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Saturday, 14 May 2011

1611 and all that ...

This year many in Western Christian Churches will be celebrating the publication of what many recognise as the single most influential book in our history. It is four hundred years since the first edition of the “Authorised Version” also known as the “King James Bible” was published in London by the King’s chosen publisher, Robert Barker. When King James ascended the throne of England (He was already King James the Sixth of Scotland) in 1603 there were a number of English Translations of the Bible in circulation and use. Many of these were of decidedly dubious provenance and scholarship, some containing texts found in no other copies or in any of the original source documents. Some of the 'better' versions in use included copies of Wycliffe’s Bible and one published in the reign of Edward VI, which is popularly known as the “Breeches Bible” because it states that, on realising they were naked, Adam and Eve made for themselves ‘breeches’ of leaves. To add to the confusion the theologians and preachers using them could not agree among themselves what was an authentic text and what was not!

The King, himself a keen theology scholar and student of the Bible, decided that this state of affairs was not acceptable and so ordered a new translation which would replace all others in use. The result was the Authorised or King James Version which forms the foundation of all subsequent English Protestant and Anglican translations.

I suspect that the vast majority of those brought up in the English Speaking world in the Anglican or Protestant churches have, as I did for many years, assumed that the King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible was a universally used canon of scripture. In fact I am pretty sure that somewhere along the line I was taught that it contained “all the books considered valid as ‘inspired by God’ by one or other of the Reformation Councils of the 16th and 17th Centuries. It came as something of a surprise therefore, to discover that the non-English speaking “Protestant” Churches, such as the German Lutherans and their ‘Family’ of churches, the Dutch Reformed Churches and others, use Luther’s translation of the Vulgate Canon as their Bible.

That got me thinking. How did the English speaking world arrive at the canon that makes up the KJV? Who decided what was ‘valid’ and what not? More importantly, how did they decide it? Believe it or not, this has taken some digging out!

Let us start with the question of the difference between the two canons of scripture.

The KJV or AV as it is more properly known, contains 66 books while the Vulgate version used by almost everyone else has 73. The reason is that the AV excludes the books known as the “Apocrypha” and which are now often included as a sort of “sandwich filler” between the Old and New Testaments in some versions. There is a problem there as well, since the Apocrypha contains 14 additional books, making a total of 80 books - 7 more than the Vulgate. In part this can be accounted for by the fact that the compilers of the AV and the Apocrypha have actually split books that appear in the Vulgate version into ‘Parts‘ to form new ‘Books.‘ The Anglican 39 Articles of Faith state that these books, which cover a historical period from 200 BC to about 100 AD, are of value ‘for the example of life and the instruction of manners.‘ The books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach in the Vulgate) are particularly commended as providing high levels of religious and ethical teaching. Personally I have always regarded the Books of the Apocrypha as being an essential part of the whole canon of scripture, as valid as the rest.

Where does the Bible come from anyway? I’m sure most readers will be able to say instantly that it is the collection of Hebrew texts that are accepted by the Jewish people as their Torah, plus the four Gospels, the Acts, the Letters of the Apostle Paul and others and the Revelation of John... The original collection of Christian ‘Books’ actually differed widely from community to community and region to region and therein lay a large part of the problems. By about 314 there were so many ‘gospels’ and letters that heresies were two a penny. In 325 AD the Emperor ordered the First Council of Nicea to get together and sort it out, not an easy task at all. St Jerome, originally from the Province of Gaul, settled in Jerusalem and began to collect all the texts, examining the provenance of each and cataloguing those that could be assigned with confidence to the writer and setting apart those that could not.

For the Old Testament canon he adopted, with excellent reasoning, the Jewish Septuagint Canon, then in use throughout the Jewish synagogues in the Empire, though not in the East and in parts of the Holy Land itself. The Talmudic Canon of Jewish scripture does not include the ‘Hellenic’ books, such as Maccabbees, Tobit and Baruch. This collection was in use among the Jewish communities in Arabia, Persia and parts of North Africa. jerome and his team laboured long and hard to produce an authentic canon of post Crucifixion books, all of which could be proved to have been written in the first century by either the Apostles or their disciples.

All others were rejected as not being close enough to the events to have anything to add not already more authoritatively covered by those books included. The Council of Nicea accepted this collection (admittedly with some heated debate at times) and the Vulgate Bible was born. Interestingly, the single book which caused the greatest controversy was Revelations. It was finally only included when the very ancient St Bonifice was carried into the Council and confirmed that his teacher had been a disciple of John and that, as a young scholar, that teacher had in fact written down the book to John’s dictation.

Jerome’s next task was to produce a Latin ‘standard version’ of all the texts in a single book. This took, according to some authorities, twenty-five years, but it was received by the Council and approved. You can imagine how many copyists there must have been needed to copy it by hand for every Christian community, and therein lies another problem.

So how did the compilers of the AV canon decide what books to include and what should not be included?

