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.

Posts tagged “Bishops’ Bible

Looking Back, and Far Ahead

The Jerusalem Chamber. (c) Westminster Abbey.

The Jerusalem Chamber, (c) Westminster Abbey.

I’m writing this from Borough High St. in Southwark (London), a few blocks from Southwark Cathedral, and in the vicinity of what used to be Winchester Palace, the London residence of the Bishop of Winchester. Lancelot Andrewes, translator of the King James Bible and perhaps supervisor of the First Westminster Company, was granted the bishopric in 1618. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral and is represented in effigy lying on top of his tomb.

London is full of reminders of the translation of the English Bible. Across London Bridge, which is just up the road and on the right, is the church of St. Magnus Martyr. Miles Coverdale, who translated the first complete English Bible (apart from the Wycliffites), is buried there, since he served for a time as rector.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale, translator of translators, is buried in Vilvoorde in the Netherlands, where he was strangled and burned, but his sculpted head is included as a decorative architectural feature at St. Dunstan-in-the-West, where he lectured. John Donne later preached at St. Dunstan’s.  A little south of St. Paul’s, where Donne was dean, stood the church of Holy Trinity the Less, destroyed in the Great Fire. John Rogers, the man responsible for Matthew’s Bible (1537), was rector there a few years earlier. He was later burned alive as a heretic at Smithfield, a 10 minute walk north, near the church of St. Bartholomew the Great. Benjamin Franklin worked briefly for a printer in the Lady Chapel of St. Bart’s.

Of course, Westminster itself, the location of two companies of the King James Bible translators, is down the Thames to the west. Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester (before Andrewes), member of the Second Cambridge Company, and one of the revisers of the final King James Bible text, is buried in Westminster Abbey, as is, of course, King James I. Archbishop Matthew Parker, who supervised the translation of the Bishops’ Bible (1568), is buried at Lambeth just across the Thames.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The celebrations of the King James Bible anniversary have died down here. There are no upcoming events listed on the website of the King James Bible Trust. And in the United States, the tour of Manifold Greatness comes to end on July 12—oddly enough, my birthday. Perhaps more appropriately, it is the date of the death of Erasmus (1536), who produced the Greek text of the New Testament that became known as the Textus Receptus, an essential resource for translators from William Tyndale to the King James Bible companies.

As I reflect on the long history of Manifold Greatness, from its inception and planning, to the years of research, to the exhibition at the Folger, to the long journey of the panel exhibitions, I wonder what lies ahead for the King James Bible in 2111. Will the 500th anniversary be celebrated as were the 400th and the 300th? Will the King James Bible still be in use in some churches? Will American presidents still be sworn in on it? Will the King James Bible have an afterlife in the 21st century? Will some lecturer refer back to the 2011 anniversary celebrations at the Folger, as I referred in my opening lecture to celebrations in New York and London in 1911? Few of us will know. As Matthew writes, “of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”

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


The Translator’s Dilemma, or How DO You Say That in English?

Pastor Earl Steffens, Manifold Greatness lecture

Pastor Earl Steffens, Manifold Greatness lecture

The Manifold Greatness exhibit provides a great deal of information about how the King James Bible came into being. We are told that the translators were instructed to work from the wording used by the Bishops’ Bible (1568), unless the wording used in the Coverdale or Geneva Bibles, for example, was judged to be closer to what the older Greek and Hebrew texts intended. It seems at first as though it would be easy enough to determine which translation was more accurate and arrive at a Bible that ticked all the boxes for the various interested parties.

On Thursday, May 2, Pastor Earl Steffens, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, gave a presentation he called The Translator’s Dilemma or How DO you say that in English? The lecture outlined the problems that Biblical translators through the ages have had when attempting to either make a new translation of a Bible from “original” sources, or to translate a Bible from one language to another.

Plantin Polyglot Bible, multiple languages, 1568-1572. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Plantin Polyglot Bible (includes Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, and Latin), 1568-1572. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

What is the most basic problem for people attempting a new translation?  Having to decide which documents to use as a basis for that translation. Which of the texts in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin are the closest to what the original authors actually wrote? The primary documents, called autographs, are long gone. All that is left are copies. And copies of copies. And copies, of copies, of copies. Needless to say, there are plenty of discrepancies between various copies of the scriptures that have come down to us. A good translator looks at all the variations on the text and decides what is the most likely original wording and meaning—in an ideal world, without tinting that decision with political or theological agendas.

