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400 Years of the King James Bible

‘Education used to be full of what the bible had to say,’ says Michael Rosen and even today, children who have little bible knowledge will be familiar with many of the idioms and phrases of the King James version, so steeped in the bible is the English language. On its 400th anniversary, Michael Rosen explains how the King James Bible came about.


ld stuff is always heading off out of sight: buildings are demolished, tunes are forgotten and old books stop being read. Part of being alive is wending a way through what’s worth saving and what might

as well be junked. In the world of books, there is a constant sifting and re-evaluation going on as academics, punters, professional interest groups, bibliophiles, librarians, teachers, antiquarians and others shunt the manuscripts, old books, facsimiles and newly edited texts to and fro, in and out of specialist journals, lectures, radio and TV programmes, theatre and film stagings. To my mind, it’s all rather wonderful, offering a mix of insights into past lives and civilisations along with fanatical enthusiasms, rivalries and staked out territories. In recent years, there have been excruciating battles over James Joyce, Franz Kafka and John Clare. Every so often, there are amazing discoveries: in the nineteenth century archaeologists found a long lost play by Euripides in what was really an ancient dustbin while others found texts of the epic of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets on the floor of an ancient palace in Iraq and an adventurer found an almost complete text of an ancient Bible in a monastery in Sinai.

It’s in these kinds of contexts – and many others – we have the bundle of books we call the King James Bible. If you are of a certain age, many of its passages are familiar. All you had to do was sit in assemblies, carol concerts, and RE lessons (called RI for Religious Instruction, in my day), and its words, phrases and cadences washed over you. If you fancied going in for a bit of public reading, then the chances are you were given a passage from that Bible to recite... ‘There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed...’ ‘In the beginning was the word...’ I can’t speak for private education, but the state education system as I received it, was full of what that Bible had to say.

If, as I did, you found yourself studying English Literature then a good deal of it post-1611 seemed to negotiate all this too. Metaphysical poets, Milton, Bunyan, the Romantics and on to T S Eliot used it as a hoard of ideas, phrases and as a reference point that they could assume would ring bells with their readers. People outside of this circle could find themselves in

12 Books for Keeps No.187 March 2011

a spot of bother here. My father had no Christian education but, in the late 1930s opted to study Eng Lit. He needed to swot up on this biblical stuff, so he popped into a place on the Whitechapel Road in London’s East End, where he lived, called the ‘Mission to the Hebrews’. So what with him being a Hebrew and in need of what the Mission had to offer, he was able to acquire, thanks to the folks inside, a good supply of the texts he needed. Though he didn’t convert, he did become an enthusiast for the sound of what he read and could be heard round the house singing ‘The Lord’s my shepherd...’ or chanting Ecclesiastes’ ‘There’s a time for...’

A re-hash of translations

In fact, there are probably very, very few speakers of English who can totally avoid speaking King James-ese, unless you never say girded loins, whited sepulchre, feet of clay, land of milk and honey, reap the whirlwind, cry in the wilderness,

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