The good book

The year 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the edition of The Bible known either as the King James or Authorised Version. It cannot have escaped the notice of anyone with half an interest in the subject that throughout the media one of our principal national experts is the University of Leicester’s Professor of Renaissance Studies, Gordon Campbell.
The good book
Professor Gordon Campbell (School of English) has this year been elected as a Fellow of the British Academy. The election complemented the election of Professor Stan Cowley (Physics and Astronomy) to the Royal Society – this double in the same year is unique in the history of the University.

Professor Campbell has not only edited an anniversary edition of the original 1611 Bible for Oxford University Press, he was also invited by OUP to write his own book on the story of the King James Version, entitled simply, ‘Bible’. The book is a lively ‘biography’ of the King James Bible from its publication in 1611 to the present day, encompassing the many strands woven around its original conception and subsequent development across four centuries.

“It was my first attempt to write a trade book and I found it liberating writing a book just for fun and for an audience that extends beyond a particular academic community. I was writing for a readership at opposite ends of the spectrum, from Anglo-Catholics to Evangelicals, some of whom see The King James Bible as an inspired scripture.

“In between the two, the King James Bible is treated like the best china, not read every day but brought out for state occasions. It’s used for coronations in the UK and presidential inaugurations in the US. It meant I was writing for a great big audience, and I thought that was fabulous.”

There is nothing half-hearted in Professor Campbell’s enthusiasm for the King James Version, which he unrepentantly calls the ‘greatest work of English prose’, pointing out that its phrases are all around us. “The language has passed into our everyday use, far more than Shakespeare has, which I think is quite remarkable. Phrases such as ‘God forbid’, ‘the race is not to the swift’, ‘see eye to eye’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, and ‘from the cradle to the grave’ come to us from, or via, the King James Version, though we don’t have any sense they are Biblical phrases.”

Its value as prose and the key quality that separates it from all modern translations, Professor Campbell feels, is that it was written to be read aloud in churches. “I take issue with people who say they can’t understand the language,” he said. “Look at the way it was shaped. It was written to be accessible to a ploughboy or even to women!

“The language uses a huge number of monosyllables. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ Who can’t understand that? It was meant to be memorised, which is why it has a pulse that is not present in the Greek or Hebrew versions, or any modern translation. Think of the words of Adam: ‘She gave me of the tree and I did eat,’ which is written in iambic pentameter. That pulse is what makes it great literature.”

Professor Campbell concedes that modern translations have the advantage of 19th and 20th century discoveries, such as previously unknown Greek manuscripts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. “I don’t sneeze at the scholarly authority that has gone into newer translations,” he says, “but they’re so dull. On the other hand, even the dregs of Leviticus in the King James Version are wonderful to read aloud.”

His appearances on national and local radio and television, as well as the publication of his book, have made Professor Campbell a public speaker much in demand in cathedrals, churches, libraries and public halls up and down the UK and the US. To anyone with less energy his schedule over the next months would seem punishing and his memory miraculous, since he speaks without notes and tailors his lectures to his audiences.

His own reaction is that it is fun to be part of the celebrations organised by Frank Field for the 2011 King James Bible Trust. He also sees this anniversary year leading to other activities, including the Green Foundation, for which he will edit some of the King James Bible with undergraduate participation.

“My interest in the King James Version is its centrality in our cultural life,” he concludes. “In the mid 19th century it was called the Authorised Version and later the Americans called it King James Bible, but before that it was simply known as The Bible. It runs like a stream through our national identity."

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