Biblical heritage

As many readers will know, 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Authorized Version’ of the Bible, popularly known as the King James version. It was not the first translation of the Bible into English, but it became the dominant version. There were political reasons for this, but more importantly the King James Bible claimed its place in English literary heritage by the extraordinary beauty of its language. It was drafted by six separate committees of religious scholars over a period of about four years, and together with the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer it came to provide the language, rhythm and poetry of Christian belief expressed in English.

It is now rarely used in worship (except in conservative American denominations), but its literary legacy is in everyday use throughout the English speaking world. When it was once remarked that, in the Bible, Jesus speaks almost entirely in clichés, this demonstrated the extent to which the King James Bible has established itself as the pre-eminent phrase book of the English language.

The King James Bible was not a dispassionate translation. King James I gave the committees tasked with the work clear instructions as to the theology, eccelesiology and politics that he expected the resulting work to sustain. As a result, other modern translations may reflect more accurately the original Hebrew and Greek texts. But the competition between these newer translations has itself ensured that none of them has become common cultural property in the way the King James Bible was, and to some extent still is. When a radio station about ten years ago asked a number of public figures to cite a biblical phrase from memory, every one without exception quoted verses from the King James Bible.

I also once trawled Irish parliamentary (Dáil) debates for biblical references, and every single one I found used the King James version – despite the fact that the politicians in question would not ever have experienced this version in either worship or in religious education.

So, even apart from any religious affiliation or tradition, the King James version of the Bible has become an item of literary and cultural common property of the English speaking world. Nowadays we would never expect any committee to draft anything linguistically memorable. The six committees who produced the Authorized Version of the Bible were, however, able to change the English language for ever. This anniversary is worth the attention it is getting.

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18 Comments on “Biblical heritage”

  1. Sally Says:

    I wonder if all the ye’s and thou’s and thines are a result of how the Scots spoke then.

  2. Vincent Says:

    It would depend. If I had a rack, a few choice items down in the cellar and an Headsman on hand I could pretty much guarantee I could make a committee or twenty write with any slant I wanted and with their toes.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    A couple of interesting links on this:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12205084
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bible-phrases-sayings.html
    the latter is a list of 122 everyday phrases that have a biblical origin
    I guess what this proves is the power of imaginative and didactic metaphoric language in human communication

    • Sally Says:

      You left out “narrative”.

      • anna notaro Says:

        thanks Sally, I have already argued on this blog the cognitive value of narrative and its key role with regards to all forms of (mediated) communication. The Bible (and other sacred texts from different religious traditions)is a splendid example of the power exercised by the *(hi)stories*, told, one might dispute their veracity, of course but it’s exactly in the truth/falsehood ambiguity that much of their allure lies

        • John Says:

          Truth and falsehood have nothing to do with ambiguity. The former are measures of accuracy and the latter of clarity.


          • I think what Anna was saying that our relationship with truth and falsehood can become ambiguous, because at some level we don’t believe that truth or falsehood are necessarily the appropriate criteria for certain questions.

  4. John Says:

    I suppose the reason so much of it has passed into our language is that we’ve been force-fed with it for several centuries.

    • Sally Says:

      Yes – more likely this than the “allure” of its “truth/falsehood ambiguity” I should think.🙂 I thought Anna was joking at first but apparently she means it.

      • anna notaro Says:

        indeed, I do mean it Sally my skeptic postmodernist mind cannot accept easily such sharp cut definitions as the following: ‘Truth and falsehood have nothing to do with ambiguity. The former are measures of accuracy and the latter of clarity.’ Definitions like these are ok for a dictionary, when it comes to real life it gets a lit bit more complicated..

        • Sally Says:

          I hadn’t realized you could still get away with this sort of wooliness.

          • anna notaro Says:

            what you define as ‘wooliness’ is *Doubt*, a crucial philosophical facet of what constitutes modernity. By doubting Descartes concluded I think, therefore I am. Doubt affirms the conscious, reasoning self.

          • John Says:

            You can if you’re a Postmodernist. You just record your general impression of things and present that as ‘your truth’. If you have the media clout James had, you can drop the word ‘your’.

          • John Says:

            Anna, Descartes was refuting the sollipsists, who doubted whether there was any evidence for anything but their own thought. He said there must be something doing the thinking.

          • John Says:

            Descartes thus allowed the progress towards modern Materialism. Would you not agree that Postmodernism, with its emphasis on subjective impressions, is akin to the subjective Idealism of Socrates – and his media man Plato – and should consequently be renamed Premodernism?

  5. Andy Says:

    It’s also used by certain conservative denominations in NI – Free Presbyterians of course, and often Gospel Halls etc

  6. anna notaro Says:

    John – Plato as ‘Socrates media man’ that’s really a good one, I like it :)As you know Socrates claimed that he knew one and only one thing: that he knew nothing. About a century later the The Greek school of Skeptic philosophers (from the verb, “skeptomai,” which means “to look carefully, to reflect.”) consolidated the skeptic tradition which over the centuries has greatly influenced Western thought. I mentioned Descartes earlier, but one could also add Montaigne, Pascal (and I’m skipping all the Christian thinkers St. Augustin etc.)Postmodernism, if you like is a more radical form of skepticism which emerged in the last half of the 20th century. The history just sketched is an oversimplification, of course, also in a truly postmodernist move let me also stress the entirely arbitrary nature of definitions such as ‘modern’, premodern’, ‘postmodern’ and such like!

    • John Says:

      Anna, reject the Postmodernists. Their arguments annihilate themselves. Good luck with your philosophical meanderings.


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