The problem in England in 1603 was that there were a number of ‘English’ translations in use. All of them copies of copies of the Vulgate, by then some 1300 years old. Even in Rome there was, at this time, considerable concern that the copyists had, over the centuries changed the text, added bits and discarded bits. As early as 700 AD this problem was being identified and written about, one bishop railing against copyists who modified texts of the Bible to suit their own style and ideas, and at others who omitted texts and added others from their own sources. In 1512 the Pope had ordered a complete revision of the text and a group had been set up to agree a single ‘true’ text and ensure that this alone was copied and distributed. At the suggestion of the President of Corpus Christi College in Oxford, it was decided that for the new English version for use in the Anglican Church, a new translation should be made from original Hebrew and Greek documents rather than the corrupted and inaccurate copies of the Vulgate then available in England. Fifty-four scholars were invited by the King to work on the project, only forty-seven actually took part and the King, himself, took an active interest and part in the work.

The obvious first task was to determine which texts were authentic and which not. That proved quite a task, but the scholars drew deep on resources and traced copies in Arabic libraries of original documents in Greek and others from Jewish sources for the Old Testament Books. Faced with two canons of Hebrew Scripture they combed the text of the New Testament to see what was quoted and from which books, determining in the end to include all of the Talmudic canon and to exclude the Apocryphal books as they did not think Christ would have known them. In this choice there may have been a small element of political influence, since certain Roman Doctrines and Dogmas draw upon, among others, Maccabbees, for their source authority.

The scholars laboured in six ‘companies’ divided between Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, beginning work in 1605 and each ‘company’ dealing with a separate part of the whole. That they achieved the outcome they did in six years is a remarkable feat in itself.

As the text of Chapter 44, verse 1 of Ecclesiasticus says; “Let us now praise famous men, and their fathers that begat them.” Ironically, it is one of the books they excluded from the AV, yet there are hints in places of the Gospels that Christ did, in fact, know this book and quoted it. Their names may now be unfamiliar to all except serious scholars of the Bible, but their living memorial is surely the wonderful prose they created in this translation.

Those who set out to produce a single authoritative text in 1605 have created a truly remarkable document. Their memorial is the lasting mark this single book has left upon our world and our society. There are some interesting variations in the text, when read in English, between the AV and the Vulgate Douay-Rheims Version (1534) which do give some subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences in interpretation. There are also, in places, some marked differences in the content, but this could be down to the fact that the Douay-Rheims scholars worked from an existing Latin text which was a copy of many copies.

Few books have been subjected, down the years, to as much criticism, abuse, misuse, misinterpretation and misrepresentation as the AV. It must also be said that few books have inspired so many to make changes to themselves and to the world around them in search of a better life for all than this book, in reality a ‘library’ between a single set of covers. Interpreting scripture is always going to be difficult and should never be attempted without understanding the context of the particular section or the society in which it was first produced. There is a great deal of ‘background’ information which the original writers did not include because their audience would ‘know’ it. Two and three thousand years later, we do not always ‘know’ what has been omitted and we also suffer from the fact that we are reading a translation.

Whichever version you read, you cannot help but be moved by the incredible effort that the preservation, correction and translation of these texts represents. Is one version more valid or more accurate than the other? I do not believe so. God has guided the men and more recently the women who have worked to bring it to us, guiding the hands of copyists down the ages and eventually those who brought us the printed versions.

Who can fail to notice when reading the Old Testament, that whenever the leadership of the Jewish nations turned away from faith and God, their people suffered? Who can fail to notice that whenever the greed of the upper classes led them to adopt the practices and ‘gods’ of their neighbours, Israel and Judah were torn apart by those neighbours? For me, as a forensic investigator, there are endless parallels between these ancient societies and the behaviour of our own leaders and nations. Prosperity seems inevitably to lead to greed, in a few, deprivation and hardship for others. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest achievements of those who translated the Bible so carefully; it provides a mirror to each and everyone of us and our society.

To those who argue that “the Church” has altered the text, changed the meaning or inserted passages, I say this: Where is your evidence, where your proof? If you refer me to the Nag Hamadi ‘library‘ or the Dead Sea Scrolls, I can respond by saying that the Nag Hamadi texts are all at least 200 years younger than the youngest of the books in the Bible (Revelations) and written by the followers of Docetism and Arianism, against whom John rails in the Revelations. If you say the Dead Sea Scrolls, nothing in them is Christian, they are the work of a Jewish Messianic Sect who chose the wrong side in the rebellion against Rome in 70 AD.

Whether you use the AV or the Vulgate is immaterial. Unlike the Quran which Muslims hold is the Word of God, Christians believe the Bible contains words inspired by God. For the Christian, God’s "Word" is the Living Christ, the Bible is His gift to us for our enlightenment and guidance. In the magnificent opening phrases of the AV translation of St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I found the research for this fascinating. I hope you will join me in celebrating what must surely be one of the most remarkable exercises in scholarship for all time, both St Jerome’s heroic effort and that of the 47 scholars assembled by King James.

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