Tag Archives: King James Version

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Cryptology 46

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

Four centuries ago this year William Shakespeare died. In the literary world there have been lots of commemorations going on, and all the fuss reminded me of a post I’d written some years back concerning Psalm 46. While teaching at Nashotah House, one of my students told me that William Shakespeare had covertly been involved in the translation of the King James Bible. The King James Version appeared in 1611, and Shakespeare was the prominent writer of England in that era. If you look at Psalm 46 in that version and count the 46th word from the beginning, you find “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” I mentioned in my post that I’d not found any academic treatment of the issue and I’m happy to announce that I finally have. Of course it would be in an Oxford University Press book.

I’ve not read Hannibal Hamlin’s The Bible in Shakespeare, but I am able to glance through it at work. It turns out that I didn’t have the full details of this biblical urban legend. Apparently if you find the sixth and seventh words of verse 10 of that Psalm you find “I am.” The sixth and seventh words from the end are “will I.” Will.i.am would be proud (pardon the capital W). As much fun as all this evangelical exegesis might be, Hamlin calls shenanigans on it all. He demonstrates the literary history of the tale, pointing out that—not to spoil our fun—the cryptographic mentions of the Bard in the Bible are creative efforts of those of later generations. The interesting thing is, however, that the Bible is so closely scrutinized for codes that all kinds of hidden messages may be found. Look, for example, at what I discovered:

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is clearly Paul warning the first Thessalonians of the present day’s troubles. When Trump is elected the dead will walk. Could anything be more prophetic than that? I haven’t done the math yet, but I’m just sure if you count the millions of letters in the Bible, you’ll find the name “Donald” spelled out somewhere. Scripture, after all, is the repository of all truth. One thing you won’t find, however, no matter how deeply you look. The billionaire’s tax returns are something God himself will never be able to see.

Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.

School Bible

BibleSchoolConstittnAs a very young scholarlet, I recall the horror expressed when some form of prayer was expelled from public schools. It had to have been in the late ’60’s. Maybe early ’70’s. The nation, it seemed, was headed for Hades in a hurry. Little did I know that this was part of a long, drawn-out—tired, even—battle. Steven K. Green’s The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine gives pretty close to the full story. Bible reading in public schools was foundational, in the beginning. In the early days of public education, the Bible was ubiquitous. It was considered non-sectarian since practically everyone was a Protestant. When the religious mix of the country began to diversify in the mid-1800’s, a new dynamic emerged. People got upset. There were riots. People were killed. Legislation was proposed that would explicitly add God—Jesus even—to the Constitution. Who knew?

Green’s study takes a close look at the various cases that arose around the time of the Civil War regarding the Bible in school. Protestants, it seems, didn’t appreciate that Bible reading, in the King James Version, without comment, violated Roman Catholic policy. The first to challenge Bible reading in public schools were Christians. Secularists only joined the fray later. I’m oversimplifying, of course. Some Catholics wanted equal time, the reading of the Douay Bible instead of King James. Others wanted Catholic schools to receive state funding. Nobody was really aware of other religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. It was a country of limited religious imagination. Various groups tried in various ways to get God—their God only—into schools as the default deity. And so the fun continued.

For me, it was eye-opening to realize that all of this isn’t new. The legislation, since long before my grandparents were born, has been heading in the direction that led to the aggrieved tears in my youth. Green points out, however, that the conflict has never been completely resolved. School vouchers and a long spate of evangelical presidents have had their impact on our children. The Hades that we feared has only come with the weaponizing of our culture, largely by those who want Bible reading back in the schools. The thing we fear finds us through the thing we love. Ironically the issue never seems to be education. God or guns—it’s the power that we want. The early debates revolved around morality. How could kids be moral without Bible reading? How the definition of morality has changed. We, as a nation, still can’t figure out religious freedom or how to let kids be kids.

