by Alan Wolfe
from Signs of the Times No. 45 - Apr 2012

The 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James ('Authorised') version of the Bible spawned a large amount of activity: TV series, exhibitions (particularly the collection of superb 'first editions' at Lambeth Palace Library), and above all numbers of books from the sublime to the trivial.

These comment about the background to its writing, its style and content, its influence on the English language and literature, how it assisted in the spread of English (and later American) power and influence, and also Protestant Christianity, over what we now call the Third World; and they occasionally even discuss how it has affected its original sponsor, the Church of England.

This book is to be recommended not primarily for its scholarship or depth of analysis, but rather for its readability. For background material Melvyn Bragg appears to have relied heavily on a relatively small number of other authors, particularly Diarmaid MacCulloch (from whom he has a generous plaudit on the back cover); which he has used to create a very personal viewpoint of how world civilisation has developed over four centuries, and how many good things can be traced to the influence of this specific Bible: such as the acceptance of democracy, the abolition of slavery, and the spread of education. He also mentions, but in lower key, how the Bible has often been misused through selectivity and misinterpretation for a number of nefarious purposes, such as justifying war, the exploitation of the poor, and the subjection of women.

He writes no less than three chapters on the undoubted effects of the King James Bible on literature in English. However, he perhaps exaggerates its effect on the works of William Shakespeare, in that Shakespeare died only five years after its publication: and Bragg himself makes the point that the majority of over one thousand biblical references in his works must have come from reading the earlier English Bibles: the official "Bishops Bible" and the unofficial but more popular Geneva Bible, both of which relied heavily on the English translation by William Tyndale 100 years earlier.

It can be suggested that Tyndale's version has a greater right to the title 'Book of Books', since it has been demonstrated that over 80% of the King James version is also in Tyndale's words unchanged from the early 1500s; and was the first 'best-seller' in near-modern English! His biography If God Spare my Life by Brian Moynahan (Little, Brown, 2002) makes a good follow-up read to this one.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011 by Melvyn Bragg is published by Sceptre, ISBN 9781444705164