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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."

Seeing that book, there in that place, I recognized the irony but preferred not to face it. In fact, there were multiple ironies. There I was, in the front room of Blackwell's Bookshop, that Oxford landmark on Broad Street renowned among English-language booksellers. (Its vast Norrington Room downstairs contains an inventory of books sufficient to boggle the mind.) I was half navigating around clusters of summer tourists and half browsing new books on the display tables. Among titles by A. N. Wilson, Alexandra Harris, and Robert Hughes, there was a colorfully illustrated title I'd been hearing about, It's a Book, by Lane Smith, a past recipient of the Caldecott Medal for children's books. It's a Book may be pitched to children, but its sly wit will be especially appreciated by parents or adults, or at least those who care to think about ongoing changes in reading habits, entertainment preferences, and literacy itself. In Smith's book, a monkey and mouse try to convince a donkey, who is a highly digital gamester and web browser, of the imaginative attractions of an unassuming object, the book. The donkey is mystified by such a simple technology. How do you scroll down? he asks. Can you blog with it? Do you need a screen name or password? No, and no mouse or batteries needed, either. The book is indeed, as its product description promises, a "delightful manifesto on behalf of print." Yet, to encounter this book inside Blackwell's, a veritable cathedral of printed books—it does give one pause. Smith's book is witty, but in the current climate, it also has an unsettling edge. The distracted donkey's clueless questions don't sound outlandish enough, you might say. They sound all too askable, by children who know no better and by adults who have forgotten the benefits and pleasure of reading beyond tweets, Facebook posts, fan blogs, official websites for this or that cultural product—basically any splotch of text bereft of substance or challenge. As for children, I fear that their default author will increasingly be Ralph Lauren—no, not some new writer of young-adult novels, but the clothing company. I recently saw an ad for The RL Gang, "The first-ever online shoppable storybook series for children." Online may come with the reading territory these days, but "shoppable"? Maybe this is just what the beleaguered book needs—to become a more thoroughly monetizable vehicle.

It's a Book may be celebratory, may be a spiky kind of defense, but it is tremendously different in tone from a similar kid's volume of twelve years ago, George Ella Lyon's and Peter Catalanotto's Book. This precursor, which might best be described as trippy, features children in nightclothes floating through the cosmos of imagination, or peering into a giant front cover of a book (whose interior is lit up as if it were a refrigerator full of radium) or surrounded by wild animals or swinging from letters as if from a jungle gym. It features text such as, "A BOOK is a CHEST that keeps the heart's treasure. Lift the plain lid and look in." In short, it equates the flights of reading with the hallucinogenic effects of recreational drug use. Now, there is at least one rip-roaring, kaleidoscopic page sublimating the reading experience in It's a Book, but it's the fleeting exception. The bottom line remains with the skeptical, mainly disappointed donkey, and the plain book he keeps holding a little awkwardly. In other words, ten years of the Internet and Kindles and iPads feel like a long time. Defense or no, It's a Book does not entirely keep away that culture of gurneys and death-row vigils that prevails in the publishing industry nowadays. So it was a little odd to encounter this picture book first in Blackwell's, one of the few places where some of those bleak realities of reading may be pleasantly if briefly forgotten.

And then there was a second irony, another curious mash-up of paradox and proximity. Across from Blackwell's, a few hundred yards down Catte Street, just past the Sheldonian Theater and within the Bodleian Library's Old Schools Quadrangle, the Exhibition Room featured a summer display dedicated to one of the most enduring printed books in history, the King James Bible.

First published in 1611, this particular Bible has been the subject of countless appraisals and appreciations during its four-hundredth anniversary this year. This fall, Union University held "KJV400: Legacy & Impact," a conference where Union faculty members responded to panelists' papers, and Wheaton College hosted "Words of Delight," a conference on the KJV and the Bible in English, held in honor of Leland Ryken and featuring lectures by scholars such as David Lyle Jeffrey, Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, and Ryken himself, as well as an exhibit of rare Bibles and biblical artifacts from the Green Collection. Other major conferences have already occurred at Baylor University, The Ohio State University, and the University of York, and surely a highlight among anniversary events was this spring-summer exhibition at Oxford, along with its partner event focusing on the "Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible," which opened on September 23 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D. C. (free admission, and running through January 15). These two world-class libraries have also collaborated on a handsome exhibition catalogue, Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible.

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.

Some truly memorable literary texts could be found on the opposite end of the exhibition room itself: the first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (in ten, rather than twelve, books); a passage from a treatise by Jonathan Swift that is among the earliest apologias for the specifically literary merits of the King James Bible; manuscript pages of George Herbert's two "Holie Scriptures" poems; writing that reveals surprising echoes of the KJV by Dissenting authors such as Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan; Charles Wesley's Short Hymns; and the conductor's book for Handel's Messiah. Twenty-seven years after the first performance of that masterpiece in 1742, Oxford University Press published the first revision of the King James Bible, the "Oxford Standard" version, also on display. By this time the translation had become, according to the display, "the central text of establishment religion and culture in England."

Likewise, the current exhibit at the Folger Library and the related American-reception essays in the catalogue include such editions or KJV-influenced or inspired items as a bible owned by Elizabeth I, a 1620 King James edition that traveled on the Mayflower, and later incorporations in the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., the illustrations of R. Crumb, and the recent film The Book of Eli. The KJV translators addressed their monarch in a dedication by speaking glowingly of his reign thus far—"Great and manifold were the blessings"—and if you read again the lists of objects in these last couple of paragraphs, the phrase becomes more broadly applicable, less anchored in political flattery. Those words, the curators explain to us, refer in this context to the abundant and diverse influences of this Bible on the English language. (The word "manifold" is also prominent in the Book of Common Prayer, describing both believers' sins and God's greater mercies.)

