarity with the stories meant that everyone joined in the refrains, built a confidence with language that the educated classes prefer to imagine as their own. My dad left school at 12, and never learned to read properly. He had no trouble with his Bible, and when he didn't understand a word or a construction, he asked Mrs Winterson or the minister. He was a man of few words himself, but he had dignity of speech, learned directly from the King James.

Scrapping the King James version, in the well-meaning way of the well-educated classes, had a number of effects, the most decisive and the most disastrous of which was to destroy for ever an ordinary, everyday connection with 400 years of the English language. In my northern mill town, many working men studied Shakespeare at the Mechanics' Institute or the Workers' Extension lectures. No one thought the language difficult because it is the language of the King James, and we had grown up with that. Shakespeare, like the Bible, was written to be heard; like Shakespeare, the Bible is theatre.

King James does not use sub-clauses or dependent clauses; it is a direct English, and one you can still hear, even now, in northern speech, the kind we celebrate in Alan Bennett. The language is grammatically uncluttered, but rich in vocabulary and image.

There is a difference between "obscure" and "difficult". I accept that, by now, the King James version seems more difficult than it is, but its rewards are greater than its difficulty.
Jeanette Winterson is a novelist.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Given Jamaica's murder rate, one of the highest in the world, "the spiritual wickedness in high and low places" that Bob Marley opposed in song, it is hard to believe that Jamaicans are a deeply spiritual people with Christian values inculcated through the King James Bible. This book, a most effective tool of colonisation, was the only one in my illiterate grandmother's house when I was a child in Jamaica. She would have me read it to her from time to time, and I got to like the language of the Old Testament and the Psalms in particular, her favourite book. That was my first real introduction to written verse. I was seven years old and could recite some Psalms from memory, having learnt them at Sunday school in the Baptist church of which my grandmother was a member. So it's not at all surprising that my verse has some biblical references.

Jamaican popular music, from ska to dance hall, is replete with quotations from the King James Bible: "Why boasteth thyself / o evil men" (Bob Marley); "I pray thee / why do the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing?" (Big Youth); "Deliver me, o my God, from my enemies" (Yabby U and the Prophets) – the list is endless. The King James Bible is not just a holy book in Jamaica. It is an important aspect of the very fabric of Jamaican oral culture. Used with dexterity and wit, biblical sayings are very powerful tools in the rhetoric of everyday discourse, and a rich repository of metaphor, simile, aphorism and imagery.
Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet.

Alexander McCall Smith

In my dining room I have a portrait of King James VI of Scotland (I of England), or Jamie Saxt, as he was known north of the border. He looks rather melancholy, and with good reason: his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been beheaded, he had the most oppressive education, and he was four centuries too early to be open about his sexual inclinations (he was gay). He was, however, a man of erudition, a poet of some ability, and an interesting political theorist. His greatest achievement, though, was the commissioning of a translation of the Bible that has greatly enriched the English language. His contribution to English literature, although indirect, is incalculable.

Those of us brought up in an age when churchgoing was rather more common than it is today will understand the length and depth of our debt to the poetry contained in the King James Bible. Even those who can no longer accept biblical claims – or indeed the relevance of the Bible in the modern world – can appreciate the beauty of the language used, its cadences and its gorgeous, resonant strength. Compared with the language of modern translations, it is vivid, echoing and magisterial. Children exposed to the language of the King James Bible will appreciate the sense of theatre, the sense of awe that suffuses virtually every sentence.

You don't have to believe any of it, but it still provides a moving account of two of the world's religions – Judaism and Christianity. It is a book of great poetic power, and for centuries it was one of our culture's greatest assets. It still is. And that, of course, should be told in Gath, should be published in the streets of Askelon.
Alexander McCall Smith is a novelist.

Michèle Roberts

As a half-French Catholic child brought up to read sentimentalised Bible stories rather than the Old Testament, or the mass liturgy in Latin, I saw the King James Bible as foreign, exotically Protestant and, above all, literary. People in English novels seemed to know the Bible by heart, and quoted from it as though they had grown up breathing in its grave poetry like air. Jane Eyre, for example, is sustained in her travails by it. Though a bullied child, she is a discriminating reader, honest enough to admit to the beastly clergyman Brocklehurst that she does not like Psalms, because they are "not interesting". The hypocrite priest's toddler son sickeningly professes to prefer reciting Psalms to eating gingernuts and so gets extra gingernuts as a reward.

Oppressed by misogynistic religion, I decided to rewrite some of its sacred books. I took on the New Testament, writing (in 1983) The Wild Girl, a fifth gospel according to Mary Magdalene. The following year I wrote The Book of Mrs Noah. Much as I appreciated the beauty of the Bible's language I had to break it up, destroy it, make something new with it. I was working in a long line of heretics and translators.
Michèle Roberts is a novelist.

David Crystal

People often say that the King James Bible has had an unparalleled influence on the English language. When they are asked what this means, the usual answer is to quote some of the expressions we still use today, such as "out of the mouths of babes", "how are the mighty fallen", and "fly in the ointment", and so on. For most people, influence equals idioms.

