Bible: the Story of the King James Version (1611-2011)

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This landmark of the most loved book ever published in English will be marked in numerous ways. Understandably, the festivities, led by the King James Bible Trust, will concentrate attention on the Bible now inseparable from the king's name. However, they will also offer an opportunity for the country to appreciate the statecraft of the monarch whose actions set in train this great gift to the English-speaking world.

How different might the world now look if, for instance, one of the world's leaders on 11 September 2001 had displayed the political abilities James showed when the Gunpowder Plot against him failed in 1605. The king did not use that event to launch a war against terror, as a lesser leader might have done. Instead, he called together both houses of parliament to drive a wedge between a group of assassins and the rest of the country. He reminded his audience that the least important characteristic of the plotters was that they were Catholics: they were separated from the rest of the nation only by the treachery they held in their hearts and had attempted to put into action. Parliament was told that the majority of Catholics in this country were loyal citizens and that politicians must never forget that fact.

Indeed, James's reign can be seen as an example of how to keep a nation of many cultures from tearing apart. A new translation of the Bible offered him a means of achieving this goal.

As Gordon Campbell reminds us in this beautifully crafted book, James's Bible belongs in a long line of translations. There is a good deal of useful information on the earlier English renderings. For instance, despite what I had thought, John Wycliffe never undertook a translation in person. William Tyndale was the single most gifted translator and is rightly seen as the father of the English Bible. James's translators recognised this, making Tyndale's version the ribcage for much of their work. Myles Coverdale's work, also in the 16th century, gave the English phrases such as "lovingkindness" and "tender mercies" and his work remained in regular use until 1980, through the psalms in The Book of Common Prayer.
James, king of Scotland, invited to succeed Elizabeth I, came from a country that was no stranger to strife, judicial murder and general mayhem to a kingdom that similarly had been torn asunder by the Reformation. James saw his Bible as a unifying force at a time when religion determined the politics of the day.

Six groups of scholars were entrusted to undertake the task: two teams at Westminster, two at Cambridge and two at Oxford. These appointments were made on strictly pre-Nolan committee terms - the old boy network, and raw political power, decided the composition. Campbell notes that the population from which the members of the teams were drawn was only one-fifteenth of the size it is today. Yet it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than 50 scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that the translators of the King James Bible had. Michael Gove might just have a point about the amount of dross that disguises itself as learning these days.

The one disappointment with Campbell's book is its failure to present a clear picture of how the King James Bible shaped the establishment of the British empire. This was the text taken around the world by the armies of settlers who followed the British flag (there is, however, a good chapter on the Bible in America). But as that empire fell away, as do all earthly powers, the King James Version acted as midwife to an intellectual commonwealth where a common language still reigns supreme - and to such advantage to its mother country, if only that country had eyes to see.
But let the last words go to Campbell. Although the King James Bible was followed by other translations during the subsequent four centuries, it has been the most enduring embodiment of the text in English. Even the best of the later revisions are admired, but never cherished: "It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of those who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others; other translations may engage the mind, but the King James Version is the Bible of the heart."

Bible: the Story of the King James Version (1611-2011)
Gordon Campbell
Oxford University Press, 354pp, £16.99

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead.

Frank Field has been Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979. From 1997 to 1998 he was Minister for Welfare Reform

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided