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February 13th 2011 print

James Allan

400 candles

As one gets older the appeal of celebrating most anniversaries seems to decline. It’s as though there were some sort of inverse relationship, the bigger the number the less desire to make a fuss about it.

As one gets older the appeal of celebrating most anniversaries seems to decline. It’s as though there were some sort of inverse relationship, the bigger the number the less desire to make a fuss about it.

Here’s an exception to that rule. The King James Bible turns 400 this year. It was published on May 2nd, 1611 by the Church of England and became known as the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible. It has done more to influence the language we speak, the most used one on the planet, than anything other than Shakespeare.

Back a couple of decades ago when I was an articling law student in Toronto, facing a 40 minute subway commute each way, each day, for a year, I decided I’d read the Bible cover to cover. The King James version was the obvious choice. And reading it from front to back opened my eyes about a number of things.  

The very first thing I learned when I started to read the Bible was something I hadn’t expected. It was that sitting down on a train and pulling out a Bible to read is pretty much the best way imaginable to clear out all the people around you. Having ‘leprosy’ stamped on your forehead might be more effective, but I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it. This is simply a guaranteed way to make a bit of room for yourself on the long commute.

Secondly, as a first-time serious reader of the Bible I was struck by how much longer the Old Testament is than the New. You get a long, long way through before you hit the New Testament.

Then there’s the King James Version itself. Read St. Paul’s 1st Corinthians 13 letter in the Authorized Version and then in any of the modern translations. No comparison, full stop. Nothing that comes close to ‘becoming as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’, ‘doth not behave itself unseemly’, ‘seeing through a glass, darkly’, ‘knowing even as also I am known’ and more.

Or try the same thing with the Psalm 23. ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ and ‘my cup runneth over’ are more evocative and moving than modern alternatives, and by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Or how about Ecclesiastes 9:11? ‘I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet food to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’

It’s not just that this has more oomph than ‘I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race ….’. No, on top of that this is just about the most succinct summary of the role of luck in life you’re ever going to read. (And by the way, any successful person in any field of human endeavour who does not acknowledge the role of luck is simply kidding him or herself. As one of my favourite philosophers, the Australian J.L. Mackie once put it, ‘life is two-thirds hard work and talent, and one-third blind luck’ – that’s my paraphrase from memory).

So the language of the King James Version, the version that dominated the field in so much of the anglo-american world for centuries, is just massively more moving and superior to the modern options.

Here’s a couple of other quirky things I picked up reading on my year long subway commute. Pride doesn’t go before a fall; it goes before destruction. Not the same thing at all. It’s a haughty spirit that goes before a fall. And Delilah doesn’t cut Samson’s hair. (Both are good for bets in bars when you’ve had a few too many.)

My overall point, though, is that whatever you think of the underlying truth claims of the Bible (and I confess that I am an atheist and don’t think there’s much ground for believing in an omnipotent, benevolent, theistic God), the King James Version is a magnificent vehicle full of powerful, wonderful and moving language.

Reading it not only opens up all sorts of doors when it comes to understanding art and literature (think Pilgrim’s Progress say) and how people thought and lived in the past. It’s also likely to spur you on to read other things. I went on to read a couple of books on William Tyndale, the man whose earlier translation into English was used widely by the committee that put together the King James Version.

And reading about Tyndale (my Catholic friends and readers may want to stop here) gives you a whole new perspective on Thomas More. I had the usual Man For All Seasons take on More until I read the Tyndale books and discovered that More was as ruthless (and willing to burn heretics) on his side of the religious divide as the Protestants were on theirs.

But that’s a digression. I simply want here to mark an anniversary that is well worth marking, and indeed celebrating. In fact, come May 2nd, you might want to spare a quiet thought for the King James Bible, the most published book in human history.


James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland