Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Mythbusters 2: May 2 Publication Date of KJV

Queen Elizabeth I (Penelope Rahming) and Sir Derek Jacobi cut Shakespeare’s birthday cake at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2008. Claire Duggan.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the King James Bible. (See my earlier post on Shakespeare as translator.) On both sides of the Atlantic, people are celebrating today as the publication date of the KJV. Even Garrison Keiller has used the date in his Writer’s Almanac. The date even seems to have a certain venerable tradition, since the date is noted as far back as 1866 in A Reference Book for English History by Alexander Charles Ewald. It’s been in lists of famous dates ever since.

The problem is that it’s not true. Never mind that there’s no documentary record of May 2 as a publication date — the more important point is that the whole notion of a “publication date” did not exist in 1611. Even pinning down the year of publication of books can be tricky. Some were given fake imprints with falsified dates (many 17th century Geneva Bibles, for instance). In other cases, especially with a book as huge as the Bible, printing took a rather long time, and it is not at all clear when the finished product was finally made available to the public.

The one record that does help approach the time of publication is the Stationers’ Register, but there’s no record of the KJV, because it was considered a revision, not an original book. David Norton, who knows more than anyone about the text and printing of the KJV, describes it as having appeared sometime between March 1611 and February 1612 (the earlier system of dating, beginning the New Year on March 25, is a further complication). So it’s actually possible the KJV didn’t come out in 1611 at all!

We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, it seems, especially anniversaries. Look at Shakespeare’s birthday (photo above!). No one knows on which day in late April he was born, for the simple reason that all we have is a baptismal record, not a birth certificate (there wasn’t such a thing). We want to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, though, and April 23 appeals for two reasons: he died on April 23, and we like the symmetry of matching birth and death dates; and April is St. George’s Day, patron saint of England.

It doesn’t seem that May 2 has any particular associations, but we do want to a day to celebrate. Never mind if it’s the right one.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

One response

  1. Pingback: Accuracy of the KJV

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