The curious politics of the King James Bible

A very curious thing happened this afternoon. The Queen began her traditional Christmas Day television and radio broadcast with seven paragraphs on "the King James, or Authorised, Bible, which next year [2011] will be exactly four centuries old"... before concluding that it was all done "to build communities and create harmony, and one of the most powerful ways of doing this is through sport and games."

You could almost here the collective "eh?" of the media at this extraordinarily forced link. Indeed the BBC website's report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12079065) focused entirely on the unifying nature of sport (which Her Majesty's Government intends to cut back on, by the way, in spite of its partial u-turn on school sport partnerships) and chose not to mention the matter of the King James Bible at all.

So what does all this signify? Partly a bit of fence-sitting by the monarchy, and partly a bit of politics (of the kind that her royal predecessor might well have admired). As "defender of the faith" - by which is meant the Protestant and Reformed Faith of the established Church of England - the monarch is expected to put in a kindly word for civic religion in her Christmas message, and almost always does. The 1611 Bible (it only became 'The King James' later, and was never formally Authorised) provides a good opportunity to do that, without bothering too many of the 51 per cent of the UK population who have declared themselves non-religious in the 2010 British Attitudes Survey.

So the Queen stressed that this version of the Bible (on which she holds a copyright control that remains the last vestige of a time when the Crown enjoyed a monopoly over all printing and publishing in the UK) is a "masterpiece of English prose", before rather surreally segueing this into a paean to sport's ability to bring us all together in a 'Big Society' kind of way. Er... a bit like faith really, but without the divisions, without having to believe anything, with much more sponsorship and TV potential, and with nothing of eternal consequence at stake. (This amounts to "state religion" of such breathtaking vacuity that it almost becomes perversely admirable!)

But lurking in the background to this is something more politically interesting. Establishment religion is there to prop up the status quo and act as the glue in society. So the House of Windsor spin on the 1611 translation of the Bible is that the monarch made sure that it "was acceptable to all parties" at a time when "the Christian church was deeply divided", and that it also brought "harmony to the kingdoms of England and Scotland".

At a time when more questions than ever are raised about the unity of the UK, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) going to the polls in May 2011 to argue for further steps towards dissolving the Union, the Queen has quite cleverly managed to lever into her message something about the importance of holding her kingdom together.

Likewise, at a time when the Church of England is divided and may very well be in danger of breaking apart (as an established church, at least), there is a convenient subtext about pulling together.

Then, of course, there is the notion that the monarch is there to provide a bit of "we're all in this together". Well, yes. But just as the current welfare-cutting government is composed predominantly of millionaires, so the translators set to work by King James in 1604 were almost all Church of England clergy - and they too had a certain kind of deficit in mind.

The Geneva Bible, regarded as subversive towards the monarchy, was their target. The new translation was required to endorse and entrench the ecclesiology of the Church of England (Archbishop Bancroft was given final arbitration, making fourteen changes, one of which was inserting the term 'bishopricke' in Acts 1.20). It also eliminated marginal notes that the King and various bishops disliked, particularly one concerning Regicide in II Chronicles, and another pertaining to Exodus 1.17, where the example of civil disobedience on the part of the Hebrew midwives had been commended.

The Greek ekklesia was additionally translated as "church", rather than "gathering" or "assembly" in order to give the impression that the Bible proposes a top-down form of ecclesiastical authority. We also ended up with the pious and individualistic-sounding 'righteousness', where the Hebrew text would have suggested 'justice'.

In this and a variety of other ways, what became known in 1797 as "King James's Bible" and in 1814 as the Authorised Version, was a deeply political document, seeking to deploy the text in favour of the 'divine right of kings' and establishment in ways that the 15th century Wycliffe translation (banned because of its association with the radical Lollards) and the Geneva Bible (which did not "conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy") threatened.

How much of this political underbelly will be discussed and understood when the 400 year celebrations begin next year will be interesting to see. It is certainly a theme worth pursuing as the future of both the Church of England and post-Christendom Christianity comes into the spotlight.

24/12/2010

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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