Review: The Holy Bible: Authorised King James Version
Collins, €7.99, Paperback
Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00
To borrow a biblical phrase, it is time to "eat, drink and be merry''. The King James Bible, a work that can lay claim to being the most influential book in the English language, is 400 years old.
To mark the occasion, the British publishers Collins have just reissued their 1,152-page Popular Black Leatherette edition of the King James Bible.
Because it was a Protestant Bible its religious influence on Catholics may have been limited. But hundreds of its phrases have seeped into our everyday language.
During the recent election campaign, a politician will probably have asked at some point: "Can a leopard change his spots?'' That is a reference to a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?''
Others on the campaign trail will probably have taken their cue from the Gospel According to Matthew and suggest that it is a case of "the blind leading the blind''.
The same book from the King James Bible refers to Christ's disciples as "the salt of the earth'' -- a term that is used rarely about our politicians.
And if Fine Gael had won only narrowly, the pundits would probably have borrowed a phrase from the Book of Job saying that they got in "by the skin of their teeth''.
All these phrases and hundreds of other idioms were popularised by the King James Bible. It is the bestselling version of a book whose sales over the past two centuries have been estimated at over six billion.
In American language, politics and popular culture, the stamp of the 1611 version of the Bible is even more marked. It is still the edition that is read in churches across the Bible belt of the United States. Devout Catholics also admire it as a Christian text.
Abraham Lincoln used a copy of the King James Bible when he was inaugurated as US president in 1861, and the very same volume was used by Barack Obama almost one-and-a-half centuries later.
Countless political speakers have lifted whole passages from the King James text.
Martin Luther King, who helped to clear Barack Obama's path to the presidency, may have been an inspiration to a generation of politicians. But he himself took his famous "I have a dream'' speech from the Book of Isaiah.
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
The literary critic Boyd Tonkin has pointed out that the passage is from the King James Bible "with the very few slight tweaks that a preacher's memory makes''.
Entire books have been written about the influence of the King James Bible on the lyrics of Bob Dylan. The Times they are a Changin' may have been a radical rallying call of the sixties with its ring of prophecy, "And the first one now will later be last''. But Dylan must have been influenced by a line from the of Gospel of Mark: "Many that are first shall be last; and the last first.''
So who was actually responsible for the writing of passages that have exerted as much influence on our language as Shakespeare?
King James assembled a group of scholars to study existing translations and refer to original Hebrew and Greek texts.
When they put together their new Bible, these scholars borrowed many passages from a translator from the previous century, William Tyndale. He is believed to be the writer who gave the bible its poetic resonance.
Professor Fearghas O Fearghail, lecturer in scripture at the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin, says: "Tyndale came up with many of the familiar phrases. He also influenced a Catholic Bible from that period.''
He wanted to produce a text that would appeal to "the boy that driveth the plow''.
He may have succeeded in this aim, but Tyndale did not prosper as a result of his efforts. The Englishman was charged with heresy and treason, and strangled to death with a chain at the stake in 1536.
It may have become the biggest selling book in English, but that did not stop mistakes creeping into some editions. A misprinted version of one of the Commandments had the potential to cause marital mayhem: "Thou shalt commit adultery.''
There have been other errors over the centuries: "Printers have persecuted me" -- instead of "princes"; "The unrighteous shalt inherit the kingdom"; and "Let the children first be killed" -- instead of "filled".
These howlers were eventually ironed out, and the 1611 Bible continues to be regarded as a literary classic as well as a religious text.
Other English translations -- including the Living Bible of 1971, in which Saul goes to the "bathroom'' -- have not flourished to the same extent.
The language may seem old-fashioned, but when biblical text colours our language it is usually taken from the 1611 version. We still use the antiquated language of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill.''
The edition is again flourishing on the internet and even the leading atheist commentator Professor Richard Dawkins has recently been involved in placing readings of the book on YouTube.
Why would such a prominent unbeliever be an admirer? "We come from a Christian culture,'' he said somewhat sniffily, "and not to know the King James Bible is to be in some small way barbarian."