Wide As the Waters and In the Beginning

By Benson Bobrick
By Alister McGrath

Literary biographies, beginning with a genealogy, including a discussion of important texts, and ending with reflections on the significance and influence of their subject, have always been popular. But why should literary biographies only be concerned with authors? Why not write the biography of a book?

Both of these two new releases seek to do just this, presenting the biography of perhaps the most famous book written in English: the King James Bible.

A glance at the subtitles gives some indication how similar they are. Though their emphasis falls in different places – McGrath is more interested in the art of translation, Bobrick in the political angles – they obviously cover a lot of the same ground. They even have nearly identical appendixes with biblical chronologies and comparative translations.

The historical context is important because translating the Bible, at least for most of the last five hundred years, has been a profoundly political act. Specifically, vernacular translations were seen as a challenge to church authority from the beginning. Bringing the Bible to the masses made more than one martyr in the battles between Protestants and Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans.

After his death, the body of the man usually credited with being the Bible’s first English translator, John Wycliffe, was exhumed, removed from consecrated ground, and burned. His ashes were then thrown into the river Swift. The title of Bobrick’s book comes from a poetic prophecy that “Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,/ Wide as the waters be.”

The claim is not too large given the influence the English Bible has had. For Bobrick this influence has been primarily political, sanctioning the right and capacity of people to think for themselves and promoting equality around the world. But with regard to literature it played an equally important role, influencing individual writers from Bunyan to Whitman and shaping the language in ways that would still be evident well into the twentieth century.

But the King James Bible is a curious work of literature itself. As McGrath points out, it is not a work to be judged by the standards of the modern era, “in which originality and novelty often seem to be prized above all other virtues.” The translators were aware of their place within a long tradition of English translations and saw themselves as standing on the shoulders of giants. As they made clear in their preface, “we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

In addition to not being terribly original, it was also a piece of committee work. Its closest literary cousin is the Oxford English Dictionary, another group project with nationalist overtones and a long genealogy.

And if Samuel Johnson was the hero of English lexicography, Matthew Tyndale was the hero of the English Bible. Not only one of its earliest translators (and martyrs), he was probably its best. Subsequent translations, including the King James Version, relied heavily on his work, and were capable of only slight improvements. It was Tyndale who gave us such phrases as “the powers that be,” “my brother’s keeper,” “the salt of the earth,” and “a law unto themselves,” as well as such words as “scapegoat” and “atonement.”

What the King James Bible was able to do that Tyndale’s Bible couldn’t was provide a standard. As things turned out, however, this was not so much a religious standard as an imaginative and linguistic one. In judging its influence on the English language and literature it can only be compared to the work of Shakespeare. Later translations have been more accurate, but none have achieved the same cultural resonance.

It is an achievement unlikely to be surpassed. The story of the English Bible is finally the story of print, beginning and ending with the rise and fall of typography. No book will ever have the same significance again, for the simple reason that we no longer live in a print culture.

That the language of the King James Bible lives on is due in part to the fact that, like the language of Shakespeare, it was meant to be performed in public. The translators even read their draft copies aloud to each other, thus ensuring the suitability of the final text for its use in churches. (The phrase “Appointed to be read in Churches” that appeared on the title page did not mean that the Bible was authorized for this purpose, but laid out in a way suitable for public reading.) It was this consideration for the Bible’s public role that helped ensure the King James Version would remain a living word.

Review first published June 23, 2001.


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