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The Book From Which Our Literature Springs

On Eagles’ Wings: The King James Bible Turns 400

edited by Liana Lupas
MOBIA, 168 pp., $29.95
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Engraving of Adam and Eve from the King James Bible, 1611; the illustration appears in Helen Moore and Julian Reid’s Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible

Although it left in its wake a number of excellent books, the fourth centennial of the publication of the King James Bible, or KJB, came and went without any of the high-profile public readings and fanfare that marked the three-hundredth anniversary in 1911. A substantial majority of Americans may still “believe in God,” yet the book that found its way to America in the seventeenth century and helped engender on this continent what Lincoln called a “new nation” is rapidly becoming terra incognita. Whether in the King James Version or in newer versions, the Bible is neither read, nor read aloud, nor memorized to anywhere near the extent it was when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson extolled the KJB as America’s “national book” a century ago. It is anyone’s guess whether a century from now the fifth centennial of the King James Bible—a masterpiece of English prose and the most important book in the history of the English language—will be celebrated at all.

What does Western culture lose when it loses its biblical literacy? At the very least it loses a great deal of access to its literature. This is true not only of medieval and Renaissance literature but of a large part of the modern canon as well. How much of Nietzsche is comprehensible without a basic knowledge of scripture? Hardly a chapter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra does not contain overt allusions to or echoes of the Bible. The spiritual depths of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson are largely closed off to those who cannot hear in their inner ear the basso continuo of these New Englanders’ ongoing dialogue with the Bible. The same can be said of any number of modernists—Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Eliot, and the bleak Samuel Beckett, who constantly engaged, if only to subvert, biblical motifs and paradigms.

In Pen of Iron, the eminent Bible scholar and translator Robert Alter recounts a small yet telling part of the story of American literature’s attunement to the King James Bible. Exploring the way the KJB has impacted both the prose and worldviews of select American authors—mainly Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, and Cormac McCarthy—Alter shows that, even when they parody it or contend with its legacies (as Melville and Faulkner did), the King James Bible remains an enduring point of reference, if not a moral center of gravity, in their work.

One of the principal claims of Pen of Iron is that style is more than a set of rhetorical and aesthetic qualities; it is “the vehicle of a particular vision of reality.” Thus the style of America’s onetime national book—its diction, tone, cadences, and above all its unique combination of archaic formality and straightforward simplicity, or what Edmund Wilson called “that old tongue, with its clang and its flavor…in its concise solid stamp”—this distinctive style of the King James Bible, which resonates so deeply in Martin Luther King’s most memorable speeches, conveys in its linguistic texture values and sensibilities that have permeated America’s sense of its moral and spiritual identity.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became part of America’s sacred scripture because the sonority of its words, the dignity of its diction, and the cadences of its sentences reprised and incorporated the rhythms and tones of the King James Bible. Lincoln’s deliberately archaic opening phrase—“Four score and seven years ago”—in its echo of the King James Bible’s “three score and ten,” gives a rhetorical weight to the span of time that had elapsed between the Republic’s founding and its Civil War, in a way that “Eighty-seven years ago” could not have conveyed. Likewise his closing phrase, “shall not perish from the earth,” with its echoes of Job, Jeremiah, and Micah, confers on the sacrifice of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg a moral elevation that their cause, in the American psyche of the time, could not have derived from any other source.

The day may indeed come when the King James Bible itself will perish, if not from the earth then from America’s cultural memory, yet meanwhile Alter finds that it continues to resound—albeit in its darkest tones—in a twenty-first-century novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That novel imagines a devastated future earth reminiscent of the Flood or the catastrophes visited upon Job projected onto a collective scale. “Sentence by parallel sentence, word by hard-edged word,” writes Alter, “it draws on the structures and something of the diction of the King James Bible to forge without pathos a reality whose harshness beggars the imagination.” Yet it also draws on those same sources to envision restoration and renewal:

This contemporary imagining of an appalling end-time and what hope might be sustained after the apocalypse is anchored in the language and ideas of the memorable text that was put into resounding English in 1611 and first framed in Hebrew in the Iron Age.