But just how many English idioms come from the KJB? When I was writing Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, I asked people how many they thought there were, and received answers ranging from a hundred to a thousand. It was time to do a proper count. So I read the whole work, looking out for any phrase that I felt had come to be a part of modern English.

I made two discoveries. First, there are not as many as some people think: I found 257. And second, most of the idioms don't originate in the King James version at all. Rather, they are to be found in Tyndale's translation nearly a century earlier, or one of the other major versions of the 16th century. The relatively small total shouldn't suprise us. The aim of the KJB translators, as they say in their preface, was not to make a new translation "but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one". They had little choice in the matter, as the guidelines for their work, which had been approved by the king, required them to use the Bishops' Bible as their first model, making as few alterations as possible; and, when this was found wanting, they could refer to earlier versions. Unlike Shakespeare, they were not great linguistic innovators.

So we mustn't exaggerate. It's true to say, as several commentators do, that no other literary source has matched the KJB for the number of influential idioms it contains; but it isn't true to say that it originated all of them. Rather, what it did was popularise them, so much so that it's now impossible to find an area of contemporary expression that doesn't from time to time use them, either literally or playfully. The banking crisis produced "Am I my Lehman Brothers' keeper?". A political confrontation produced "Bush is the fly in Blair's ointment". No other work has generated so many variations.
David Crystal is a linguist and author.

Diarmaid MacCulloch

The King James Bible was created by some of the finest minds in Jacobean England – or at least, by some of the most senior academics and clergy in Jacobean England, maybe not quite the same thing. They were certainly not fools – they knew that translating a sacred text is just the beginning: you need to apply and interpret it. They were Protestants, and the Bible was central to the explosion of destructive and constructive energy that was the Protestant reformation. It was now available in its original languages to those who had learnt to read them; more importantly, available in common languages to those not so highly educated. Their battle-cry was sola scriptura – scripture alone. But they soon ran into problems.

First they found that there were people more radical than themselves (they called them Anabaptists) who began using the newly available text in startling ways. Such people often took the Bible very literally, and might argue, say, that only that which is expressly permitted in it is permissible. Radicals naturally rejected any role for tradition in their thinking. They might feel, for instance, that if polygamy was good enough for Hebrew patriarchs, it was good enough for them; more commonly, they rejected military service, or withdrew completely from ordinary society; and often, they denied the rightness of infant baptism, since it was more or less impossible to prove from the biblical text. All this forced mainstream reformers back to the role of tradition in making decisions about Christian belief.

There was the further problem of scriptural books which did not give support to the reformation message, or seemed to give support to Catholic arguments. For instance, the practice of praying for the dead is explicitly mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12.40-46; and the Epistle of James seems to support the idea that human good works are an essential part of God's scheme of salvation. What to do? First, the reformers noticed that in Hebrew, the Old Testament contained fewer books making up its totality (its canon) than did the Old Testament in Latin and Greek. They hived off the ones not in the Hebrew canon and called them the Apocrypha, which disposed, for instance, of 2 Maccabees.

There isn't the space here to mention two other problems – content even in biblical books not eliminated by this process, and the central texts and ideas over which Protestants could not agree among themselves: for example, are Christ's body and blood really present in bread and wine? But it's worth hammering home the point that problems in interpreting the Bible are as old as the Bible itself. Before any of the questions raised in the scholarship of the last two centuries had been thought of, the Bible was treated in an astonishing variety of ways, some of which we may regard as much as abuse as use. I do wish Ugandan Anglican bishops and American fundamentalists would understand this. If we feel that the Bible is a library full of questions rather than clear answers, we may take comfort from the bewildering variety of answers that were found there in the past.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University.

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PostPosted: 20 Feb 2011, 03:46 
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Interesting.

Probably OT but Catholicism was from the beginning a war of ideologies which would later cause major schisms. The first into Eastern Orthodoxy, when the Byzantine Empire felt Rome no longer represented its interest and it differed on many important issues, such as who was the basis of the Church and hence had authority, Gods triune and Jesus exact divinity and so on. This resulted in the loss of at least 30 gospels, when they were either burned or stopped being copied. Without the Gnostics/Essenes keeping many texts intact in places like the Dead sea Scroll caves and Nag Hammadi we would of lost more or less all but that canon and some Apocrypha. There was a deeply divisive and contention in Christianities foundation, one that would later also cause the schisms into Protestantism and Catholicism.

Incidentally Eastern Orthadox is the worlds second largest Christian denomination and calls itself the Catholic Church. Which is a Latin term for apostlic. Its first primate was St Andrew the first Bishop of Jerusalem and a disciple of Christ, although it believes that there is no "papalcy" Jesus is the only authority and its Bishops do not have more power than each other only over their own diocese.

I'd digress but basically the councils of Nicea onwards were power plays to try and secure differing faiths into one homogeneous church and the persecution of heretics or those opposed was the result, the Gnostics taking probably the worst beating. Sadly this resulted in a great deal of persecution both then and later and ultimately in the schisms that wrecked this unity.

I guess in a way we owe much of our language to the burning of differing view points and the oppression of opposing faiths. :)

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PostPosted: 20 Feb 2011, 12:49 
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really interesting. thanks.

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