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Arnold, Matthieu, et Christophe Tournu [Éds.]
La Bible de 1611 – The King James Version. Sources, Écritures et Influences XVIe–XVIIIe siècles. Sources, Writings and Influences 16th–18th centuries.
Strasbourg: Presses universitaires de Strasbourg 2013. 216 S. Kart. EUR 18,00. ISBN 978-2-86820501-8.
This bilingual volume emerged from a conference jointly organised by the Palais University in Strasbourg and the Bibliothèque humaniste at Sélestat in 2011 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the first publication of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) (as it has come to be known in North America – in England it is still usually referred to as the Authorised Version). This version, which borrowed significantly from earlier translations, had been commissioned by King James I of England (VI of Scotland) at the Hampton Court Conference between churchmen of different viewpoints in January 1604, shortly after his accession. As Sabrina Juillet Garzon shows in her excellent contribution on ›La rêve d’universalité du Roi Jacques‹, the principal purpose was to ensure that there was a single version of Scripture which could be used in the efforts to solve the many disputes between the different factions in the Church of England (as well as the Church of Scotland), and which would not be the product of one particular party or viewpoint (unlike one of the other popular versions of the time, the so-called Geneva Bible, which was littered with one-sided interpretations of controversial passages strongly influenced by John Knox, the Scottish Reformer).
The twelve essays plus introductory essays by both editors are on the whole celebratory, but also scholarly and wide ranging. How-ever, as is usual in such volumes, they are of varying quality (and sometimes the English text is marred by poor idioms or errors – e.g. Elizabeth I is called Elisabeth 1st or the Evangelical Revival is re-ferred to as ›Evangelic‹). In addition, most are fairly short (about ten pages) which means that some good ideas and themes are underdeveloped. The fairly lengthy production process between the con-ference and the publication, however, allowed the editors to comment on some of the other events that took place in 2011, including the speech by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, which is rather elegantly deconstructed by Christophe Tornu. Throughout the book some of the myths about the KJV are quickly dispensed with – most importantly, its undoubted beauty and elegance, which have inspired many later commentators to wax lyrical, was something that emerged after the event. The celebration of its often very contorted and prosaic language as a great moment in the development of the English language was more a product of the effects the Bible had on subsequent poets and authors rather than intrinsic to the text itself. Furthermore when it was published, it used already obsolete and often highly contorted forms in its literalist method and it really only began to gain popularity and its literary reputation after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The first part of the book examines the circumstances of the production of the Bible, although rather unfortunately there is no essay describing the detailed production by the six companies of translators in the different centres across Britain which means the reader has to infer the history of the text. Some essays are extremely specialised, as, for instance, W. G. Day’s on ›Winchester College and the Bible‹ or Annie Noblesse-Rocher on ›Martin Bucer a-t-il influence la Bible de 1611?‹, an essay that invites a negative answer, although the essay is a good discussion of Bucer’s influence in England, where he had been Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge. Other essays are far more general such as the overview of the creation of the text by Alister McGrath. The second part examines literary aspects and includes the finest essay in the volume by Gordon Campbell on ›The Language of the King James Bible‹, which is both highly learned and moderately iconoclastic as it analyses the language shorn of the usual tone of over-reverence: ›The KJB was not an enterprise designed to create a great work of literature, but rather one that aspired to communicate the literal meaning of a complex series of … texts‹ (116).
Most importantly, he stresses the importance of reading the Bible out loud – it was a volume designed to be heard which helps explain the rhythm of the text. Some of the other essays are narrower, although all are interesting – as with J. R. Watson’s paper on the 1611 Bible and the famous Olney Hymns, which was one of the first hymn books of the Evangelical Revival. The third and final part discusses readings of the text. There are some tantalising themes including Stephen Prickett’s essay on how later generations regarded Shake-speare as one of the possible influences on the KJV. The impact of the text on Hobbes and Milton is also addressed. Overall this is a useful volume which adds a number of important nuggets to our knowledge of the KJV, which has proved a remarkably resilient classic in the English-speaking world at least until recently. That said, most English speakers nowadays would probably admit that they frequently find the language unintelli-gible if not downright strange: it might have been good to have an essay reflecting on the end of biblical literacy, but that would most likely have been somewhat less celebratory.