Posted by: michaeldaybath | June 10, 2011

Melvyn Bragg on the King James Bible

Cover of Melvyn Bragg's Book of Books (2011)

On the evening of the 9th June, the author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg was in Bath Abbey to talk about his new book on the Authorised Version (AV) of the Bible: The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 [1]. Bath had already helped to mark the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the AV by holding a continuous public reading of the Bible in March as part of the Bath Literature Festival 2011, a feat that took 96 hours, 18 minutes and 39 seconds. Lord Bragg’s aim was rather different, to select some entertaining highlights from his book to demonstrate the radical cultural and social influence of the AV and its predecessors.

The talk started in the 4th century, with St Jerome’s revision of earlier translations to produce the Latin Bible that eventually became known as the Vulgate. Bragg then moved quickly on to the time when the language of the Vulgate had become a means of enforcing power, and the first attempts by John Wycliffe (and others) in the fourteenth-century to breach the monopoly of the Vulgate by the production of an English-language translation of the Bible. Noting how Wycliffe and his Oxford followers had been persecuted for this, Bragg moved swiftly on to consider the person that he seems to consider most responsible for the eventual success of the AV, William Tyndale.

Bragg described Tyndale as a “scholar of extraordinary genius” who was able to take the English language to new heights. Despite constant persecution – which eventually led to his execution for heresy in 1536 – Tyndale was able to produce powerful translations that were intended to be read aloud and thus learnt by those who could not read. Bragg made the simple point that when King James’s scholars gathered together the best of existing translations to create the AV, the result was fundamentally Tyndale’s Bible, with over 85% of the New Testament and the beginning of the Old Testament dependent on Tyndale’s prior work. In a brief discussion of Tyndale and Shakespeare, Bragg noted that Shakespeare had been heavily “influenced by what became the King James Bible,” chiefly through hearing the earlier Geneva Bible – which was (again) largely based on Tyndale’s translation. He also noted just how many authors were influenced by the English Bible after the publication of the AV, ranging from Donne, Milton, Bunyan and Dryden, through Defoe and Blake, to Coleridge, Tennyson and Dickens in the nineteenth century and William Golding in the twentieth. In North America, Bragg pointed to a tradition of the AV’s literary influence, citing Melville, Hawthorne, Steinbeck, Toni Morrison and T. S. Eliot.

Bragg then went on to outline in more detail what he said had been two of the more interesting things that he had discovered when writing the book. The first was the crucial role of the AV in the elimination of slavery. He argued that prior to the nineteenth century, the existence of slavery had pretty much been taken for granted. By contrast, William Wilberforce’s passion in fighting the slave trade – exemplified by his 1789 speech in the House of Commons – had been forged in the English Bible: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Even after the abolition of the slave trade, Bragg explained how the preaching Bible first produced by Tyndale gradually began to influence slaves in North America. Supported by new religious movements like Methodism, black churches began to develop their own readings of the stories of Moses and Daniel, as well as gospel songs (spirituals) that were directly influenced by the language of the AV. Bragg concluded his comments on slavery by noting that “in this, the Bible changed the world for the better.”

After some comments on the importance of religion to many of the founders of modern science, Bragg concluded his talk with a brief account of his second main discovery: the profound effect that the AV had on the development of democracy. He cited the example of the Civil Wars of the 1640s in England, when the Bible became the focus of fervent discussion around the campfires of fighting men. His main point was that biblical arguments were used at the trial of Charles I to justify the overthrow of a king considered to be a tyrant. That principle and the embryonic democratic ideas discussed at the Putney Debates of 1647 eventually spread to America and took seed there. Bragg finished his talk with a reference to the recent speech given by the President of the United States of America in the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster. President Obama had been speaking in the very place where King Charles I had been condemned to death through law in 1649. Not very far away was the chamber in which Wilberforce spoke so forcefully in favour of abolishing slavery in 1789. Bragg concluded by noting that President Obama had recited the presidential oath in 2009 by using the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at the 1861 inauguration.

Bragg obviously covers much more in the book. However, a common theme would appear to be that the radical influence of the AV often develops alongside or even outside the faith that it was designed to support. One theme not covered in great detail in The Book of Books is that of the apparent hostility of many in the current Church of England to a work that was for many years the official version used for public reading. A questioner commented on the danger of over elevating a particular translation and the possibility of setting the Word of God in aspic. Bragg dealt with these points very well, making the point that while there could (or should) be no monopoly over translations, it was wrong to disinherit people deliberately from this book.

The Church of England”s move away from the AV has been going on for some time. Moves to bring the English Bible ‘up-to-date’ commenced in the late nineteenth-century, when textual criticism of the texts that make up the Bible concluded that the Greek text underlying Tyndale’s New Testament and its successors (the so-called Textus Receptus) represented some inferior readings when compared with earlier manuscripts like Codex Vaticanus or Codex Sinaiticus. B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort produced a Greek New Testament in 1881 that was largely based on these earlier manuscripts. Both Westcott and Hort were also involved in the production of a Revised Version (RV) of the English Bible in 1885, which made significant changes to the AV text on the basis of textual analysis. RV started the process of Bible translation that has resulted in the plethora of English translations currently available. Liturgical Reform since the 1960s has meant that the AV is now largely reserved for services that use the Book of Common Prayer or for grand state occasions. For this reason, it was very useful to be reminded by Lord Bragg of the wider cultural and social significance of the biblical text codified by King James’s scholars 400 years ago.

Reference

1. Melvyn Bragg, The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011). ISBN 978-1-444-70515-7 (hardback)

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