The King James Bible, 400 years old and still in print

Posted by mjs76 at Oct 26, 2010 11:00 AM |
New book from Leicester academic traces four centuries of religious debate, literary influence and spelling mistakes.

Next year sees the 400th anniversary or ‘quatercentenary’ of arguably the most important book ever published in English – the King James Bible. Known variously as the ‘King James Version’ or the ‘Authorised Version’, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re sitting, this is the granddaddy of English language Bibles. All subsequent English Bibles are either derived from, or influenced in some way by, the ‘KJV’. It is, if you will, the ur-text.

Except it isn’t. Well, sort of. Read on.

Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011

To commemorate this momentous anniversary, the Oxford University Press is publishing, this month, two magnificent books: the definitive history of the King James Version by Professor Gordon Campbell from our School of English and the definitive reprint of the 1611 original (which also includes an essay by Professor Campbell).

Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 describes how this book came about on the orders of the eponymous monarch. King James I/VI commissioned the work seven decades after Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome and its Latin Bible (which was, of course, itself a translation).

There had been numerous previous English translations of the Bible, mostly derived from the Latin text and, until William Tyndale’s version of 1523, restricted to laborious reproduction by hand. Tyndale went back to the original Hebrew and was the first Biblical translator to use Mr Caxton’s marvellous new invention. Subsequently Matthew Coverdale translated and printed in 1539 the ‘Great Bible’ which was made available in every English church. The so-called Bishops’ Bible of 1568 was the second C-of-E-endorsed edition.

In January 1604 the King convened a group of scholars and theologians at Hampton Court to consider puritan grievances and a proposal was put forward for a new translation of the Bible. This would draw on the best parts of previous versions, would refer where necessary to the original text and would be totally consistent with the teachings of the Church of England.

The 56 appointed translators were split into six ‘companies’, two each in Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster, with each group assigned a particular section of the book. Richard Kilby among the Oxford scholars and John Duport among the Cambridge team were both born in Leicestershire. In 1610 representatives from the teams reconvened to compare notes and compile their joint efforts into one definitive volume.

From this mammoth task came a Bible designed to be read out loud, at home as well as in church. Many common English expressions stem from the King James Bible and many more, created for earlier translations, were popularised by the 1611 work: ‘salt of the earth’, ‘at their wit’s end’, ‘the skin of my teeth’, ‘thorn in the flesh’ and innumerable others.

Originally printed by Robert Barker, the publishing rights were subsequently extended to include Oxford and Cambridge and the KJV has remained in print constantly for four centuries. Gordon Campbell’s book examines its influence not just in the UK but also in the United States, where Presidents are sworn in holding a King James Bible.

Copies of Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 are available from the University Bookshop at a reduced price of £13.99.

The King James Bible: 400th Anniversary Edition

bible400smaller.jpgIn 1611 (indeed, until comparatively recently) books were typeset by hand, letter by individual letter. Consequently the first edition of the KJV contains about 350 typographical errors, ranging from three lines that were printed twice to occasional letters printed upside-down. Subsequent printings fixed some of these errors while unavoidably introducing new ones, most famously the  1631 edition known as ‘The Wicked Bible’ in which a typesetter missed the word ‘not’ from the seventh commandment, thereby making adultery not only acceptable but compulsory.

Almost all copies of the Wicked Bible were destroyed so that only eleven are currently known to exist, one of which was acquired by University College Leicester in 1929 from a local collector, along with a 1535 Coverdale Bible, a first edition of Paradise Regained and a 12th century commentary on the Psalms by Gilbertus Porretanus, Bishop of Tours. These priceless volumes now reside in the Special Collections vault of the University’s David Wilson Library.

Nips and tucks to the 1611 translation continued for a century and a half until a final, definitive text was published in 1769 – and it is this which is the true progenitor of modern Bibles. For historical, literary and religious scholars however, it is the 1611 text which holds interest, which is why the Quatercentenary Edition of the KJV is so important.

The typography elves at OUP have outdone themselves by reproducing an exact copy of the 1611 volume – page for page, line for line, upside-down letters and everything – in a readable font. Original copies of the KJV were typeset using a gothic ‘black letter’ font which sadly loses in readability everything it gains in gravitas and awe. For the 2011 edition, the text has been rendered in a conventional serif ‘roman’ font which is eminently readable without looking anachronistically modern. You can compare the two fonts on this page.

As well as the 350 original typos, the new edition reproduces the decorative letters which begin each section of the text and restores all the introductory material from the 1611 version including a massive family tree showing Jesus’ direct descent from Adam, a table for calculating the date of Easter, maps of the Holy Land and so on. It also includes the Apocrypha, those controversial books of the Bible which are omitted from all modern editions but which were still considered part of the text in the 17th century.

The only addition to the book – apart from leather binding, gilt edging, cloth slipcase etc – is Professor Campbell’s Anniversary Essay setting the volume in its historical, literary and religious context.

Gordon Campbell in conversation - free event

If you would like to find out more about the King James Bible, you can hear Professor Campbell in discussion with David Crystal, author of another new book on the subject, as part of the University’s Literary Leicester festival on 12 November 2010.