Inerrant, Indeed

The other day at work, I discovered a huge Bible. This one was truly massive, in three volumes, almost too heavy to lift. As I pulled down the last fascicle, which weighed more than a newborn, I noticed the sticker on the cover. “Author’s proof.” This gave me pause. Does God read his own material or does he hire out freelancers? Printed Bibles have a long and venerable history of typographical errors, especially in the early days. Speaking in the name of the Almighty does have its risks. After all, little is more persuasive in America than the words, “it’s in the Bible.” I remember kids saying that to me in high school, where I had the reputation of being a walking concordance. More often than not, I had to correct them, since, in fact, the Bible mentions nothing about Popes or guns.

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Prior to the electronics revolution, printing a Bible was a complex process. Typesetting, or compositing, was not an undertaking for the foolhardy. Type has to be set, cast, and molded in order for offset printers to roll. And although page proofs aren’t set in stone, metal isn’t a forgiving medium to manipulate. And let’s face it—the Bible has a lot of words. Some of them very dry. The King James Version has over 780,000 words. Those with any experience in publishing know that’s one big book. Bible proofreaders command a hefty fee. I would be afraid to correct the word of the Lord myself. Reading through holy writ, word-by-word, takes a bit of time. The mind wanders to monks in their scriptoria.

Nevertheless, printer’s errors abound. Growing up as an evangelical, lighthearted entertainment was to be had as we read about the “Breeches Bible,” the Geneva Bible that had Adam and Eve fabricating britches for themselves from fig leaves. Coverdale’s Bible was known as the “Bug Bible” for its translation of Psalm 91.5, “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night.” Various versions of the King James have typos including Judas telling the disciples to watch in Gethsemane while he goes yonder to pray, and the somewhat self-serving “Printer’s Bible” that renders Psalm 119.161, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause” (which may be true, but the Hebrew would seem to indicate “princes” instead). The most notorious was the “Wicked Bible” wherein the seventh commandment in Exodus reads, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” All but eleven copies were destroyed and one of the remaining sold in recent years for $89,000. A Bible printed during the First World War, had “Thou shalt kill” as a commandment, Freud be praised. I slip the author’s proof back onto the shelf. I’ll let this be somebody else’s problem.

Royal Reading

Post-Christian America still reads its Bible. One of the perks, such as it is, of working with Bibles is getting such vital news early. The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has just released a study that was underway when I visited the school a couple years back. “The Bible in American Life,” available online, presents the results of a scientific survey of Bible reading in the US. Suffice it to say, we’re not done with Holy Writ just yet. In our world of high tech gadgets where the waves and particles that make the internet possible penetrate our bodies constantly, it is sometimes easy to forget that the Bible in many ways made this all possible. Both the good and the evil that drove western civilization to colonize its world had at least some dusty memory of “manifest destiny” embedded in sacred writ about it. And those who take the Bible seriously have continued to read, mark, and inwardly digest it.

The Bible in American Life, already picked up on by major media, indicates that about half of the population of the United States reads the Bible outside of worship. Perhaps not surprising given the still faltering civil rights dream, African-Americans are the biggest Bible reading demographic in the country. In fact, the study states, race is the single largest indicator of probable Bible reading. Those who are low on the economic scale also tend to read Scripture more. Those for whom “success” isn’t what it seems to be at first. Those whom “success” has passed by. Even Hispanic readers outnumber the white majority. People who have been distracted by material success, predictably, have little time for ancient wisdom. Still, half the country does turn to the Bible on occasion. Among the more interesting demographics is the fact that nones—those who are unaffiliated with any religion—also turn to the Bible for learning about life.

434px-King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_ElderThe media seems to have picked up one of the major points as well—few Bible readers turn to Holy Writ for political advice. To hear the news weavers tell it, politicians and rabble-rousers trawl the Bible for its scant words about homosexuality and abortion—issues ignored by Moses and his ilk, for the most part. In fact, most people rate such issues very low on their scale of why they turn to the Bible. It is read more for consolation than for political intrigue. Having just about finished my formatting of my book on the Psalms, it warms my heart to read that the Psalter tops the list of favorite books of the Bible, narrowly inching out the Gospel of John. The study doesn’t, and can’t, come right out and say it, but the Bible is read by people to help them feel better. They still prefer the King James by a considerable margin. And in this world of self first, they can still read, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Even though Bible readers are, in the majority, women. Good old King James still shows the way, as the ruling white man always has.

God and King

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The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

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The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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