King James Bible 400th Anniversary, British Heritage
On May 2 1611 seven years of painstaking and yet poetic work came to completion with the printing of the first King James Bible. In the second year of his reign James I of England IV of Scotland was persuaded at a gathering at Hampton Court by moderate Protestants to commission an authorised version of the Bible in English. Academics and theologians at three centres, Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster, returned to Greek and Hebrew texts as well as incorporating much from Tynedale’s 1525 edition.
The result of their endeavours has been described as the book that changed the world, carried by Protestant settlers to what would eventually become the USA; by British colonists to New Zealand and Australia; and by officers of the Empire to India, Africa, and the Far East.
Throughout 2011 numerous events have been organised to celebrate the 400th anniversary. And it is something worth celebrating even for those of us who don’t share the belief it represents so beautifully. That is because the King James Bible is one of the great foundations of our language, as important as Shakespeare, or according to Melvin Bragg recently even more significant than that. With a copy chained to every pulpit in the land within a year of its publication, it provided a common point of linguistic reference.
And it also fired the imagination with its undoubted poetry: take St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” and the perfect image of "For now we see through a glass, darkly," with its lovely rhythm and the teasing ambiguity of glass as mirror or glass as window. It gave us many more notable phrases still in common parlance: “For everything there is a season”; “The love of money is the root of all evil;”and “Can the leopard change his spots?”
Doubtless with the good intentions with which the road to hell is paved subsequent bible compilers have lost much of that poetry. So celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version has an undercurrent of nostalgia for something beautiful lost, though we only need think about the ubiquity of English today to see part of its legacy.