In an irreligious era, Francis Watson finds the Word of God still up for debate
The King James translators preface their work with addresses to their royal patron and to "the reader" - the first characterised by fulsomeness and flattery, the second by verbosity and rather absurd displays of erudition. The address to the reader is also notable for its paranoia. "Zeal for the common good", it notes, "findeth cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil to enter (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one), it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned."
David Norton is certainly not lacking in zeal for the common good. He has produced, first, a readable and attractive edition of the King James Version, intended for readers liable to be deterred by the usual double columns, verse divisions, tiny print, lamentable artwork and other objectionable trappings. This is a King James Version intended to be read as literature, with single columns, paragraphs, unobtrusive verse divisions and an attractive cover. It stands in a tradition dating back to the mid-18th century, according to which the King James Version is to be appreciated as a supreme masterpiece of English literature - quite apart from its ecclesiastical and devotional functions. In its new guise, the King James Version does indeed read well. If it is to be read at all in the 21st century, it will be in a format such as this.
Second, Norton has produced a companion volume that traces the origins of the text and its subsequent fate in the hands of correctors and corruptors, until it reached its definitive form in an Oxford edition of 1769. This edition - prepared by Benjamin Blayney, regius professor of Hebrew - combines modernised orthography with a concern to correct the errors either of later editions or of the original one; and this is the edition that has been reprinted ever since. Since 1769, it seems, only six new changes have been introduced into the text, and 30 old ones restored. Most of these concern the spelling of names: in the Apocrypha, a certain "Ioribas" becomes "Joribus"; while in the Gospel of Luke, "Zaccheus" becomes "Zacchaeus". Somewhere else, an apostrophe is moved. Otherwise the text remains fixed in stone, like the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from the summit of Mount Sinai. The King James Version ceases to be a "version" and becomes synonymous with the Bible itself.
The ostensible aim of Norton's two volumes is to get back from 1769 to 1611. In particular, this means identifying those points where Blayney or earlier editors corrected the translation in the light of the Hebrew or Greek originals. It is now the translators who are to be the final arbiters of the text, rather than the Hebrew or Greek. Their errors, real or imagined, belong to the text itself and must be restored. They must also be distinguished from errors introduced by the printer. In the "praise of famous men" section of Ecclesiasticus, the original 1611 version commends "such as found out musical tunes and rejected verses in writing". In 1612 and thereafter, "rejected" is replaced with "recited". This, Norton argues, was obviously a printer's error rather than an error of translation. As such, it has no place in the authentic 1611 text.
On the other hand, in Ecclesiastes i, 5, the 1611 text reads: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose." From 1638, the text reads, "...to his place where he arose". Someone must have noticed the lack of any English equivalent for the pronominal suffix in the Hebrew, meqomo ("his place"), and adjusted the text accordingly.
The likelihood is that "the place" stems from the translators rather than the printer, and that they preferred it for stylistic reasons. Indeed, this is confirmed by a surviving manuscript record of the translators' work.
Norton lists and analyses about 400 variants within the early textual tradition, most of which represent deviations from the translators' text rather than corrections of printing errors. Norton's text seeks to recover the translators' preferred reading, in order, as he puts it, "to make it more faithful to the King James translators' own decisions as to how it should read".
For the ordinary reader of his edition, the differences - spread thinly over 1,868 pages - will be imperceptible. Far more apparent is the attempt to modernise, to make the text newly accessible to contemporary readers. At the heart of the project is a tension between restoration and modernisation, with the companion volume primarily concerned with the former and the King James text overwhelmingly concerned with the latter. At certain points, indeed, repristination obstructs restoration. For all his zeal for the common good, Norton has here provided a rather large hole for cavil to crawl into.
And so to the first cavil. The orthography of the King James Version was standardised in the 1769 Oxford edition, but it is here further modernised.
Probably no one will regret the replacement of "bason" with "basin". No doubt it is necessary to identify the "emerods" that afflicted the unfortunate Philistines as "haemorrhoids". In the Matthean account of Jesus's temptations, "he was afterward a-hungered" is perhaps an improvement on "an hungered". But what of the substitution of "begot" for "begat", "Messiah" for the transliterated "Messias", "show" for "shew", "spoke" for "spake"? The loss is perceptible, the gain minimal. Why the contemporary reader should need help at such points is hard to imagine.
A second, more serious cavil: the original notes on alternative or literal senses have been included within the generous inside margin of each page, but the opportunity has been missed to restore to these margins the original cross-references (all 8,890 of them) that link one biblical passage to another in an interconnecting network. The decision to exclude them seems very strange when so much trouble has been taken to restore the translators' original text. As a result, the individual biblical text is simply itself. There is no longer a visual cue encouraging the reader to regard it as part of an organic whole. Underlying the cross-referencing system is the assumption that, as George Herbert put it, "This verse marks that, and both do make a motion/ Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie."
In this new King James Version, the entire apparatus for identifying how one verse leads to another, and then to another still, is eliminated - and with it a practice of reading that contemporary readers might have relearnt from the translators' labours.
The third cavil is similar to the second. The translators provided their readers with a further aid in the form of brief summaries standing at the head of each chapter. In the case of Genesis xv, for example, we read: "1 The Lord is Abram's defence and reward. 4 God promiseth seed to Abram, 6 and he believeth and was justified. 7 The land of Canaan is yet again promised to Abram." Like the cross-references, the summaries provide the reader with orientation and are intended to serve as an aid to reflection and to memory. Norton claims that these summaries "belong more properly to the historic text than to a present-day edition". Why? If they once helped readers, why should they not do so still? Frustratingly and unnecessarily, the modernisation project overwhelms the concern to recover the translators' original intention, which comes to expression only through the mostly insignificant textual variants.
David Norton has devoted a considerable part of his career to the study of the King James Version and its impact on English literature. Few contemporary scholars have done as much as he has to recover this work as an integral part of the English literary tradition. He has done so in a context that is, to say the least, unpropitious; a context in which biblical illiteracy is the politically correct norm.
So let the King James translators have the last word on this new rendering of their work. There is, they rightly note, "no cause... why the Word translated should be denied to be the Word... notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it."
Francis Watson is professor of New Testament exegesis, Aberdeen University.
The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, with the Apocrypha: King James Version
Editor - David Norton
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 1,868
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 84386 3