This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version. Its influence on the development of the English language, our values, imagination and culture has been profound. It’s phrases still echo in common speech – an eye for an eye, like a lamb to the slaughter, as old as the hills, sour grapes, love thy neighbor, am I my brothers keeper, be sure your sins will find you out, pride goes before a fall, the salt of the earth, the sign of the times, the laborer is worthy of his hire, all things to all men, etc. The largest section in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is the KJB section (28 pages).
But its influence goes beyond language into our art, music, literature and film. It ranges from the explicit text in Handel’s Messiah to U2, Bono and Nick Cave where the phrases and illusions abound. From William Blake’s poetry and Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a recent work, Atonement by the novelist Ian McEwan, and the film that followed, the influence continues. To fully appreciate the poetry of John Milton or T S Elliot requires an understanding of the Bible. It is also hard to read the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8) or Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55 ) or Jesus’ manifesto of his ministry (Luke4:16-21 ) without being inspired about justice, fairness and equality!
Even an aggressive atheist like Richard Dawkins has said You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible… not to know (it) is to be, in some small way, barbarian.(1) Andrew Motion, former British Poet Laureate, and self confessed non believer, in an interview in The Guardian, laments the widespread ignorance of the Bible today. He made the point that Bible stories are an essential part of our cultural luggage. He recommended that all children should be taught the Bible in school, since without it they can not hope to understand history and literature.(2)
This is an important observation in the light of the current push from a vocal minority for the dismantling of state legislation that provides for religious education in public state schools in Australia.
Many of the critics of religious education not only seem to have developed a form of cultural amnesia, they also seem ignorant of the very critical role the Bible has played in English culture in the forming of the very liberal freedoms they espouse so loudly. (3)
In fact the translation of the Bible into vernacular English was deeply influential in the development of democratic ideas in England and America. The availability of the bible to ordinary people inspired many egalitarian and radical movements in 16th and 17th C England. It was strongly influential in maintaining the importance of the elected Parliament over the powers of the King in the Commonwealth period. Other examples are the push for equality of access to land by groups like The Diggers and Levellers (17th C) and the demand for freedom of association and the right to organize their own labor in the early 19th C by farm laborers like The Tolepuddle Martyrs , forerunners of the modern Union Movement. These democratic movements were long before the advent of Marxism and were inspired by Biblical ideas of justice, fairness and equality.
To remove the study of the Bible from schools is like a form of book burning by the misguided secularists who either have no cultural memory or are simply ignorant of the forces that have formed our culture and its values, including those they cherish. Values are like water in a storage dam they leak away if they are not replenished from their source.
The KJB was commissioned by James I in 1604, the task was completed in 1611.Its forerunners were Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin in the 14th C and William Tyndale’s translation from original Greek in 1526, his work had a strong influence on the KJB. It is interesting in the light of what we said above about the Bible’s influence on the development of democratic ideas, that James’ reasons for the project were partly political. When James ascended the throne of England the most widely read Bible was the Geneva Bible. This was produced by Protestants who had fled to Switzerland during the persecutions under Queen Mary. It contained marginal notes, or commentary on the text, some of which was critical of the absolute power and authority of monarchs. James’ plan for a single official Bible gave him the opportunity to displace the Geneva Bible and its notes.
The aims of Wycliffe and Tyndale were to put the Word of God into the hands and language of ordinary people so they could read and interpret it for themselves without the controlling filter of priest, prelate or ruler. They also believed that the key to the reformation and renewal of the church was a true understanding of scripture and a restoration of its authority in the church.
When Luther was faced with the criticism that putting the Bible into the hands of every plowboy would create controversy and confusion he replied that he would prefer the hurricane of controversy to the pestilence of an authoritative error, a not so veiled reference to Papal authority and ex cathedra pronouncements!
Once again in these comments we see the desire for freedom of thought and expression that the Reformation and the accessibility of the Bible to everyone promoted. It is ironic that the secular beneficiaries’ of this legacy now want to exclude its study from our schools.
For those of us who are committed members of the Christian community, the body of Christ, the task begun by Wycliffe and Tyndale goes on. Every generation requires and has the right that the Bible be translated into its ‘language’ and every tribe needs it translated into their own tongue. For us the Bible is more than a cultural jewel to be cherished it is the living word of the living God. As Jesus said Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The work of translating the Bible into people’s mother tongue also reminds us that Christianity is not a culturally or ethnically bound faith, we have no sacred language. Jesus as a good Jew knew Hebrew but when he taught the Lords prayer he spoke in Aramaic the language of the ordinary people, these words were then translated into common Greek and since then into hundreds of other languages.
In a time when multiculturalism is being challenged and there is anxiety about the divisive role of religion in the world, the story of “The Commonwealth” is worth reflecting on. It is not perfect but it is one of the more successful political unifiers’ in our troubled world. As well as a commitment to democratic government, part of the glue that has held The Commonwealth together is the English language and also the place and influence of the Bible in its educational systems. This has been far more significant than people often realize, particularly through the schools established in the colonies by Christian Missions in the 19th and 20th C’s. Many of the first nationalist leaders of post colonial governments were educated in these schools such as Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania. Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa is another outstanding example.
The words of Paul in the NT have had an impact, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28) In spite of its faults the Christian Church is one of the most powerful examples of multicultural unity in our world.
(1)I am indebted to the excellent article by Antony Billington in the March 2011 edition of EG the magazine of The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
(2) The Guardian 17th Feb 2009
(3) See the outstanding work by Melvyn Bragg in “The Book 0f Books – the radical impact of the King James Bible” by Melvyn Bragg, Hodder 2011.