George Abbot, a King James Bible translator (detail). (c) University College, Oxford.

George Abbot, a King James Bible translator. (c) University College, Oxford.

The second problem for a translator is “How DO I say that in …”—how to convey, as closely as possible, what the original author of the text intended. Word for word translations are stilted and awkward. Pastor Steffens used the example of the three words that Greek authors use for three completely different kinds of love and how, in order for English speakers to understand the difference between them, translators use phrases to clarify the meaning.  And, of course, translators want the result to sound good, to convey the correct meaning, and to be relevant to the intended audience. Translation is more of an art than a science.

The audience asked some great questions.There was some discussion of how oral tradition might have impacted translation—it seems quite possible that, if you had heard a Bible story one way all your life, you might add bits of the story as you know it to your copy of the text as you sat in the scriptorium scribbling away. There was also some discussion of the merits of various English translations, with the King James Bible being the hands-down favorite of a number of the participants.

Vickie Horst is the Manager of Tifton-Tift County Public Library in Tifton, Georgia.

To learn more about the Plantin Polygot Bible shown above, consult the Early Bibles image gallery; you can learn more about George Abbot (above) and other King James Bible translators in our Meet the Translators online feature.


Final Days and Beautiful Sunshine for the Folger Exhibition

It will be tough to say goodbye to the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition after this Monday (in the words of Juliet, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”)… but we hope to see you before it goes!

The Folger exhibition is open today (Saturday), Sunday, and Monday; admission is free. And we’re delighted to have started the last weekend of the exhibition with brilliant sunshine.

Some of the many “don’t miss” items now on display in the Folger exhibition include:

Bishops' Bible. 1568. Folger.

• An Anglo-Saxon manuscript from about the year 1000 that retells biblical stories in epic verse
• A rare Wycliffite Bible from the 1380s
• A 1530 fragment from William Tyndale’s contraband biblical translations, discussed by Hannibal Hamlin in this post: Tyndale was executed in 1536
• Queen Elizabeth’s 1568 Bishops’ Bible
• A Bodleian copy of a 1602 Bishops’ Bible annotated with translators’ changes
• The Folger first edition of the King James Bible
• The Prince Henry Bible, an elaborately bound copy of the King James Bible owned by James I’s older son, Prince Henry, who died in 1612
• A “Wicked” Bible (1631) in which the printer omits a key word from the commandment on adultery
• A King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower
• King James Bibles owned by Frederick Douglass and Elvis Presley
• Early family Bibles, with century-old handwritten records of births, christenings, and other events, including the Hamlin Family Bible

Earthrise. Apollo 8, December 24, 1968. NASA.

And what story does it all tell? In the words of the Washington Post from last September:

The exhibition includes fascinating mysteries, epic battles, stake burnings and other enthralling episodes in the lives of the men involved in Bible translation. It covers the events that led to the birth of the King James, as well as the book’s influence on art, literature, popular culture, music and history—from Handel’s “Messiah” to the reading of Genesis by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, a broadcast heard by a quarter of the people on Earth at the time, making the Bible’s reach literally astronomical.

The New York Times (also in September) put it this way:

Pay close attention to the major new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library here, “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” and you will see not only manuscripts going back to the year 1000, an early translation from the 14th century, Queen Elizabeth I’s copy of the Bible, and imposingly bound versions of the King James; you will also sense the gradual birth of the modern English language and the subtle framing of a culture’s patterns of thought… you cannot survey the riches at the Folger without realizing that you are being given a glimpse of a culture’s birth.

In his recent blog post about an American Civil War POW’s King James Bible, curator Steve Galbraith noted “the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by our one exhibition.” Another reminder of those historical KJB associations comes this weekend, with the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday on Monday and Dr. King’s actual birthday on Sunday. Curator Hannibal Hamlin wrote about Martin Luther King and the King James Bible last August, and King is recognized in the Folger exhibition as well. On Monday, the exhibition’s last day, the Folger Shakespeare Library also offers a free, family-friendly event for the King holiday on the theme of protest. And once again, the King James Bible of 1611 traces its connections to the present day.


Shakespeare and the King James Bible: Ships Passing in the Night

Shakespeare. Double-sided enamel. 1769. Folger.

Since at least the great Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been yoked together as the twin pillars of English culture. Dozens of books in the nineteenth century printed extracts from Shakespeare and the KJV, often on facing pages, showing that they were morally and spiritually equivalent on matters such as the Sabbath, the World’s Dissolution, Fears, Adultery, and Wisdom.

The association of these two works (and neither of them really is “a work”—they’re both anthologies) encouraged the idea that there must be a stronger link between them. I’ve written before about the nutty notion that Shakespeare was a KJV translator. But even the idea that Shakespeare read and was influenced by the KJV is mistaken.

Shakespeare did read the Bible, and he heard it in church. We can tell this because of the hundreds of biblical allusions and references in his plays and poems. In fact, there is no work that Shakespeare alludes to more often than the Bible. Bottom garbles Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen…”); Richard II compares his tormentors to Judas and the Pharisees; Shylock cites the story of Jacob and Laban from Genesis; King Lear alludes (unconsciously) to the Book of Job. Shakespeare makes these allusions, counting on his audience to recognize and interpret them, and so add deeper meaning to the play.

King Lear. Unknown artist. 1874. Folger.

The KJV was published only in 1611 (possibly even in early 1612, since England was still on the old calendar with New Year’s in March), and while parishes in London and some other dioceses did acquire copies of the new Bible fairly quickly, it was not immediate. Up until this time, Shakespeare, like everyone else, had known other English Bible translations. The Bishops’ Bible (first published in 1568) was the official translation read in most English churches. The Geneva Bible (1560) was by far the most popular, though, and Shakespeare obviously had a copy that he read from, since most of the biblical allusions in his works that are identifiable with a specific translation are to the Geneva.

The KJV simply arrived too late for Shakespeare to know it. Even if he did see a copy or hear it in church, it didn’t supplant the Geneva from his ear and memory. Moreover, by this time Shakespeare had only a few more plays to write before he died: perhaps only the Fletcher collaborations, Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. It’s probably unreasonable to put too much emphasis on one Bible translation or another, however, since most of the translators (KJV companies included) saw themselves as revisers, and the succession of translations from Tyndale and Coverdale on as just stages in the development of the English Bible. Shakespeare knew the English Bible intimately—just not in the revision known as the KJV.

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


Bibles for Two Queens

Elizabeth dei gratia... 17th century(?). Folger.

Joseph Nutting. Anna d. gratia... Folger.

Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, reigned from 1558 to 1603. Anne, last of the Stuarts, reigned from 1702 to 1714. The ghosts of these two queens hover across the Folger’s exhibition hall in the form of their great Bibles, on display together for the first time as part of the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition.

I had long known about the Folger copy of the Bishops’ Bible bound for Elizabeth I, but not about the King James Version bound for Queen Anne. There they are, facing each other, in all their weighty red and blue splendor.

Bishops' Bible. 1568. Folger.

Two years after Elizabeth came to the throne, English Protestants on the Continent published the Geneva Bible. Although it was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, her bishops didn’t much like the numerous marginal annotations, so Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s Archbishop of Canterbury, organized a new translation. This is usually called the Bishops’ Bible because it was mostly translated by bishops from the Church of England. (For more details about early English Bibles, see The Road to Hampton Court on the Manifold Greatness website.)

The copy on display, published in 1568, was designed as a presentation copy from Archbishop Parker to Elizabeth, whose youthful portrait graces the title page. Bound in red velvet with silver-gilt bosses decorated with Tudor roses, and a central bosse featuring a crown and the initials EL RE for Elizabeth Regina, it also features hand-colored woodcuts of Elizabeth’s chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and of her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Elizabeth liked a little “color” in her private chapel—she kept a silver cross and two candlesticks on the altar and preferred her priests to serve in proper vestments—so this Bible would have fit in perfectly.

Queen Anne's Bible. 1701. Folger.

Fast forward about 130 years. The 1611 translation of the Bible commissioned by Elizabeth’s successor (and Anne’s great-grandfather) King James I was still the “official” version of the Church of England. A copy of the 1701 edition of this massive volume was bound especially for Queen Anne around 1705, not long after her accession. The binder was Robert Steel, and he did the queen proud—dark blue goatskin blind-stamped with a floral design, with the queen’s arms in gold on front and back and two large blue silk ties trimmed with gold tassels.

