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Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible
Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011
208 pp., $35.00

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Brett Foster


To Make a Good One Better

The latest in this "Year of the KJV."

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This particular translation and its four centuries of dissemination in print have had a profound influence upon worship practices, devotional reading, the literary arts, and political oratory. More than any other book, the King James Bible has shaped our English language and given a sound to the ways we speak. Or, more precisely, it has provided an admirable sound, a persuasive one—with richly connotative vocabulary and cadenced phrasing—for our most serious language work, whether the occasion demands something solemn or passionate.

It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what this Bible's upcoming four centuries' of publishing history, or perhaps we should settle for "reading history," would turn out to be like if it were printed for the first time this year. This may not be as outlandish as it first sounds: print culture has proven incredibly enduring even amidst significant technological changes, as writing on stone monuments, potsherds, papyrus, wooden blocks, wax tablets, animal skins, and rag- or tree-based paper attests. Moreover, despite the gloomy opening comments above, there in fact remains a heady print variety today, as much with Bibles as with diverse other publications and products. Consider the panoply of niche Bibles in proliferating translations available to today's choice-embracing persons of the Book. This landscape finds it prior counterpart in these exhibitions' populous landscapes of manually copied and printed bibles both before and after the King James Bible appeared. This variety, running as it does through several centuries of the scriptures in English, may come as a surprise to visitors or readers expecting a King James display that presents this translation primarily as a consolidating, monologic work. Yet even the prefatory letter "To the Reader" in the first King James edition mentions those involved in earlier "Englishing," saying they were deserving of "everlasting remembrance."

Of course a 1611 copy of the King James Bible was the centerpiece of the Oxford exhibit. Nearby was a folio copy of the 1602 Bishop's Bible, on which can be found one company of KJV translators' annotations, deletions, and suggested alternate renderings, all open to debate. (This is the only surviving copy of some forty bibles provided to the six companies for this purpose.) The exhibition also included one translator's session notes, which were long lost until they turned up in the Corpus Christi College archives in the 1950s. The 1611 edition, a large, double-columned folio, sat in a glass case in the center of the room, which was the size of a nice restaurant's dining space. That book, surely one of the most cherished of the Bodleian's 11 million volumes, resembled the best Thanksgiving casserole on the kitchen table's lazy susan. Also on display were some of the volume's paratexts rarely included in modern editions of the KJV, including a calendar, almanac, genealogies, and a map of Canaan by the renowned cartographer John Speed. And many other items of interest were present, including numerous other Bibles and biblical adaptations attesting to that constant variety. The 10th-century Junius manuscript, featuring four biblical poems and an illumination of a slightly crosseyed God clad in green, was on display on the west side, near the entrance; near it was a Wycliffite version, the first full translation of the Bible into English (Middle English, in this case), and Anne Boleyn's edition of a 1534 Tyndale New Testament. The Wycliffite text featured interpolations reflecting ongoing refinements of rendering, while the Good Book of that fashionable but doomed Tudor queen was surprisingly thick, thanks to its owner's many elaborations. A deluxe presentation copy, this Bible was bound in velvet, its title page was a dark red and blue, and many pages featured inlaid illustrations.

Other 17th- and 18th-century Bibles suggested the King James Version's early complexities of print and reception. There was "The Souldiers Pocket Bible" made during the English Civil War (akin to today's camouflage bibles); the Wicked Bible (1631), which due to a single omitted word unfortunately has God commanding the Israelites to commit adultery; and one King James Bible that reflected an interesting compromise, insofar as it was printed with the popular annotations of the Geneva Bible reinstated. These were the very notes, often learned but also opinionated or vehement, that led James I in the first place to initiate work on what became his namesake translation. On the other end of the Exhibit Room's quadrangle, occupying the fourth level of the Tower of Five Orders, a statue of James presents two books to an angel on his left and a modest woman on his right, figures for Fame and Oxford University respectively.

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