If the Bible remains a gateway to centuries of literary history in the West, the King James Version of 1611 represents something of a literary miracle in its own right. Alter declares that all the subsequent, more “accessible” English translations “happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects.” Coming from someone who has published highly acclaimed new translations of many books of the Hebrew scriptures, most recently The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (2010), that statement says quite a lot. Its lofty endorsement is shared by Harold Bloom, who, in his most recent book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, offers what its subtitle calls “a literary appreciation of the King James Bible.” Quoting profusely from a great many passages in the 1611 translation, Bloom shows in granular detail why, in his words, “the sublime summit of literature in English still is shared by Shakespeare and the King James Bible.”

If Bloom is right that “a test for great poetry and prose is an aura of inevitability in the phrasing,” then the King James Bible passes that test brilliantly, thanks in part to the way it ends most of its verses with emphatic metrical stresses or resounding words, be they nouns, verbs, pronouns, or other parts of speech. Here are a few samples that I choose more or less at random from Yahweh’s series of rhetorical questions to Job in chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Job:

Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? (38:8)
Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place? (38:12)
Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat. (38:41)
Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? (39:1)
Canst thou number the months that they fulfill? or knowest thou the time when they bring forth? (39:2)

Compared to the strong lineaments of verses such as these, most of the poetry written in English today shows precious little “inevitability” in its phrasing. Some of the factors that have contributed to the drastic decline of the art of bringing phrases to closure are clear enough. They include the wholesale de-formalization of poetry in our time and the consequent premium placed on enjambment; our dogmatic insistence on open-endedness and the bland tones of everyday language; our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display; our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper. In England the art of poetry was at its zenith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it left its mark throughout the King James Bible.

The KJB‘s “cognitive music,” as Bloom calls it, has a lot to do with the English translators’ efforts to provide a “literal” rendition of the Hebrew scriptures. As Gerald Hammond put it in his masterful 1982 study, The Making of the English Bible, the translators struggled to “reshape English so that it could adopt itself to Hebraic idiom.” Robert Alter reaffirms as much when he remarks on “the peculiar and productive decision [of the English translators] to follow the contours of the Hebrew in idiom and often in syntax.” Likewise Bloom speaks of the “gorgeous exfoliation of the Hebrew original,” even if he insists, rather predictably, that the English translators were engaged in an “aesthetic agon” with it.

Bloom sees the agon between the English translators and the authors of the Hebrew Tanakh as a struggle among literary heavyweights. He finds no such contest when it comes to the authors of the New Testament, whom he deems woefully lacking in literary merit. “The Greek New Testament,” Bloom writes, “is mostly composed by people thinking in Aramaic or Hebrew but writing in demotic Greek.” As literary counterparts, these “people” were not in the same league with the highly learned English translators who grappled so mightily—and successfully—with the sublime Tanakh. “For the most part,” writes Bloom about the King James Version of the New Testament, “the translation is an immense improvement” over the original.

Even if that is true, Bloom’s claim remains extremely questionable when it comes to texts like the Epistles of Paul, if only because Paul aggressively sought to overturn the hierarchical standards that exalt the sublime over the simple, the wise over the foolish, and the noble over the humble. The following passage from 1 Corinthians makes clear what is at stake for Paul in his attempt to bring about what Nietzsche would later call a Christian “transvaluation of values”:

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (1:17–21)

Paul may be more eloquent in the words of his English Renaissance translators than he is in his own “demotic Greek,” yet this apology for holy foolishness is no foolish piece of rhetoric. It is a highly crafted use of figurative language that turns the cross into an agent of contradiction. In Paul’s proclamation, “this world” is a topsy-turvy one that the Christ event has turned upside down (from his Christian perspective, that means right side up). Such is the “effect” of the cross—it converts the entire order of things, so that high now becomes low, wisdom becomes foolish, and foolishness becomes wise.

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