Like her distant cousin, Elizabeth, Anne survived religious tumult. Though her father, mother, and stepmother were all Catholics, Anne was raised in the Church of England at the behest of her uncle, King Charles II. When her father, James II, lost the throne in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 because of his Catholic leanings, Anne had only to wait her turn to succeed her sister and brother-in-law, the Protestant Mary and William. After Anne’s reign, the Church of England was firmly established, and these two massive and ornate Bibles help to tell its story.

Georgianna Ziegler is the Louis B. Thalheimer head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Behind the Scenes: Exhibition Transformations

Folger conservators install materials for a Manifold Greatness case. Photo by Caryn Lazzuri.

This post about Folger exhibitions and Manifold Greatness first appeared on the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, “The Collation” and we wanted to share some excerpts here, too. Exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri, who wrote it and took numerous photos, describes her job as “a post that includes everything from editing label text to searching the Internet for fresh violets in January.” In addition to her background in museum exhibitions, she holds an MFA in poetry. (See the full Collation blog post for more fascinating information (what ARE all those noises during installation?) and many more Caryn Lazzuri photos!)

It’s that time of year again: for two weeks every four months or so, the Folger’s Great Hall locks its doors and transforms from one exhibition into the next. Or, perhaps that’s how it seems to Folger visitors and readers and staff who are barred from the space and have to wait to see the next show. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind those closed, locked doors, let me give you a little glimpse…

The old exhibition, the one that’s coming off view—we take that down on the very first day. Then the work begins. Conservation comes down from the lab armed with hammers and nail guns, drills, magnets, and lots of tiny triangles of plastic vivak. We move rare materials into their new homes—Case 2, Case 8, the pilaster before Case 5—and we work off the plans we drew up months ago, during Case Layouts, to arrange each case into a neat array of rare materials on view. Once everything is in place, the lighting must be fixed, and small adjustments made here or there. Each label has to be just-so, of course.

Installation underway! Photo by Caryn Lazzuri.

At that midway point, loans from other institutions arrive. Each lender’s contract is different, but many require a courier to accompany the loan material and supervise installation. We measure light levels, temperature, and humidity, and when those levels meet the approval of the lender and everything is where it needs to be, we close and seal the case with the courier present, and—in many cases—we don’t open it again until the installation comes down and the courier is present once again.

For Manifold Greatness, 14 institutions or individuals have lent material to be on display, with several more contributing facsimiles. Each loan, each facsimile, each Folger artifact, each panel on the wall has a specific place in the show, and directing that choreography is one of the most gratifying parts of my job as Exhibitions Manager. A result of two years of work by curators, conservators, designers, and editors, this exhibition finally materializes into something tangible in a two-week flurry of constant activity.

Bishops Bible. Folger.

I love the “curtain-up” moment when we sweep up the dust, roll the rugs back out, turn on the lights, and open the doors. I hope you’ll come by and see the show, which opens to the public on September 23. We’ve got some amazing stuff to see: early biblical manuscripts, a Bishops’ Bible that probably belonged to Elizabeth I, a “Wicked” Bible with a misprinted commandment, association Bibles from people as disparate as a seventeenth-century traveler and Elvis Presley, and even a stake for burning heretics.

Manifold Greatness will be on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library from September 23 through January 16. From February 28 through June 2, the exhibit will be at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. You can learn more about the King James Bible on the exhibition website. A traveling exhibition produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) has also been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Caryn Lazzuri is Exhibitions Manager at the Folger Shakespeare Library. A full version of her blog post appears on the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation.


The Bible and The Tempest

Pamela Coleman Smith. The Tempest. Caliban. ca. 1900. Folger.

The King James Bible was published in the same year that The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last single-authored play was produced: 1611. The KJB translation thus appeared too late to influence Shakespeare’s writing, but he was deeply influenced by its predecessor translations, especially the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible. The Bishops’ was the one read in English churches from its publication in 1568, but the Geneva (1560) was more popular for the general reader. It was available in cheaper formats, and it had an elaborate set of interpretive aids like introduction, marginal notes, and indexes––it was really the first “Study Bible.”

All of Shakespeare’s plays contain important allusions to the Bible, just as they allude to classical works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The Tempest is no exception. The story is the old one of shipwreck on a desert island, like the later Robinson Crusoe or even Gilligan’s Island. Shakespeare’s interest in this plot has to do partly with exploring humanity in isolation from civilization. What happens when people are forced to fend for themselves, without the aid of law or civic institutions? Seventeenth-century explorers to the New World were asking similar questions as they encountered native people living seemingly in a state of nature. Were such people brutal savages, in need of civilizing, or were they noble innocents, free from the corruptions of European society? The Tempest explores such questions, often in biblical terms.

Shakespeare’s island is a kind of Eden, presided over by the God-like figure of Prospero, with Ferdinand and Miranda as a version of Adam and Eve, and Ariel and Caliban and angel and devil. As in the Genesis story, temptation and obedience are crucial: Prospero charges Ferdinand and Miranda not to have sex before they are properly married, anxious about the temptation they offer each other alone on the island. Prospero and his brother Antonio may also have a biblical model in Cain and Abel, the first brothers and the first murderer and death. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the Bible was the place to go for puzzling out life’s big questions: can siblings really get along? can anyone? are humans inherently wicked or just corrupted by society? are forgiveness and redemption possible in this world?

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


A Visit to Oxford

This past Friday, Folger Librarian Steve Enniss and I had the pleasure of traveling to Oxford to attend a reception celebrating the opening of the Bodleian Library’s exhibition “Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible.” Guests gathered in Oxford’s majestic Divinity School for drinks, fellowship, and remarks from Bodley’s Librarian, Sarah Thomas, and comedian Ian Hislop, who was delightfully irreverent.

Prior to the reception, I made my way through the exhibition.  I was awestruck by the assembled artifacts.  I lingered over Anne Boleyn’s copy of the Tyndale New Testament and the Wicked Bible of 1631, with its infamous typo “Thou shalt commit adultery.” At one point I overheard someone whisper, “Have you seen the Big Three?” The “Big Three” to which she was referring are a copy of the 1602 Bishops’ Bible annotated by KJB translators, a manuscript containing working translations of the New Testament epistles, and surviving notes from translator John Bois.  “The Big Three” is a fitting title. On exhibition together for the first time, these three artifacts are primary documents recording the process behind the creation of the King James Bible.

The next day as we discussed the exhibition at the Turf Tavern, Steve noticed an ad for Manifold Greatness hung at the bottom of the tavern’s crowded wall of posters. I thought snapping a picture was in order.

We return invigorated and excited to continue work on the Folger exhibition coming this fall.

Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Shakespeare did not write the King James Bible, no way, no how.

In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Walter “Monk” McGinn (played by Brendan Gleason, here to the right of Liam Neeson) says, “Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.”

The occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally celebrated April 23, though no one knows the precise date—is a good time to offer some reflections about a persistent myth. Since the late nineteenth century, some people have suggested that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible. Just to be clear,

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!!

The reasons this legend developed are complex, and not entirely known, but the idea is preposterous in itself. We know the names and identities of the roughly four dozen King James Bible translators (the number is rough because over time some died or dropped out and had to be replaced). All but one of them were clergymen. The exception, Henry Savile, was included because of his prodigious learning and particularly his exceptional knowledge of Patristic Greek. Indeed, save a few political appointments, all the translators were eminent linguists, the very best scholars of ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek, but also Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic—in England. Some, like Lancelot Andrewes and, judging from the Translators’ Epistle to the Reader, Miles Smith, were also fine writers. But this was not why they were chosen. The translators were not especially interested in what we think of as literary style, and they certainly were not aiming to produce a masterpiece of English prose. Their overwhelming concern was to produce to the most accurate English translation possible of the Bible. The many years of work involved hours and hours of discussions of the most minute details of language: points of grammar, syntax, vocabulary; careful comparison of verses, clauses, and individual words in all the ancient languages, including Latin, as well as contemporary translations in European languages, and all previous English Bible (Tyndale, Coverdale’s Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’, Rheims); also discussion of theology, ancient history, archaeology. Not very sexy, but that’s what made the KJV!

Literal accuracy was the goal, which is why the English of the KJV sometimes sounds foreign, as in using the word “to know” for having sex (Gen. 4), or Hebrew idioms like “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19) or “the apple of my eye” (Deut. 32), which make little sense in English. Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.” This was a little unfair. By our standards, Shakespeare’s Latin was excellent, he just wasn’t as remarkable a scholar as Jonson. There’s no evidence, though, that Shakespeare had more than a little grammar school Greek, and he likely had no Hebrew at all. He lacked the basic skills necessary for Bible translation. He was also not a clergyman; since many clergymen considered players as next-door to brothel-keepers, it’s inconceivable anyone would have considered him as a candidate for the translation team. Finally, although Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been lauded as the twin pillars of English literature since at least the Victorians, they aren’t really much alike. Shakespeare can write fine prose, but he more often writes in verse, and what sets his style apart from other playwrights is the metaphorical density of his language and his invention of words and idioms. The King James Bible is entirely in prose and generally eschews complex metaphor. The vocabulary is also extremely limited. The language of Shakespeare and the language of the KJV aren’t the same.

