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.