The scholarly, initerdenominational audience burst into delighted applause when the distinguished lecturer, Professor Gordon Campbell of Leicester University, said: “As I recently told the bishop, the true purpose of holy matrimony is not the procreation of children but the procreation of grandchildren.”
In his lecture entitled ‘The Making of the King James Bible,’ Professor Campbell combined erudition with charm and humour, keeping the packed audience spellbound throughout his address. This was given to mark the opening of a stunning exhibition of ‘The Book of Books’ in Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, tracing the history of the Bible and its various texts over more than 2,000 years.
After describing the process of education in English schools in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whereby texts in various classical languages – Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and eventually Hebrew, too – were translated back and forth, into both poetry and prose versions, Professor Campbell came to the Bible’s ‘only begetter,’ King James himself.
“Like most good things,” Professor Campbell stated, “the translation of the Bible into English started first in Scotland and was then taken over by the English.” Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth the First, who was childless, her nephew, the son of Queen Mary of Scots (whom Elizabeth had executed), was summoned from Scotland, where he was already reigning, to assume the throne, or, as Professor Campbell put it “to do a bit of moonlighting, as the pay in England was better.”
King James was in fact the person who approved the project of making a new English translation of the Bible, overriding the opposition of the bishops and ensuring that the commentaries which had been included in a previous translation, and which indicated that in some cases disobeying a king was permissible, were omitted. After all, being the monarch, he wasn’t going to accept that idea. And as he was king, his word went.
And so, it seems, since the distinguished linguists who were appointed to translate the sacred texts were accustomed to translating into poetry, and since the texts were intended to be read aloud, as not very many people could read, or even recited by heart, as was the practice at the time, the endeavour resulted in the rolling, sonorous verses which we have come to know as the King James Bible.
In a touching aside, explaining that as any actor knows, it is far easier to learn poetry by heart than prose, Professor Campbell told his audience that when he and his wife were married forty-seven years earlier (“in a trial marriage, intending to review our situation after the first seventy years”) they had adopted what he termed ‘the nicest thing any daughter-in-law ever said to her mother-in-law’ for their marriage vows: “Whither thou goest I shall go, thy people shall be my people,” etc. (More applause from the enraptured audience.)
The Hebrew of those phrases uses repetition and phrasing that is characteristic of Classical Hebrew, while the English consists of a series of expressions that are almost monosyllabic, and create their effect through their idiosyncratic use of the English language. In Genesis, too, the Hebrew verses are often clothed in iambic pentameters that could have been written by Shakespeare (but weren’t), because that was what was considered good style at the time.
On a personal note, I might add that the King James Bible is full of translation errors and inaccuracies, and has been superseded by more modern translations. But none of those embodies the beauty and literary richness of that earlier version.
Professor Campbell concluded his talk by enumerating just a few of the expressions that have entered the English language, becoming idioms, or even clichés, by virtue of their translation in the King James Bible. These include such phrases as ‘bite the dust,’ ‘see eye to eye,’ and many others. Showing a slide of the frontispiece of the first edition of the King James Bible, which appeared in 1611 and shown above, the lecturer pointed out that Moses is on the left-hand side and the figure of Aaron on the right. This was to serve the Anglican bishops’ rebuttal of the Puritan view that no intermediary was needed between man and God. Aaron embodies the priesthood, which the Anglican church regards as its representing.
The exhibition, which displays numerous versions of the Bible in innumerable languages from all over the world and from different periods, will be on display here in Jerusalem for six months before going on to other countries.