Jonathan Yardley

Review of Gordon Campbell's 'Bible,' about the King James Version

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 10, 2010


The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011

By Gordon Campbell

Oxford Univ. 354 pp. $24.95

T he first edition of the King James Bible was published four centuries ago by Robert Barker, the king's printer, who, according to Gordon Campbell in this history of the King James Version, "held the right to print all Bibles published in England in English translation." Eventually the right to publish the KJV was extended to Cambridge University (in 1629) and ultimately, in 1673, to Oxford University. By now Oxford has published the KJV in so many different forms -- the latest, a handsome leather-bound 400th-anniversary edition at $79.95 -- that it probably would be impossible to calculate total sales, but they run into the tens if not hundreds of millions, making the KJV a cash cow indeed for the great Oxford University Press.

A close friend of mine had personal experience of that nearly four decades ago when, fresh out of college, he hired on as a sales agent for OUP. He was neither scholarly nor religious -- quite the contrary -- but he had a winning manner and a ready smile. His territory was the Deep South, and many of his customers were proprietors of small religious bookstores. At almost every stop he would be greeted with a handshake and an invitation he could not refuse: "Brother, let us have a word of prayer together." So John would follow the owner into the back room, get down on his knees, cast his eyes to heaven and pray for a fat sale. Usually he got one.

Obviously, then, Oxford has ample reason to celebrate the KJV's quatercentennial, which it is doing with Campbell's "Bible" as well as the aforementioned deluxe edition, which it describes as "the most authentic version of the original text that has ever been published." This will reward close study by those thus inclined, for the edition deliberately preserves all the original's misprints, of which there were many, as there have been throughout the KJV's long history. Some of them, as Campbell notes, were memorable:

"In the first edition of the KJV designed for private study (1612), as opposed to reading aloud in church, Psalm 119:161 read 'Printers have persecuted me without cause'; 'printers' was a misprint for 'princes.' The 1631 edition now known as the Wicked Bible made adultery compulsory by omitting 'not' in Exodus 20:14, which read 'Thou shalt commit adultery.' The printers were heavily fined, but in 1641 the same press printed an edition in which they omitted 'no' in Revelation 21:1, which read 'And there was more sea.' The problem with negatives cropped up again in 1653, when another printer omitted the second negative in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which read 'Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?' From negatives we move uneasily to murderers. A Bible of 1795 rendered Mark 7:27 as 'Let the children first be killed,' when Jesus had in fact asked that they be filled (that is, fed). Similarly, in a Bible of 1801 the murmurers of Jude 16 became murderers, and so the Bible became known as the Murderers' Bible."

My own favorite, though, occurred in the second edition of 1611, a "rushed response to the brisk sales of the first edition." In Jeremiah 31:30 "that eateth" somehow emerged as "ehat tateth," an error that, as Campbell notes with characteristic wit, "should have been noticed by any proof-reader, even one freshly returned from a pub lunch."

But enjoyable as it is to ferret out the errata in the various editions of the KJV, what really matters is that the 1611 translation is one of the masterpieces of world literature, "the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world," indeed "the most important book in the English language." Campbell presents this not in literary terms, as do many others (myself included), but in religious ones: "That importance does not rest on the inception or execution of this particular translation, nor even in its excellence as a translation (some modern translations may be more accurate) or as a work of English prose. It lies rather in its long history at the center of the religious culture of the English-speaking world. It is valued by everyone who is a Christian by conviction or background, even by those who for one reason or another use another translation."

This of course is true, and the point is underscored by the exceptional popularity the KJV has enjoyed in this country, where it has occupied "a central and prolonged presence in the religious life of the nation." As President William Howard Taft declared on the KJV's tercentenary in 1911: "The publication of this version of the Holy Scriptures in 1611 associates it with the early colonies of the English people upon this continent. It became at once the Bible of our American forefathers. Its classic English has given shape to American literature. Its spirit has influenced American ideals in life and laws and government."

The story of how this remarkable document came into being has been told many times. In 1604 King James I, who loved to talk of matters theological, "assembled a group of bishops and moderate puritans" to discuss improvements upon the various translations of the Bible into English then in use. Out of this grew six companies of translators who worked simultaneously on different sections of the Bible, then convened in 1610 to revise and reconcile their labors. They were extraordinary men, and Campbell pays them the tribute they deserve:

"The learning embodied in the men of these six companies is daunting. It is sometimes assumed that people in the twenty-first century know more than the benighted people of the seventeenth century, but in many ways the opposite is true. The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators. We may live in a world with more knowledge, but it is populated by people with less knowledge."

At first the KJV got a mixed reception, but over the years skepticism and hostility changed to admiration and even veneration. Jonathan Swift led the way in 1712: "I am persuaded that the Translators of the Bible were Masters of an English Style much fitter for that Work, than any we see in our present Writings, which I take to be owing to the Simplicity that runs through the whole." In time the word "majestic" became common in descriptions of the KJV and remains so to this day. As Campbell notes, the KJV is present in our daily language in ways of which we often are unaware: "When people are said to be 'at their wits' end,' for example, there is no awareness of the source of the phrase in Psalm 107:27; similarly, an escape by 'the skin of my teeth' no longer evokes Psalm 19:20, the 'salt of the earth' no longer recalls the words of Jesus at Matthew 5:13, 'riotous living' is no longer associated with the prodigal son, and the Pauline origins of 'thorn in the flesh' (I Corinthians 12:7) are no longer recognized."

As that passage indicates, "Bible" covers the history of the KJV from its inception to the present day, with about a third of the text devoted to the translators and their labors. For the general reader who wants a more detailed (and perhaps more accessible) account of the time between 1604 and 1611, I strongly recommend Adam Nicolson's "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible" (2003). Gordon Campbell on the other hand gives the full sweep of the KJV's truly majestic life, and for that we must be grateful.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company