Friday, 14 January 2011

Not quite written by committee

The King James translation has been described as 'the greatest monument of English prose' as well as 'the only great work of art ever created by a committee'. Both statements are true. Fifty-four scholars worked seven years to produce the work from its extant texts in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English. Such an undertaking can be expected to produce great scholarship, but hardly writing as spare and sublime as the King James…

Charlton Heston

For once, I think that the received opinion is bang on the nail. The language of King James Bible is powerful and enthralling. As the recent anniversary reminded us, it still permeates the our language after four centuries and echoes back in the words people use today. It's like the Cosmic Background Radiation of the English language. When journalists use that truism about 'a famine of Biblical proportions',  this is what they mean:
The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them ...
...they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
They that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger: for these pine away, stricken through for want of the fruits of the field.
 From Lamentations, 4

I would,though, take issue with Heston's assertion that it was 'the only great work of art ever created by a committee.' It's a snappy quote, and I'd like to know who he borrowed it from, but it may be almost - but not entirely - wrong.  The reason why is worth remembering:

The Authorized King James translation of the Bible wasn't, of course, the first English translation of the Bible.  John Wycliffe completed the first English translation in the 1380s. To the contemporary church hierarchy this was an outrageously subversive act - the language of the Latin Bible was accessible only to an educated priestly elite, which meant that the clergy had privileged access to the authority vested in sacred texts. Conversely, with no direct access to the source material, the laity were powerless to challenge doctrine and the authority of the Church. A host of vernacular translations would also have given the Church a severe administrative headache. It made very good sense for a multi-national corporation like the Catholic Church to keep all its internal communications and official documents in one language.

Having annoyed those in authority, Wycliffe clearly needed to be taught a lesson. At various times the Pope issued decrees against him, he was brought to trial before the Archbishop of Canterbury, charged with - although not convicted of - heresy and expelled from Oxford University for his efforts.

After Wycliffe's death, his Bible translation went viral among the proto-Protestant Lollard movement (or as viral as a document can go with quill-pen copying technology). Lollards read their Bibles, then went around telling people that doctrines like transubstantiation, the Eucharist, Indulgences, and a hierarchical church organization didn't appear anywhere in the Good Book. Then there was trouble.

In 1401, in a high-profile initiative designed to address the radicalisation of the Lollard Community, Parliament passed the statute De haeretico comburendo, (On the Burning of the Heretic). It sounds harsh, but I'm sure the authorities considered the measures tough, but proportionate. In 1415 the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe himself a heretic and he was duly burnt although, as he'd already been dead for thirty years, this constituted getting off rather lightly.

Fast forward a century or so. In the 1520s and '30s, William Tyndale translated large parts of the Bible  - the entire New Testament, the Pentateuch and the book of Jonah - into English. At first, it looked as if his translation would go the way of Wycliffe's, rejected by churchmen and the conventionally pious Henry VIII alike. The new printing technology ensured that more copies of his work could be disseminated, but Tyndale's translations were banned from England and any copies burnt. Tyndale moved to the continent, where he continued to work and be published. It looked as if the Tyndale version was destined to be just another samizdat Bible, passed furtively around among dissenters.

Then, Henry VIII began to have those marital difficulties for which he's famous. Tyndale made the career-limiting mistake of writing a pamphlet opposing Henry's attempts to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Henry asked the Holy Roman Emperor to have Tyndale seized. After a time spent on the run he was eventually betrayed, tried for heresy, strangled at the stake, then burned.

Tyndale's translation, though, fared rather better. As Henry's conflicts with the Pope over his marriages escalated, the centre of power in England shifted. The interests of the Pope in Rome and his trans-national organisation became irrelevant and, in England,  it was the King and his obedient English clergy calling the shots. For the first time, it was in the interest of the English Church and state to have an authorised, national Bible to assert national authority and undermine that of the Catholic Church.  Thomas Cranmer assembled a committee of ten bishops to produce the definitive English Bible, but the project went so slowly that by 1537 he was complaining that their Bible wouldn't be ready until the day after Doomsday.

Tyndale's partial translation, however, was already widely published and available. The Bishops' attempt to translate a new English Bible from scratch was abandoned and work started on a national Bible based on Tyndale's work. Miles Coverdale amended some of Tyndale's translations to make them less objectionable to the clergy, but left his work largely intact. He added his own translations of the remaining books of the Bible, to create the Great Bible, the first authorized Bible in English.

Fast forward another seventy years, to King James I, trying to reconcile High Church Anglicans with the Puritan wing of the English Church. He ordered a new, definitive national edition of the Bible to be produced. Forty seven* scholars, working in six committees were tasked with translating the Bible 'out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty's special command.'

So, 'created by committee', then? Well, not quite. The committees of translators were allowed to consult an approved selection of existing translations, including Tyndale's partial translation itself, along with the Great Bible, and the Sixteenth Century Matthew's Bible and the Geneva Bible - all translations that were substantially based on Tyndale's work. Scholars disagree on exactly how many of the words in the King James Bible are Tyndale's, but some studies suggest figures like 84% for the New Testament and 76% for the Old Testament.

Considering the raw deal he got, I think it's only fair that Tyndale should get a bit more of the credit. Mind you, 'the only thirty-odd per cent of  a great work of art ever created by committee' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.


If you have been, thanks for reading and here's a small YouTube treat for all you Charlton Heston fans out there...

*Fifty four scholars were originally approved, but only forty seven contributed to the translation.


Stephen Nottingham said...

Thanks for this interesting and informative post Andrew, although I'll pass on the Charlton Heston!