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The making of the King James Bible

When God Spoke English: why everyone from Richard Dawkins to Boris Johnson worships the KJB.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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‘Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny?’ So asks one of the characters in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. ‘He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.’

Well, it’s proof that they didn’t have the BBC in those days at least. The KJB is 400 years young this year, and it’s being treated to a hell of a birthday bash. Back in January, on Radio 4, sweary James Naughtie took time out of turning the air blue to present a three-part documentary on this most purple of bibles, ahead of a series of fruity readings spread out across a Sunday. This week on TV, BBC Four treated us to an hour of When God Spoke English and, for those who can’t get enough of the Good Book but can get enough of Auntie, there’s a full reading of the text over five days at the Bath Literature Festival and an abridged Royal Shakespeare Company version doing the rounds.

But fear ye not: we have not woken up in Kingsley Amis’ novel The Alteration, where the Reformation never happened and contemporary Britain is in the grip of a medieval theocracy. This is a thoroughly secular celebration of a book that tops even the Bard for its contributions to the modern English language. Even Richard Dawkins wants to see it being taught in schools, albeit because he wants to prevent, in a theologically challenging conceit if ever there was one, ‘religion hijacking this valuable cultural resource’. Not even the Bible gets to do God these days, it seems.

A gay, Jewish professor of mine once observed that he preferred teaching English literature in bible-belt colleges in his native US rather than in east-coast liberal arts institutions (or, indeed, English universities in south-west England) because the students ‘got so many of the references easier’. That the King James Bible is apparently the US fundamentalists’, er, bible perhaps gets to the heart of that sentiment. It was famously produced by committee at the behest of King James in a desperate attempt to maintain religious order in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot. Combining several earlier versions of the Bible (including William Tyndale’s) against the backdrop of the rich Jacobean literary culture, the KJB is certainly a masterpiece of English literature, hailed by everyone from Dickens and Tennyson to Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown.

That the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staged readings of the KJB are part of a season that will also feature a new play about the life of the late Big Brother celebrity Jade Goody is an important detail in understanding the excitement that the KJB is generating. Given its ongoing cultural impact, and the necessity of avoiding upsetting religious sensitivity, it offers the literati the rare opportunity to talk up a work of literature as literature, rather than as a cultural text or learning tool. And so a bunch of fruity-voiced stars have lined up to extol the KJB and to demonstrate how much they love language. As for multiculturalist and equality legislation-enforcing civil servants, the notion of a state committee producing something lovely that brought all of those warring religious peasants together (except the Catholics, obviously) is too good to be true. And for secularists such as Dawkins, the KJB anniversary offers the irresistible opportunity to show off their liberal credentials (hey, even a rationalist like me can like religious stuff!) whilst simultaneously bashing all those pigshit American fundamentalists for not properly understanding how to evaluate critically seventeenth-century poetry. Meanwhile, everyone has a good sneer at all those other religious types for being so ill-educated (a caring euphemism for irrational) that they need the Good News version. Manna from heaven indeed.

When God Spoke English was, however, a sincere attempt to avoid some of these pitfalls. Relying almost entirely on academic talking heads and (even more unusually) on televised textual analysis, Adam Nicolson was able to draw out the painstaking process of how the KJB’s authors were able to add those poetic flourishes on scriptures and translations that had developed over many years previously. As David Edgar put it in an informative Observer article, it is a book that comes ‘spattered with blood and scorched with fire’ out of the English Reformation. Nicolson was also good on placing the archaic poetic language against the backdrop of a classical medievalism which sought to use history’s grandeur to endorse present political ideologies, although the Sissinghurst Castle-dwelling aristocratic presenter – aka the fifth Baron Carnock – seemed to get rather carried away with himself in the majestic surroundings of Hatfield House.

He sadly ran out of time to explore what surely must be the most interesting aspect of the King James Bible’s story – that far from uniting a fractured kingdom, the KJB was largely forgotten while England plunged into a civil war which would result in James’ son, Charles I, along with the successors of the Bible’s authors, losing their heads. It was only taken up again, he noted, post-Restoration and with England developing its imperialist ambitions. Proof, perhaps, of Auden’s claim that poetry makes nothing happen but is good at surviving, and a stern warning for those who would herald the version as a corrective to society’s ills.

I’d rather the education system focused on teaching Shakespeare properly to all of its students instead of looking to the Bible and all those begats (well, let them have ‘The Song of Solomon’) but Nicholson at least made a decent case for understanding that this was an inspirational text not just for the religious, but for the liberal humanists who took up its cause for their own reasons later on. As an odd aside, nobody seems to have mentioned that this 400-year-old book, written explicitly to preserve the divine right of kings, is still under Crown copyright in the UK, but in the public domain everywhere else in the world. A reminder that some things – like the monarchy – really are best confined to the history books.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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