Sacred or sublime, the King James Bible is a timeless source

Religious text subject of new Folger exhibit

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In his new book, “The Shadow of a Great Rock,” the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom laments that few people today read and fully appreciate the King James Bible of 1611. But Mr. Bloom is talking about the beauty of the language and the majesty of the most sonorous passages in the seminal 17th-century translation rather than its appeal as a source of religious devotion or comfort.

As it marks its 400th anniversary this year, the King James Bible is suddenly a trending topic, the focus of a surge of scholarly, curatorial and public interest — not to mention ecclesiastical anxiety — that includes a spate of books and essays as well as “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” a fascinating new exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The King James Bible, or KJB, has from the beginning led a double life. It is the sacred Scripture of the Protestant communion, particularly of Episcopalians and Anglicans, but it also is a literary masterpiece — “the sublime summit of literature in English,” which it shares only with Shakespeare, and “a basic source of American literature,” Mr. Bloom declares.

“Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickenson, are its children, and so are William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy,” he writes.

The scholarly literature occasioned by the 400th anniversary is divided down the middle. One half focuses on KJB’s theological impact through the ages, the other on its huge effect on the English literary landscape.

Some commentaries sound like elegies for the waning influence of the religious text — superseded by endless “trendier” versions of the Bible, marginalized by the general decline of interest in religion and diminished by the dwindling of its core following — the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and its Anglican counterpart in Britain. Indiana University professor Paul J. Gutjahr is not alone in noting in a recent essay, “Not only is the popularity of the KJB dying in America but with it [so] is the American Bible culture’s ability to benefit from the many layered riches found in the Bible.”

The KJB’s literary inspiration, on the other hand, remains as vital as ever — even if, in most cases, unconsciously so. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper called it “an enthralling matrix of linguistic influence.” Unconsciously — because when we see writing on the wall, fight the good fight, find the fly in the ointment or use words such as “scapegoat” or “peacemaker,” we actually are quoting the KJB.

And yet the KJB’s 50 or so translators are not known to have had literary aspirations. They were following King James I’s instructions to bring the word of God to the common people in the vernacular in a mechanically printed, mass-produced edition of the Bible in English at a time when the Reformation was taking root. The fact that it turned out to be the greatest book ever written by committee and not a Tower of Babel is nothing short of miraculous.

Starting in 1604, six teams of scholars — two teams each in London and at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge — went to work, using the original texts (in Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament) and earlier English translations. At the time, church attendance was enforced by law in England, so the entire population quickly became familiar with the new Bible, making it part of the national culture, and the practice began of entering births and other family rites of passage on the flyleaf. For centuries, it was the book most likely to be found in homes on both sides of the Atlantic.

All of which is the focus of “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” which opened Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library and runs until Jan. 15, 2012. Highlights of the fascinating exhibition include the Folger’s own copy of the KJB, a massive, leather-bound tome originally owned by King James‘ son, Prince Henry; a copy of the KJB brought to America on the Mayflower by John Alden; George Washington’s family Bible, the first edition printed in the post-Revolutionary United States; a King James Bible owned by Elvis Presley (who knew!); Bible comics; and translations of the translation — into some of the American Indian languages.

Also on display are the only three surviving manuscripts recording in detail the progress of the translation. “It was a laborious, painstaking process,” said Hannibal Hamlin, professor of English at Ohio State University and one of the exhibition’s two curators. The work was put together “word by word, sentence by sentence.”

Curiously, there is no mention of the KJB’s presence on the World Wide Web, one place where it continues to flourish, with thousands of hits a day. Nor — for an exhibition that has “afterlife” in its title — is there much mention of its future. (Elvis, despite views to the contrary, has been dead for some time: What about some living owners, e.g., President Obama?)

Also lacking is anything to show that the KJB’s legacy is inextricably tied up with the fate of the Episcopal communion, undeniably in crisis in both the United Kingdom and here. The Church of England, aka the Anglican Church, has 25 million baptized members, but just 1.7 million go regularly to church, according to recent surveys. In January, three Anglican bishops, unhappy with the introduction of female clergy, the acceptance of gay priests and other changes in their church crossed over to the Catholic Church. Entire English parishes have made the same switch, led by their pastors, or are contemplating such a move. In America, internal polling revealed that the Episcopal Church is losing 19,000 worshippers a year and not replacing them with new ones.

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