The one piece of evidence often hauled out in support of the “Shakespeare wrote the Bible” argument is a bit of “code” from Psalm 46. All sorts of people mention this, from Bishops to conspiracy theorists. It goes like this. In the KJV, count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46: “shake.” Count 46 words from the end: “spear.” Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Thus, so it goes, Shakespeare has encoded his signature in the psalm to mark his secret involvement in the translation. (The more committed cryptographers delve into Kabbala and further supposed number patterns, but I’ll leave this wackier stuff aside.) So many problems with this! First the second 46 count has to leave out the word “selah.” It’s not a word from the actual Psalm but an indicator of performance (no one knows quite what it means), yet it is there on the page, and if you include it “spear” is 47 words from the end, not 46. Furthermore, “shake” and “spear” are in many earlier English Bibles as well, in roughly the same places (45-47 words from beginning and end). Spears are plentiful in the Bible, because they were in ancient Palestine, and people with spears tend to shake them. No great mystery. What’s really in evidence here is an amusing coincidence, discovered by someone with codes on the brain, probably in the 1890s. No one seems to have noticed it before then, which makes it seem rather ineffective as a signature. It’s absurd that Shakespeare would have been involved in translating a Bible, but it’s even more absurd that if he had been involved he would have left his mark in so obscure and meaningless a fashion. Some compare this to medieval stonemasons who inscribed their names on stones in place no one could ever see, presumably as a declaration to God. Shakespeare was not an anonymous craftsman, however, but a popular and successful playwright, whose name appeared prominently on his published work. The more you know about Shakespeare, and the more you know about the King James Bible, the sillier this idea becomes. Imaginative writers like Rudyard Kipling and Anthony Burgess have played around with the myth in their fiction, but that’s where it belongs. In fiction, not in reality.

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


Bodleian Library Manifold Greatness exhibition opens today!

Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

As reported in our recent post, Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible opens today at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford!

Helen Moore, chair of the curatorial committee, says, “The exhibition reunites some of the books and manuscripts actually used by translators and we hope that it will give a unique insight into the aims and methods of the countless committee meetings that were held in Oxford and elsewhere as the translation took shape.

“It is an enormous privilege that we are able to breathe life back into the translation process for a modern audience, by showing these books and documents in public, some of them for the first time.”

Shown here is the page from the Gospel of Luke headed “Christ is crucified, and riseth againe.” from the unique Bodleian 1602 Bishops’ Bible, on public display for the first time in this exhibition. The handwriting shows the editing comments of the King James Bible translators.

For more information on the Bodleian Manifold Greatness exhibition and the extraordinary and fascinating rare materials on display, consult this announcement.

You can see more about the marked-up 1602 Bishops’ Bible and other rare documents of the translation process (many of which are also in the Bodleian exhibition) in the video Reconstructing the Process on the Manifold Greatness website.


Reading the (whole) KJB aloud

Moody Bible Institute radio show

How long does it take to read aloud the King James Bible? The 400th-anniversary year of 2011 is giving us lots of chances to find out.

This week, the BBC reports on an organized “reading relay” at a church in Sussex that began on Monday and, if all goes as planned, will wrap up this Sunday, March 27, with breaks at night. Earlier in March, the King James Bible Challenge at the 2011 Bath Lit Fest went for a round-the-clock approach expected to take 120 hours. In the end, it clocked in at 96 hours. Then there’s the on-going, global “public reading” being created through the YouTube Bible project (Prince Charles recently added fourteen verses) — although that one is probably a topic for another day.

It’s all very much in the spirit of the King James Bible translators, who knew that they were producing a translation to be heard, not just read. They even read aloud alternative wordings in their committee meetings, seeking rhetorical power through word choice and word order, while still focused on accuracy. To hear the results for yourself, try reading aloud this line from the older, 1568 Bishops’ Bible: “Get thee up betimes and be bright, for thy light cometh.” (Isaiah 60:1). Then, listen to the same line from the King James Bible: “Arise, shine, for thy light is come.”


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