As the King James Bible turns 400 this year, it is perhaps more revered than read. That’s a shame, argue three new books, which contend that its cultural influence and literary merit are unsurpassed in the English language.
1. In the 16th century, guerillas weren’t smuggling guns or drugs: They were sneaking translated Bibles past England’s borders. In his engaging history “The Book of Books” (Counterpoint, $28), British author Melvyn Bragg argues that the King James Bible, though often misused by oppressors, has been a positive catalyst for change. So opposed was the church to a Bible that ordinary people could read that William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for his English New Testament, on which the King James Version is largely based. But in 1604, James I decided that an English edition would cement his legitimacy. It took 47 translators four years to complete the work. When the results were first published in 1611, it was not an instant classic. The establishment might have had good reason to turn up its nose, Bragg argues. The book’s widespread use in England and America led to an explosion in literacy, scientific inquiry and even democracy, though King James I made sure that the word “tyrant” was excised from the authorized version. He would be shocked at what “his” book has wrought.
2. A 400-year-old Bible might seem like odd reading material for an atheist, but Yale University professor Harold Bloom declares that the King James Bible stands, along with Shakespeare, at the “sublime summit of literature.” Giving the reader the benefit of decades worth of close reading — in both the original Hebrew and Greek — he compares it favorably with the original texts, as well as other translations. “For those to whom the KJB is the Truth, rock of their faith, a literary appreciation is redundant. I write however for the common reader, who can be moved by the Bible’s eloquence and beauty,” Bloom writes in his introduction to “The Shadow of a Great Rock” (Yale Univ. Press, $28). His reading is personal and idiosyncratic: Leviticus he deems “unreadable”; he’s entranced by the unknown “Yahwist writer” who composed much of Genesis; he finds King David charming and charismatic; and he says the “brief, perfect book of Ruth may be the most beautiful work in all the Hebrew Bible.” Raised in the Jewish faith, Bloom writes that, despite his reverence for New Testament translator Tyndale, “one of the greatest writers in English,” he finds the bulk of the New Testament “a viciously anti-Jewish work.” This is a fascinating, intellectually nimble tour de force.
3. Divinity students looking to slip into something a little less accessible might enjoy “The King James Bible and the World It Made” (Baylor; paperback, $24.95), edited by David Lyle Jeffrey. (A quick test to see if it’s for you: Can you define “dispensationalist eschatology” and “regnant orthopraxy”?) Contemporary scholars such as David Bebbington, Alister McGrath, Philip Jenkins and Laura Knoppers share the results of their in-depth study. “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version,” by renowned Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, is of particular interest to close readers. Mark Noll’s “The King James Version at 300 in America” looks at the 1911 celebrations, presided over by the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. “For the most part, celebrations of the King James Version in 2011 seem to have been left to academics and aficionados,” writes Noll. “It was far otherwise a century ago.”
Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.