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World How the mighty has fallen: The King James Bible turns 400

The first-edition King James to go on display Feb. 7, 2011, at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, photographed Jan. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It was published four centuries ago, the King James Version of the Bible, labelled the greatest manifestation of the English language - greater than Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan - although its primary author was strangled on church orders and his body burned.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, the 19th-century British historian, called it "a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power."

It is the only literary masterpiece produced by a committee. It was printed at the moment in history when English was said to have reached "its brief perfection." No other writing has penetrated idiomatic speech more deeply or for so long. By one linguist's estimate, three times as many of its words and phrases have entered common usage as have those of Shakespeare.

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It gave the language "no man can serve two masters," "how are the mighty fallen" and "out of the mouths of babes." It gave "fly in the ointment" and "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

It gave - who knew? - "kick against the pricks."

Still, scholars such as historical theologian Ephraim Radner of the University of Toronto's Anglican Wycliffe College speak of the 400th anniversary as something of a funeral notation for biblical literary culture - a culture that only four decades ago shaped the soaring oratory and cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. but now is passing rapidly from the collective memory of an English-speaking world with no knowledge of the bonds of its rhetoric, metaphors and sublime rhythms.

Made for a reason The King James Version (KJV) - its other name is the Authorized Version (AV) - is the product of royal and religious politics, linguistic nationalism, church bureaucracy and accident.

It was commissioned in 1604, a year after James was crowned, at a conference he convened "for hearing and for the determining of things pretended to be amiss in the Church."

Indeed, much was amiss in England's strife-riven Anglican Church, a mere 70 years after Henry VIII hived it off from Roman Catholicism: His son, Edward VI, made it Protestant; his older daughter, Mary I, restored it to Catholicism and then younger daughter, Elizabeth I, made it a big-tent monopoly edgily embracing both Protestant Puritans and Anglo-Catholics.

The son of Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed by Elizabeth for treason, James was already ruler of Scotland when he succeeded Elizabeth upon her death in 1603. But before he could get south to London, he received a petition signed by 1,000 ministers belonging to the Church of England's Puritan wing complaining about practices - the wearing of robes, bowing at the name of Jesus and so forth - of their priestly colleagues in the Anglo-Catholic wing.

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His response was to convene the conference, which was a failure except for the suggestion that a new Bible be prepared to correct known errors and bridge doctrinal differences.

James welcomed the idea. He saw it as a means to replace the popular Geneva Bible - the Bible of Shakespeare and, for the most part, of Milton - which he declared the worst in English because it was Puritan and counter to the divine right of kings.

Six committees were struck to produce the replacement - two each in Oxford, Cambridge and London - under the oversight of Lancelot Andrewes, the dean of Westminster, a scholar so outstanding that it was said of him "the world wanted learning to know how learned he was."

Nothing then happened for three years for reasons unknown, although it may have had something to do with the 1605 discovery of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot aimed at the destruction, James said, "not only ... of my person ... but of the whole body of the State."

From 1607 on, however, the work went quickly, reaching the public four years later. And it was a masterpiece, marked not only by culture and learning, but by humility and piety - "the final answer to those who maintain that no good thing can come out of the deliberations of committee," Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury and thus Anglicans' spiritual world leader, wrote 350 years later.

The KJV is often labelled a "translation." More than 80 per cent of its New Testament and much of its Old Testament were the work of William Tyndale, whose translations of original Greek and Hebrew texts had appeared nearly a century earlier.

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Tyndale was a priest, reformer, scholar and linguist determined to give the English people a Bible in their own language - as he put it, "to cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture" - at a time when English was looked down upon by the educated elites as the coarse tongue of the masses, and the pre-Reformation church in England forbade translations, considering only Latin to be fit for the word of God even though few ordinary people understood it.

Frustrated in England, Tyndale left for the continent and, beginning in 1526, produced his New Testament in Germany, where Martin Luther's Reformation was gaining strength, and Antwerp, arranging with sympathizers to smuggle it in cotton bales into England and Scotland.

Condemned for his efforts, he went into hiding in Belgium, only to be betrayed and tried as a heretic. He was executed (by strangulation) and his body burned in public. His last words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes," a prayer answered only months later when Henry ordered that copies of an English Bible vastly indebted to Tyndale be placed in every church in his realm. He realized it demonstrated his supremacy over the church, rather than the pope's.

Archbishop Coggan wrote in 1963 that Tyndale's translations were great "because of his almost uncanny gift of simplicity in the use of the English language. ... Phrases of almost monosyllabic grandeur which have become part and parcel of our literary inheritance we owe to Tyndale. It was this kind of English that fixed the standard for centuries to come."

Tyndale employed a register just above common speech, using basic Saxon vocabulary with short, powerful words and sentences to which he added a range of English styles that still astonish grammarians. No one else wrote like this at the time.

Timed to perfection What stoked the influence of Tyndale's language and the KJV is, first, that they appeared in the period historian G.M. Trevelyan called the "brief perfection" of English. The steady progress and enrichment of English from Chaucer to Elizabeth reached its apogee at the opening of the 17th century - the English renaissance, the age of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spencer and Bacon.

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Second, after centuries of feeling ashamed of their language, the English celebrated it, immersed their children in it.

University of Toronto rhetoric scholar Jane Freeman points out that pupils of Elizabethan grammar schools devoted a third of their studies to rhetoric. She says they readily, for example, would have been able to identify the rhetorical figure - epistrophe, the repetition of a word or phrase in successive clauses - in Tyndale's translation of St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Third, by incorporating the KJV into its prescribed scriptural readings, the Anglican Church glued its metaphors, aphorisms and adages into everyday thought and speech.

Fourth, leaders of England's Reformation Church, from Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century onward, aimed to create a Christian commonwealth of the English language by means of what Cranmer called "concrete ethical demands" - moral scripturalism and daily ethical intercourse expressed in biblical metaphors and poetic rhetoric.

That commonwealth lasted, the U of T's Ephraim Radner says, until the end of the 19th century, when new biblical translations sought supposedly greater access to scripture at the expense of the beauty, mystery and majesty of KJV language, a major shift, Prof. Freeman says, that moved religion from the cathedral to humbler surroundings.

But in making prayer sound like people talking to their buddies, she says, the churches forgot to keep asking "why does language itself make us feel like we're hearing the word of God, why poetry [is needed]to express certain things. You need language that's powerful."

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Abraham Lincoln's speeches were drawn from the KJV, which is still used to a great degree by African-American churches. "I have a dream," said Martin Luther King Jr., whose speeches were drawn from it.

And for its 400th anniversary?

The Queen, who still holds the copyright, mentioned the KJV in her Christmas address. The Anglican bishop of Manchester has launched a project to have the entire Bible recorded on YouTube. (He also has read some of it on Coronation Street.) Britain's Royal Mint will issue a commemorative coin. The Bath Literature Festival is looking for volunteers to read all 800,000 words aloud over five days in March. Cambridge University and the University of Toronto have exhibits of historic Bibles.

Curated by Pearce Carefoote, the exhibit at the U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library opens on Monday with a prized first edition of the KJV (as well as the famed Wicked Bible, which seems to advocate adultery). It was donated by Louis Melzack, founder of Classic Books, the chain bought out by W.H. Smith in 1985, and was once owned by George Stephen, the Montreal financier who became the first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Today, English girdles the globe. All who speak it do so in the shadow of the KJV, which has been pushed out of most churches as too fustian - a word Tyndale never would have used.

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