Overall, then, these exhibits take a long, wide view of a helical practice of translation and influence that inevitably frames the particular effort and accomplishment of the King James translators. And who were they, exactly? Six companies of several translators apiece located by pairs in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. Apparently all but one had Oxford or Cambridge training and connections. The first and second Oxford companies pursued their work in Corpus Christi and Merton colleges, and the Bodleian exhibit nicely emphasized this local angle. Given its proximity, the library is unrivaled in being able to show how these two companies translated major sections (Isaiah to Malachi; Gospels, Acts, Revelation), attending to the scholarly personalities who most directed the work and the sources and linguistic aids they had at their disposal. Many of these texts—for example, polyglot Bibles, grammars and vocabularies, and more specialized texts such as rabbinical commentaries or Ulisse Aldovendi's treatise on insects (to help with pesky bug names and identifications in the Hebrew)—remain in these college libraries to this day, and were on display at the exhibition. What's more, the catalogue features high-quality, frame-ready images of Corpus Christi's and Merton's libraries and master's lodgings, stirring for some readers, at least, a handsome fantasy of pious translation and scholarly derring-do on pristine college grounds.

Harold Bloom, in his new appreciation of the English Bible's literary excellences, reacts in a way that opposes such hagiographies of the translators and their serene work, but it is an opposition that is just as familiar—he marvels that a group of mostly "undistinguished" men (at least as literary men) could have produced such a sublime work of literature. They did not possess Tyndale's gift for dramatizing, he argues, but their rendering is grand enough as to make the very fact of their managing to accomplish it "inexplicable." Some of the titles on display at Oxford helped me to realize that eloquent exhalations didn't just issue forth from these revisers. Instead, the achievement emerged from a thorough grounding, to an extent we can imagine today only with difficulty, in grammar and rhetoric. Henry Savile was warden of Merton College and a Greek scholar, and on display was his edition of works by Chrysostom, that "golden-tongued" doctor of the church. Good practice for eloquence, that. Another translator, seeking to know his authors better, possessed a book on the lives of Luke and John. Other books in the translators' possession, as the catalogue reports in more detail, included Sophocles' Ajax and Ptolemy's Almagest. It is worth remembering the deeply humanistic training these scholars had received at Oxford, and in the Tudor curriculum generally, from their schoolboy-with-hornbook days onward.

One of my favorite titles to offer, in the catalogue's words, a glimpse into the Oxford Companies' world of books was Bellum grammaticale, or Civil War of Nouns and Verbs. Sure, that sounds silly, a Game of Thrones for the geekiest among us, but it also tells us something about having a mindset suitable for the work you do. A translator needs to know grammar. For really good translators, grammar has to become a nearly sexy thing, something worthy of obsession. So, when biblical words and phrases were being weighed and debated in those Oxford rooms, the translators' sensitivities to the task's peculiar units of measure were great. Their various backgrounds in learning made them acutely aware of such fine discriminations. These men were, you might say, the early-modern equivalents of Hal Incandenza's mother, Avril, in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. She founds the "Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts," and leads boycotts against grocery stores with "ten items or less" signs. Except that, of course, the King James translators had to show not only the grammarian's principled learning but also the flexibility and ingenuity in matters grammatical that good translating always requires. One displayed book, Richard Mulcaster's Elementarie, was a timely volume that convinced these men and others that English was capable of enlightened, subtle handling: "It's better able to utter all arguments," Mulcaster asserted, "with more pith and greater plainness."

John Rainolds was another of the obsessed ones. The Bodleian exhibition featured a notebook of his with a list of "grammatical peculiarities"—relating only to the first five words of Genesis. President of Corpus Christi College, he lectured on Aristotle's Rhetoric. He also had at his disposal, we learn, some two thousand volumes, and he hosted one of the companies in his lodgings till he died in 1607. Elizabeth I had worried that he was too radical in his Protestant sympathies; his displayed portrait makes him look, dare I say, rather impish, grinning with energy and with a pronounced widow's peak. (This portrait makes a fine frontispiece for the exhibition catalogue.) Rainolds had been admitted to Oxford at the age of eight. Think about that, and tell me again how unaccomplished he was. Another portrait visually counters Rainolds'—the downward-drawn countenance of Lancelot Andrewes. The most gifted of the translators in literary terms, Andrewes' look falls somewhere between sobriety and lassitude. A collection of his sermons, from 1639 and also shown, reflects a continuing resourcefulness that may surprise—within these sermons, he quotes from the Septuagint, the prayer-book Psalter (Coverdale's versions, that is), the Geneva Bible (still), and, yes, the newer translation. John Donne in his sermons also quoted from the King James Version, but from the Latin Vulgate, too.

The preachers in Andrewes and Donne, more than the biblical scholars, did not scruple to introduce multiple renderings if it meant a more likely illumination of this word or verse for their congregants. The worst thing a translation can do is darken or dumbfound, instead of standing in relation to the original work, as Walter Benjamin describes, so that "it does not block its light." A good translation, according to that great critic, is not a wall behind which the original languishes, invisible or forgotten, but resembles an arcade, a structure that bears weight while still allowing the viewer to see through it. This formidable image holds up, so to speak, no matter the medium dealt with—parchment, paper, or pixel. And whatever the matter of the book or "book," translation's duties remain. This metaphor of openness is everywhere in the prose writings of William Tyndale, and is found in Miles Smith's preface to the King James Bible, where in one sense he does the figure one better: there a successful translation "openeth the window to let in the light."

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published earlier this year by Northwestrn University Press.

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