Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011

Gordon Campbell

Oxford University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Gordon Campbell's The Story of the King James Version covers the broad sweep of history from earlier translations of the Bible into English through to the vast variety of versions of the KJV available in the 21st century.

Despite Campbell being a specialist on the Renaissance rather than the Bible, he stays focused on his subject, providing historical and cultural background only as necessary. The result is aimed at a broad audience and lacks any references or notes, but it is a serious work of history rather than an entertainment, with no digression into amusing anecdotes or incidental biographical detail.

Campbell begins with a quick survey of earlier Bible translations into English, by Wyclif's followers, Tyndale, Coverdale, and so forth, leading up to the Bishops' Bible on which the KJV was directly based. Despite theological differences, it also drew on the Puritan Geneva Bible and even in places the Catholic Douai-Rheims translation.

The KJV was commissioned as the one concession to moderate puritans following a royal conference at Hampton Court. It was unusual for the explicit instructions given to the translators and the careful procedures they followed.

"Whereas previous translations had been the work of a small number of individuals or a group of slapdash bishops, the KJV was a carefully mediated enterprise in which panels of translators worked collaboratively."

One area of debate was in the inclusion of the Apocrypha, which are omitted from modern versions.

Campbell goes into some detail about the six "companies" of translators — two at each of Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge — and an appendix gives brief biographies of the individual translators. He emphasizes their extraordinary linguistic knowledge, which would be hard to match today: they drew on translations and texts in an array of other languages. Glimpses of the process of translation and review can be ascertained from annotated manuscripts of the Bishops' Bible.

As well as general approaches to translation, Campbell considers in detail some of the choices made in language, style, and theology.

"That aspiration to translate literally led to some idioms that now seem formal, because the translators decided that certain words should be translated in the same way whenever they occurred; the effect is an incantatory quality that can be mistaken for majesty. The clearest example is the past and future tenses of the copula 'to be', which are often translated 'and it came to pass' and 'and it shall come to pass'. These phrases are instantly recognisable as biblical partly because of the frequency of their occurrence, but also because they did not become part of the stock of the English language; indeed, the phrases are used only in books that mimic the language of the KJV, such as the book of Mormon, or in phrases that evoke the biblical idiom."

A detailed description of the first edition covers its frontispieces, title pages and other preliminaries, its artwork, and its printing and copy-editing errors. Campbell claims, surely hyperbolically unless restricted to England, that "the quality of the first edition of KJV, judged purely as a printed book, comfortably exceeded that of any other book published in the seventeenth century". (Strangely, given its common epithet, the KJV was not actually authorized: unlike the Bishop's Bible, it was only "appointed to be read in churches".)

KJV was first printed by the King's Printer, which suffered financial travails, and then by Cambridge from 1629; Oxford didn't start printing it till 1673, but "by 1683 [its] Bible Press was the largest printing house in England". There were some hostile early responses, but "after 1660 attacks on the KJV abated, and it was quietly adopted by Protestants of all persuasions".

The eighteenth century saw new editions produced by Baskett at Oxford, Baskerville and Parris at Cambridge, and then Blayney at Oxford:

"Benjamin Blayney is little known today, but he might rightly be regarded as the single most important individual in the history of the KJV, because the twenty-first-century text of the Bible is essentially Blayney's text."

The literary, as opposed to scholarly, adulation of the KJV also started in the late 18th century.

The 19th century saw the rise of competing American versions and popular illustrated bibles. The "separation of literary value from religious truth" reached its apogee, with praise for the KJV coming even from atheists such as Thomas Huxley and Catholics such as Frederick William Faber.

Further innovation came with the Cambridge Paragraph Bibles, Scrivener's of 1873 and Norton's of 2005. The latter is "the best example of what can be achieved by modernizing the KJV, and of what perils lie in wait for the modernizer": Campbell uses it to illustrate some of the pitfalls in updating the spelling and punctuation and changing the basic unit of layout from verse to paragraph. The late 19th century also saw the production of the Revised Version and the American Standard Version, controversial for using sources for the Greek text of the New Testament other than the Byzantine Textus Receptus.

Starting in the early 20th century a whole tree of versions rooted on the KJV has sprouted: commemorative versions in 1911 and 2011, largely decorative versions such as the Oxford Lectern Bible, the Scofield Bible with explicitly evangelical notes and directions, the New King James Version, the 21st Century King James Version, and so forth. Other topics of debate include the use of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the King James Only Movement, the KJV as literature (this time pitting Lowes and Saintsbury against Lewis and Eliot), and the extent to which the KJV has influenced the English language.

In all of this — with the exception of a fairly general ten page history of the Bible in the United States — Campbell stays focused on the KJV. Its history, however, offers a perspective on other topics, on the changing role of religion in public life, on the development of textual criticism, and so forth. So the result is an involving read even for those without any direct interest in the KJV.

Note: A wealth of books on the KJV were published for the quadricentenary last year and I considered at least two others. Manifold Greatness: the Making of the King James Bible is an edited collection which draws on the Bodleian Library's manuscript collection for some gorgeous illustrations, but only covers the first sixty years or so of the KJV's history. David Norton's The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today has more detail on the original translation — and Norton is a Bible and KJV specialist — but less on the modern period.

September 2012

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%T Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011
%A Campbell, Gordon
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2010
%O hardcover, further reading, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199557592
%P 354pp