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Mark Noll

Long Live the King

The 400th anniversary of the KJV.

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(1) What were the circumstances in which the KJB was created, and what implications should be drawn from understanding those circumstances?

The clear message conveyed by David Norton's authoritative Short History, Gordon Campbell's more popular Bible, and Norman Stone's dramatized KJB is that politics drove the story. The Bishops' Bible of 1568 (revised 1572) was not a distinguished translation, but only a few complained about its central place in most English churches. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was a much better and, with its many notes, a more useful version that enjoyed great popularity among Puritans and also many others. Its compact size, economical price, roman print, and all-around-usefulness (the Geneva Bible was the first in English to divide chapters into verses) made it a genuine people's book. The grounding of all 16th-century translations of the New Testament and the Pentateuch in William Tyndale's reasonably accurate and beautifully phrased versions of the 1520s and 1530s ensured that these successor translations would be both reliable and readable.

James nonetheless took the initiative to commission the leading lights in England's intellectual firmament to prepare a new translation. He did this for several reasons, but the primary one was to assert his own authority. James had been crowned King of Scotland in 1567 when he was only thirteen months old. Through a perilous youth and then with steely determination after he obtained his majority, James successfully stabilized the economic condition of his desperately poor land, held his own in tense theological debate with his Presbyterian tutors, and—most important—unified the intransigent factions that had made life impossible for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

As the newly crowned monarch of England, where the stakes were higher and the factions more powerful and almost as belligerent as in Scotland, James used all of his considerable wiles to secure his own rule and consolidate a realm in imminent danger of fracture. Commissioning the new translation was a stroke of genius. A respected Bible prepared for public reading could strengthen and unify the state church (thus demonstrating the king's authority to his bishops). A translation undertaken at the request of Puritans showed that they too might find a place in the king's church (even if James rejected all of their other proposals for reform). A learned translation would advertise his considerable expertise as scholar and lay theologian (in both Scotland and England, James made his own metrical translations of the Psalms direct from Hebrew). Not least, promoting a scriptural text that replaced the Geneva Bible would rid the realm of the Geneva notes that specified the circumstances in which subjects could disobey their monarchs.

As much as politics lay behind James' decision for a new translation, it was not coincidental that the result was a literary masterpiece, for the king's royal self-interest was matched by his acumen as a scholar-theologian. James, in other words, really did want a translation superior in scholarship and language to what had gone before. Yet this desire meshed perfectly with his need for a text that undergirded the king's authority while unifying his people.

And what of the long-term consequences of the intensely political story detailed so well by Norton and Campbell, and dramatized so effectively by director Stone? At the very least, it should be obvious that, whatever else must be said about the KJB's literary character or its spiritual impact, it is imperative to remember that the translation has always been read within webs of conflict and networks of power.

(2) What is the relationship of the KJB to its predecessor translations, and how did this one new translation win out so decisively over all its competitors?

All of the books are helpfully informative about the many ways in which earlier versions, especially the work of William Tyndale, informed the KJB. Indeed, as the translators' splendid prefatory address spelled out clearly, "we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones [to make] one principal good one."

Almost from the start, readers recognized both the dependence of the KJB on Tyndale and other 16th-century versions and the good work of those who prepared a "revised version." Yet it was not this recognition as such that won the day. It was rather that those who controlled the monopoly for publishing Bibles in England stopped producing the Bishops' Bible, supported the regime's effort to keep the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation as far away as possible, and maneuvered to freeze out publication of the Geneva Bible. (A testimony to the enduring popularity of that translation are the several editions of the KJB from the late 17th century that were published with the Geneva Bible notes.) The complex and sometimes sordid details of how royal monopolists schemed, scrounged, and sued to suppress other translations are narrated clearly by David Norton and Gordon Campbell. In fact, it took at least a century before the literary quality of the KJB received much attention. As Campbell points out, Jonathan Swift in 1712 was one of the first public voices to praise the KJB as "a kind of Standard for Language" and to explain that its "many beautiful passages" came from "the Simplicity that runs through the whole."

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