© Столичный Благовестник, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

The Bible is venerated during the Divine Liturgy in Kiev.

About this picture …

On the Feast of St Peter and St Paul on June 29th OS (July 12th NS), 2019, a deacon holds up the Bible for veneration during the Divine Liturgy (the service of holy communion) in the Holy Dormition Church of the Pechersk Lavra in Kiev. The service was led by Onuphry, Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a self-governing church in communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow. Shortly before the Great War, the veneration of the Bible shown by the Russian Church struck Herbert Bury, Anglican Bishop of Central and Eastern Europe, so powerfully that he called on the Church of England to look to Moscow as the only church capable of bringing about Christian reunion. See If Russia Gives a Lead.

About the Authorised Version

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became also James I of England. A year later, he commissioned from leading scholars in the Church of England a new translation of the Bible, the first since the Great Bible of 1539, and the only Bible ‘appointed to be read in churches’. After it was published in 1611, the Authorised Version came to be recognised as one of the supreme masterpieces of the English tongue.

The ‘King James Bible’

THE Authorised or ‘King James’ Version of the Bible was begun in 1604 and published in 1611, under the patronage of King James VI and I. James, who was born in 1566, ruled Scotland as King James VI from 1567; in 1603, he also inherited the crown of England from his cousin Elizabeth I, so he is known as King James the Sixth and First. He died in 1625.

The new translation was not the first English translation of Scripture: they had been in circulation since Anglo-Saxon times. It was not the first English translation of the whole Bible: that was made by followers of John Wyclif, and banned in 1407 on account of their supposedly extreme, unorthodox and treasonable opinions. It was not even the first complete Bible in English to be printed: that was Myles Coverdale’s translation of 1535, subsequently revised (with a preface by Thomas Cranmer) for King Henry VIII’s Great Bible of 1539. Other official Bibles followed, notably the Bishops Bible of 1572. But the Authorised Version was the first English Bible ‘appointed to be read in churches’, with the consequent impact on English language and literature.

Church English

AS the appointment ‘to be read in churches’ implies, this is a Bible not just to be read but to be read aloud, a Bible intended primarily for public liturgy, for the ceremony of the courts of heaven. It is often assumed that the Authorised Version reflected the English of its day, an assumption used to justify re-translating the Bible into the current popular idiom of every new generation, and even of different social or economic groups; but the English of the Authorised Version was never everyday English, whether in taverns, theatres or palaces. The translators chose to adopt an archaic and lofty tone that sounded old-fashioned and other-worldly even then — that same year, 1611, William Shakespeare put on ‘A Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Tempest’ at the Court of King James. As John Birkbeck (1859-1916), an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, expressed it:

“The Slavonic Scriptures, and the Slavonic service books which were translated in the tenth century, represent to Slavonic literature just what our Prayer-book and Authorised Version of the Bible represent to Anglo-Saxon literature — that is to say, the language in its highest and purest form.”

The Book of Common Prayer (1549) had already begun to raise English to new heights in striving to do justice to the sacred texts of the public liturgy, but the translators of the Authorised Version continued and accelerated the process. They sought to create a sense of antiquity, of sacred space and of reverence; but more than that, they sought to let the Holy Ghost speak as he would. Such was their respect for our holy book, that they crafted an English whose sole purpose was to convey the message of Scripture in the context of a ceremonial worship in which the Bible played the starring role. Greek and Hebrew idioms not familiar to English speakers were left in the raw, and to the whole text they imparted a sound and rhythm that felt as distinctively ecclesiastical to the English as Church Slavonic felt to the Russians, a tongue uniquely shaped by and for the public liturgy, one which was understood but not commonly spoken or written.

On the Bible, the English Church and the Russian Church, see our short extract If Russia Gives a Lead by Herbert Bury.

The Bible and Straightforward English

THE Bible is a superb example of the principle of straightforward English, as recommended by NL Clay: that narratives should be plain and to the point, a clear account of something done. “Open your Bible at the Acts of the Apostles” he wrote “if you want straightforward accounts.” The Scriptures tell the story of Israel and preach the Christian gospel in words that are plain, yet gracious.

That the King James Bible tells the story in an old-fashioned idiom does not stop it being straightforward. In the ‘straightforward tradition’ of English, Clay included not only the Bible but Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. None of these is easy to read today — at any rate, not at first; but they are uncompromisingly straightforward. Simply casting the Bible into modern English adds nothing to its plain storytelling, while robbing it of the awe and majesty it should have in public worship.

So well-crafted is the King James Bible, that reading it out aloud is a tried and trusted way to improve anyone’s command of English. Sir George MacCunn (1869-1952) attributed Rudyard Kipling’s mastery of storytelling to his thorough familiarity with the Authorised Version.

“It has been said that only those who have had to read the Old Testament aloud when young ever get the true cadence of the English tongue into their minds and ears, and that all writers of good prose have had this training. Since the great scholars of the Authorized Version — the ‘Book that made England’ — wrote at perhaps the best period of the polished language — the ‘Sanskrit’ of Anglo-Saxon — it is not to be wondered at.”

Additional Materials

WHEN Pope St Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to Kent in 597, to preach Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons, he gave him the following instruction:

“You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me, that if you have found anything, either in the Roman, or the Gallican [i.e. French], or any other church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto.”

From Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731).

In that spirit, alongside the text of the Authorised Version I have gathered together various prayers, hymns, poems and psalms from English sources such as the Book of Common Prayer and the Sarum Use, as well as from Russia and Greece. As a contemporary of our own St Bede, St John Damascene, said,

I shall imitate the bee’s habits, gathering those things which belong to the truth and harvesting fruit even from our enemies; but I shall reject all that is worthless, and falsely held to be knowledge.

From ‘The Fount of Knowledge’ by St John Damascene (676-749).

Among these additions, the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788) occupy a special place. Wesley’s knowledge of Scripture was deep; and his wide reading in the writings of the Church Fathers kept his understanding of Scripture free from the distortions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. His hymns represent some of the noblest expressions of the apostolic Christian hope in the English language.

The Comfortable Words

THE Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549 during the English Reformation, and drawing upon the Great Bible of 1539, appointed two passages from the New Testament to be read by the priest at every Communion Service, shortly before the distribution of the bread and wine.

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to Him.

COME unto Me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.

So God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16.

These are the Comfortable Words. ‘Comfortable’ is used not in the sense of something soft and indulgent, but in the sense of something that brings solace amid pain, and banishes grief.

Comfortable Words is part of my website Clay Lane, where you can find a large collection of short Bible Stories Retold, Passages from the Authorised Version and stories from the Lives of the Saints.