Phil-osophically Speaking: December 29, 2011

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The King’s English

Its baroque eloquence is nothing less than an imperishable monument to the mysteries and longings of the human heart. Its stately cadences, like waves of rolling thunder, rock the firmament starting with the most awe-inspiring opening in the history of literature: “In the beginning God created the heaven, and the earth.” From this simple, short, declarative sentence the King James Bible soars in winged flight with the Complete Works of Shakespeare to the very summit of English literature. On the 400th anniversary of the completion of the text, it continues to shape and define our culture, language and history.   

In March of 1603, by decree of King James I, black-gowned clergymen with no conspicuous literary pedigree labored for eight years to capture the rhythm and sonorities of the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. The author Adam Nicholson called them “God’s secretaries,” because of the treasures they unearthed from the black soil of ancient literature. Genius is rarely found in the dry and bloodless pronouncements of committees; but Elizabethan England proved the exception, even though absent from the committee was the 39-year-old playwright William Shakespeare, who was just then reaching the heights of literary expression.

Miles Smith’s preface to the KJB succinctly outlined the committee’s objective which “was not to make a new translation — but a good one better.” He was referring to the Geneva Bible, the one that sowed the fertile imagination of both Shakespeare and Milton. But King James, first emerging from the immense shadow of the recently departed Queen Elizabeth, wanted to grace his reign with a new translation that would be true to the original scriptures but spoken in the tongue of the people. The prose would be transcendent but accessible to his loyal subjects.         

The upshot was a work of art, doing in words what Chartres and the Sistine Chapel did with architecture. With grandeur and reverence it crafted the moral vision of the Creator with authority and mystery. The phrasing was sublime: “But the wind bloweth where it listeth,” to name but one small masterpiece of expository prose from out of the multitude. The written word became a sacrament, anointed on its own altar as rhythmic cadences rippled with aesthetic flourishes. Portraying a cosmic drama that grappled with the light and shadow of eternity, it also planted (despite the sometimes seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments) stirring and unchanging truths in the bosom of man by telling us how we should treat others, what we must believe in, what we must sacrifice for, hope for, live for and die for.

The KJB was not, like the Goddess of Minerva, sprung fully grown and completely armed; but to borrow a Newtonian allusion, “it stood on the shoulders of giants.” The tallest Sequoia in the forest was William Tyndale, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation.  Some 75 years before the KJB committee convened, Tyndale began his translations of the Bible into English. His literary style and allusive genius, if not quite inhabiting the empyrean realm of Shakespeare, arguably deserves comparison with the next tier of literary lights in the persons of Chaucer and Milton. Approximately 83 percent of the New Testament and nearly 76 percent of the Old Testament can be directly attributed to William Tyndale.

The cross-pollination between KJB scholars and Tyndale produced a miracle of poetic prose worthy of the wonders that fill the Good Book. But, as with all human endeavors, it was not perfect. Over the last 400 years new textual sources have been discovered and some of the Jacobean words have either disappeared or changed their meaning. Clarification was needed. It first came in 1952 with the “Revised Standard Version” whose prose had all the majesty of one of those Tom, Dick and Jane books. Why such a dramatic revision? The idea should not be to bring the level of literacy down, but to raise it. Does one revise Shakespearean prose by sprinkling his language with “likes” and “you knows” because it’s an indelible part of the idiom of our young?  

Dwight MacDonald, a talented wordsmith of the time, saw what a fiasco that first updated version of the Bible was. Not a religious man, perhaps not even a believer, he cringed at the bowdlerization of an epic translation. For MacDonald the “Revised Edition” was a blatant act of war:  Reading it, he wrote, “Is like walking through an old city that has just been given, if not a saturation bombing, a thorough-going over” … One asks, “Is this gone? Does that still survive? Surely they might have spared that!”                

Later translations into the vernacular are an improvement; but none captures the poetic grace and mystic power of the King James Bible. We can read it, as the literary critic Harold Bloom does, free from dogma and catechism, enjoying it purely for its aesthetic value. Before I exited my 20s, I managed to read the Bible from cover to cover without any real emphasis on the finer theological points. But, still, for Tyndale and the 54 scholars of King James’ court, there was something other than the artistic to express or, to be more precise, what they sought to express was so beyond human experience that only the lyricism of language could serve, albeit inadequately, as a bridge to what mortal man cannot fully know. For the nature of his God is shrouded in mystery, his face unseen, even his name is hidden in the vast loneliness of time and timelessness: “I am who am.”  

God’s secretaries were struck with the same awe as Solomon was in building a great temple in the name of the Lord. After sending out three score and ten thousand men to bear burdens, and fourscore thousand to hew in the mountain, and three thousand and six hundred to oversee them he realizes, in deathless prose, that these earthly aspirations are forever frustrated: But who is able to build him a house, seeing the heaven and heavens of heavens cannot contain him?

The passage breathes the infinite majesty of God; for there is no way to truly understand something that cannot be counted or measured. But 400 years ago a house in the name of the Lord was built between the covers of what we know as the King James Bible, and those who live under its roof have found from its inspired words shelter, peace and amid storms of uncertainty, the light of hope.

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