By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 18, 2011
Call me old fashioned if you wish. Whenever I feel like reading the Bible, I turn to the King James Bible (KJB). Ten years ago while I was in London I purchased a copy of the KJB, sometimes called the King James Version, bounded in Calfskin Leather, written on India paper with gilt edges. It was published by Cambridge University Press, the Queen’s Printer. This copy of the KJB possesses cross references, a Bible dictionary and the words of the Lord are written in red. After ten years, the book still smells of leather and is one of my prized possessions.
Why the fuss? May 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the KJB, a book whose importance remains unchallenged in the English-speaking world. When Barack Obama became the 48th president of the United States, he recited his oath of office from President Lincoln’s copy of the KJB. With 6 billion copies in circulation the Bible is the bestselling book in the world.
I don’t know if I have been captured by the archaic language or the pure cadence of the KJB. I have always taken great delight in the poetic qualities of the KJB and the “peerless sublimity” of its contents. Some scholars have argued that no other work rivals the “the elegant simplicity” of the KJB, manifested, for example, in the first verse of St. John’s gospel that reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and Word was God.”
Produced in 1611, the KJB drew on earlier bibles, primarily the Tyndale’s Bible that appeared between 1526 and 1530. William Tyndale, a 16th century protestant scholar, was the first person to translate large portions of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English. Tyndale devoted his life to constructing a Bible that would be available to the lay English-speaking public. In 1536, he was imprisoned, strangled and burnt at the stake by the Roman Catholic authorities for his troubles. He was deemed a heretic. Within four years after his death, four new translations of the Bible were written.
The KJB is the work of a committee of 47 scholars of different theological persuasions who were based in Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge. They were asked to produce an authorized translation of the English Bible. They used previous bibles, including Tyndale’s, and drew on the original languages-Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and other European languages-to complete their task. Their aim was not to produce a new translation “but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall (sic) good one.”
They had little choice. Their authority came from King James 1 who believed strongly in the Divine Rights of Kings. In outlining the relationship between the king and his subjects, James rationalized as follows: “Kings are called Gods by the prophetical King David, because they sit upon God his throne in the earth.” He directed that only when the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 was found wanting they (the scholars) could refer to earlier versions of established bibles.
The language of the KJB has become a part of our everyday language. Phrases such as “There is no new thing under the sun” altered some times to read “there is nothing new under the sun;” “the race is not to the swift,” altered some times to read “the race is not for the swiftest;” or “to everything there is a season” are used commonly in our language. They all come straight out of the KJB.
Many contemporary artists use the language of the KJB. Bob Marley relied heavily on the sentiments and the phrasing of the KJB to structure his songs. Kwame Dawes notes that Marley’s world “was rich with the mysterious things of life and, as a Jamaican, belief in the power of Obeah, of Myal and other African-based spiritual practices…He relied more and more on the Bible for his spiritual references and maintained a fairly consistent commitment to teach about the end of times” (Bob Marley, Lyrical Genius).
Marley’s “Small Axe” is littered with the archaism of the KJB. He even blends the KJB with elements of the language of Rastafarianism when he moans: “Why boasteth thyself/ Oh, evil man/ Playing smart and not being clever?/ I said, you’re working iniquity/ To achieve vanity (if a-so-a-so)/ But the goodness of Jah, jah/I-dureth for-I-ver.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaica dub poet also speaks of the shaping influence the KJB had on his life, says: “This book, a most effective tool of colonialism, was the only one in my illiterate grandmother’s house when I was growing up in Jamaica as a child. She would have me read it from time to time.”
In Trinidad and Tobago many of us became acquainted with the KJB when the influx of immigrants from Barbados began to arrive on our shores in the middle of the 19th century. Coming from Little England and inundated with Anglicanism (about 70 percent of Bajans are Anglicans) they brought with them a love of the Bible and with it a love for reading. While Anglicans could read the Bible the lay people of the Roman Catholic Church were prohibited from doing so until the middle of the last century. Such an acquaintance with the Bible played a large part in the rise of a Black educated middle class in the east of Trinidad.
The KJB also acted as a vehicle for tranquilizing colonial people and transmitting the doctrines of colonialism. In 1626 Bishop William Laud outlined the relationship between Church and State: “The Church and State are mainly united and knot together. The Church may call upon the help of the State and the State may call in the services of the church both to teach that duty which her members know not, and to exhort them to, and to encourage them in their duty they know.”
Caliban, the colonized, of Shakespeare’s “The Tempests,” may have been on to something when he reviled Prospero [the colonizer] for teaching him his language. He said: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me language.”
Shakespeare drew on the Geneva Bible (1560), the major source of the KJB, to shape his plays.
Like it or not, many of us still cling lovingly to the language of the KGB. It might be both a blessing and a curse.