1611, the good ole' days of poetry in devotion

Power and Glory - The Bible in English
December 12, 2003

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. We know this because the Bible tells us so. Or does it? Its opening words may be a subordinate clause - "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earthI" - qualifying the assertion that "the earth was without form, and void". As for this statement, a less abstract and more pictorial rendering might be preferable: the earth was "a vast waste".

Perhaps we are not meant to picture anything, however, for "darkness was upon the face of the deep". "The deep" is the primeval ocean, as yet undifferentiated from sky or dry land. "The abyss" might make that clearer.

The statement that follows seems to convert this desolate scene into one pregnant with future possibilities: "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Here, though, the verb may not be quite right. It could be translated as "was hovering", in which case the Spirit of God is imagined here in bird-like form. But the Spirit of God may not be present here at all, bird-like or otherwise. It was, perhaps, "a mighty wind" that "swept over the surface of the waters". Even before we reach the Authorised Version's first truly archaic word, "firmament" ("vault" or "dome"), there are plenty of issues for a translator to negotiate.

These alternatives to the familiar authorised or "King James" rendering of Genesis 1.1-2 all occur in one or other of the major modern Bible translations. They are all defensible renderings of the Hebrew text, whose precise nuances remain a matter for debate. Together, they register a degree of uncertainty about what the Hebrew means, and how best to convey that meaning in English.

Alongside the modifications runs a tendency to conserve much of the King James wording. Even the Revised Version's modest shift from "without form and void" to "waste and void" (1885) reverts to the 1611 wording in the Revised Standard Version (1952). These more recent translations are not wanton acts of cultural vandalism. It would be unreasonable to claim that "waste and void" is somehow deficient in the sublime "music" always supposed to characterise the King James version, or that the poetic is here reduced to the prosaic. The main argument for preferring "without form" to "waste" is simply that it is older and more familiar.

Underlying most objections to modern Bible translations is the conviction that, for English-speaking readers, the Bible ought to be synonymous with its 1611 rendering. Like Shakespeare, with whom it is habitually linked, the King James version is a cultural icon representing an unsurpassable level of literary excellence. If we are wise, we will seek access to the Bible as to Shakespeare, only in the original 16th and 17th-century wording. At least, that is the view of Adam Nicolson, whose lively and informed account of the origins of the King James version concludes with a sustained assault on modern Bible translations, and specifically the New English Bible . T. S. Eliot's ill-tempered judgement is approvingly recycled: the new translation, wrote Eliot in 1962, "astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic".

Nicolson takes up this familiar strain, finding in the modern translation "the language of the memo", an embrace of "the banal", a rendering merely of "an inert normality, mundane, tensionless and mystery-free". In contrast, of course, "the 17th-century phrases seem richer, deeper, truer, more alive, more capable of carrying complex and multiple meanings, than anything the 20th century could manage". It does not occur to Nicolson that complex and multiple meanings might characterise the original Hebrew and Greek texts, or that the multiple modern translations might bring them to light more effectively than a single authorised version, in a lonely eminence with only Shakespeare for company.

Within this frame of reference, the 1611 translation is not a translation at all, but a free-standing work of literature. The majesty of its opening words is its own majesty, and has nothing to do with the literary qualities of the Hebrew. The cultural treasures of Jewish and Christian antiquity are here expropriated by "English literature", a colonising power that claims their "power and glory" for itself. The modern translations are so bitterly resented because they reveal this act of expropriation for what it is. They make it clear that the Bible was not written in 17th-century England. They also make it clear that, even today, not everyone is prepared to regard the Bible merely as an adjunct to Shakespeare.

David Daniell's more substantial book produces some interesting variations on these themes. Daniell is ambivalent towards the King James version, arguing that its ascent to cultural pre-eminence had more to do with politics and printers' monopolies than with any purely literary excellence.

So he is troubled by the fact that the King James version has had an even more successful career in North America than in Britain, and can only conclude that it must represent a symbol of stability in a society where everything else is in flux.

This ambivalence towards the King James version does not make Daniell any more favourable towards modern translations. Eliot's usual piece about the New English Bible is once again repeated, this time supported by Philip Larkin. While Daniell does attempt a degree of even-handedness in his own assessments, it is always clear that the old will win out over the new. His long book reaches the 20th century only in the final chapter - following 22 chapters on the 16th and 17th centuries, and ten on the 18th and 19th.

The reason for this meagre treatment is not hard to find. Modern Bible translations, we are told, "reduce the Bible's magnificence, and magnificent variety, to a uniform dreariness". It is not explained why the magnificent variety of the Hebrew and Greek texts should be accessible only by way of the English of the Tudors and Stuarts. Once again, the Bible is in essence an English production.

What is different from Nicolson's book is the fact that the canonical form of the English Bible is no longer the King James version, but the earlier incomplete translation by William Tyndale. Whatever merit the King James possesses is said to derive from Tyndale, much of whose work it incorporates. Daniell has written a biography of Tyndale as well as re-editing his Bible translations, and Tyndale is no less the hero of the story of the English Bible than of his own life story. Tyndale produces a Bible that is not only worthy of comparison with Shakespeare, but actually makes Shakespeare possible. Not content with that achievement, Tyndale was also "a superior theologian to any other figure of his time".

Of subsequent translations, only Coverdale and the Geneva translation of 1560 were faithful to his insights. That, in spite of itself, the King James version does preserve much of Tyndale is its one redeeming feature.

Even when Daniell moves out of the 16th and 17th centuries, Tyndale remains constantly at hand as a touchstone of excellence. If a modern translation is the work of a properly resourced committee, we must be reminded that "it is all a long way from Tyndale, hungry, cold and alone in his Antwerp room".

If one can overlook the private passions, there is much in Daniell's book that is valuable, or at least entertaining - especially, perhaps, his emphasis on the materiality of Bible production, distribution and consumption. In this account, the Bible is not an immaterial essence but is always some kind of physical object, ranging from barely portable tomes (items of furniture rather than books) to the modest pocket versions with which soldiers in various conflicts were once assiduously equipped. Apart from the text, there is nothing uniform about these Bibles. They may or may not contain supplementary material such as cross references, annotations, polemical tracts, metrical psalms, advertisements, descriptions of biblical flora and fauna, or salacious pictures of biblical heroines. For several centuries, there has been an insatiable public appetite for these very different artefacts.

Daniell would have produced a fine book on the English Bible, rather than a flawed one, if he had given still greater prominence to such matters, suppressing the sound of the grinding of axes.

Francis Watson is professor of New Testament exegesis, University of Aberdeen.

Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible

Author - Adam Nicolson
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 281
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 00 710893 1

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