When you’re interested in improving your writing, it’s a good idea to have some models to work from. I’ve presented some of my favorite models in this blog. These have included a number of examples of good writing by both academics (Max Weber, E.P. Thompson, Jim March, and Mary Metz) and nonacademics (Frederick Douglass, Elmore Leonard).
Today I want to explore one of the two most influential forces in shaping the English language over the years: The King James Bible. (The other, of course, is Shakespeare.) Earlier I presented one analysis by Ann Wroe, which focused on the thundering sound of the prose in this extraordinary text. Today I want to draw on two other pieces of writing that explore the powerful model that this bible provides us all for how to write in English with power and grace. One is by Adam Nicholson, who wrote a book on the subject (God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible). The other, which I reprint in full at the end of this post, is by Charles McGrath.
The impulse to produce a bible in English arose with the English reformation, as a Protestant vernacular alternative to the Latin version that was canonical in the Catholic church. The text was commissioned in 1604 by King James, who succeeded Elizabeth I after her long reign, and it was constructed by a committee of 54 scholars. They went back to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, but they drew heavily on earlier English translations.
The foundational translation was written by William Tyndale, who was executed for heresy in Antwerp in 1536, and this was reworked into what became known as the Geneva bible by Calvinists who were living in Switzerland. One aim of the committee was to produce a version that was more compatible with the beliefs of English and Scottish versions of the faith, but for James the primary impetus was to remove the anti-royalist tone that was embedded within the earlier text. Recent scholars have concluded that 84% of the words in the King James New Testament and 76% in the Old Testament are Tyndale’s.
As Nicholson puts it, the language of the King James Bible is an amazing mix — “majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.”
You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we academics could write in way that sticks in people’s minds for 400 years? Well, maybe that’s a bit too much to hope for. But even if we can’t aspire to be epochally epigrammatic, there are still lessons we can learn from Tyndale and the Group of 54.
One such lesson is the power of simplicity. Too often scholars feel the compulsion to gussy up their language with jargon and Latinate constructions in the name of professionalism. If any idiot can understand what you’re saying, then you’re not being a serious scholar. But the magic of the King James Bible is that it uses simple Anglo-Saxon words to make the most profound statements. Listen to this passage from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Or this sentence from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Or the stunning opening line of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
This is a text that can speak clearly to the untutored while at the same time elevating them to a higher plane. For us it’s a model for how to match simplicity with profundity.
Why the King James Bible Endures
By CHARLES McGRATH
The King James Bible, which was first published 400 years ago next month, may be the single best thing ever accomplished by a committee. The Bible was the work of 54 scholars and clergymen who met over seven years in six nine-man subcommittees, called “companies.” In a preface to the new Bible, Miles Smith, one of the translators and a man so impatient that he once walked out of a boring sermon and went to the pub, wrote that anything new inevitably “endured many a storm of gainsaying, or opposition.” So there must have been disputes — shouting; table pounding; high-ruffed, black-gowned clergymen folding their arms and stomping out of the room — but there is no record of them. And the finished text shows none of the PowerPoint insipidness we associate with committee-speak or with later group translations like the 1961 New English Bible, which T.S. Eliot said did not even rise to “dignified mediocrity.” Far from bland, the King James Bible is one of the great masterpieces of English prose.
The issue of how, or even whether, to translate sacred texts was a fraught one in those days, often with political as well as religious overtones, and it still is. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, recently decided to retranslate the missal used at Mass to make it more formal and less conversational. Critics have complained that the new text is awkward and archaic, while its defenders (some of whom probably still prefer the Mass in Latin) insist that’s just the point — that language a little out of the ordinary is more devotional and inspiring. No one would ever say that the King James Bible is an easy read. And yet its very oddness is part of its power.
From the start, the King James Bible was intended to be not a literary creation but rather a political and theological compromise between the established church and the growing Puritan movement. What the king cared about was clarity, simplicity, doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard on that, going back to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and yet they also spent a lot of time tweaking the English text in the interest of euphony and musicality. Time and again the language seems to slip almost unconsciously into iambic pentameter — this was the age of Shakespeare, commentators are always reminding us — and right from the beginning the translators embraced the principles of repetition and the dramatic pause: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and void, and darkenesse was upon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooved upon the face of the waters.”
The influence of the King James Bible is so great that the list of idioms from it that have slipped into everyday speech, taking such deep root that we use them all the time without any awareness of their biblical origin, is practically endless: sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one’s teeth; apple of one’s eye; girded loins; feet of clay; whited sepulchers; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry.
But what we also love about this Bible is its strangeness — its weird punctuation, odd pronouns (as in “Our Father, which art in heaven”), all those verbs that end in “eth”: “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut downe, and withereth.” As Robert Alter has demonstrated in his startling and revealing translations of the Psalms and the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Bible is even stranger, and in ways that the King James translators may not have entirely comprehended, and yet their text performs the great trick of being at once recognizably English and also a little bit foreign. You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy.
Even in its time, the King James Bible was deliberately archaic in grammar and phraseology: an expression like “yea, verily,” for example, had gone out of fashion some 50 years before. The translators didn’t want their Bible to sound contemporary, because they knew that contemporaneity quickly goes out of fashion. In his very useful guide, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,” Adam Nicolson points out that when the Victorians came to revise the King James Bible in 1885, they embraced this principle wholeheartedly, and like those people who whack and scratch old furniture to make it look even more ancient, they threw in a lot of extra Jacobeanisms, like “howbeit,” “peradventure, “holden” and “behooved.”
This is the opposite, of course, of the procedure followed by most new translations, starting with Good News for Modern Man, a paperback Bible published by the American Bible Society in 1966, whose goal was to reflect not the language of the Bible but its ideas, rendering them into current terms, so that Ezekiel 23:20, for example (“For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses”) becomes “She was filled with lust for oversexed men who had all the lustfulness of donkeys or stallions.”
There are countless new Bibles available now, many of them specialized: a Bible for couples, for gays and lesbians, for recovering addicts, for surfers, for skaters and skateboarders, not to mention a superheroes Bible for children. They are all “accessible,” but most are a little tone-deaf, lacking in grandeur and majesty, replacing “through a glasse, darkly,” for instance, with something along the lines of “like a dim image in a mirror.” But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand. The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”
Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor. Even some of us who are nonbelievers want a God who speaketh like — well, God. The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind. And that all 54 of them were able to agree on every phrase, every comma, without sounding as gassy and evasive as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is little short of amazing, in itself proof of something like divine inspiration.