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This guide accompanies the following article: Ellie G. Bagley, Writing the History of the English Bible: A Review of Recent Scholarship, Religion Compass 5/7 (2011) pp. 300–313, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00286.x

Author’s Introduction

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (KJB) has drawn increased attention to the study of the English Bible, from its earliest versions to more recent translations and formats. In addition to the host of new publications on the subject, colleges and universities are offering a broader range of courses on the history and impact of the English Bible, both for undergraduates and graduate students. This guide is offered as an aid for instructors developing (or re-designing) courses on the English Bible, and for those interested in adding a few days or a few weeks to existing syllabi in religion, history, or literature. Engagement with primary resources is especially encouraged, and instructors may wish to supplement facsimile-reprinted and online editions with materials available at institutional libraries or in traveling exhibitions.

Author Recommends

  • 1
      Norton, David. (2011). The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Of the many one-volume introductions to the history of the English Bible, Norton’s stands out as both readable and containing helpful notes and bibliographies that synthesize recently published work in the field.

  • 2
     Campbell, Gordon. (2010). Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • This is a well-written and engaging account, with especially good coverage of the reception history and American contexts of the KJB.

  • 3
     Lori Ann Ferrell. (2008). The Bible and the People. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • This book examines the broader cultural importance of the Bible in western culture throughout the past millennium. Sixteenth-century Bibles receive due attention, as does the subject of the Bible in America and missions and print culture in the nineteenth century.

  • 4
     Daniell, David. (2003). The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • This is generally recognized as the most thorough narrative in recent years and is well worth having students read from selectively.

  • 5
     Norton, David. (2005). A Textual History of the King James Bible. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • This authoritative account of developments in the text of the KJB has helped to offset popular notions of the “classic,” unchanging quality of the KJB’s text, which changed significantly in editions from the eighteenth century onwards.

  • 6
     Hamlin, Hannibal and Jones, Norman (eds.) (2010). The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • An excellent collection of essays exhibiting recent work on the literary impact and cultural significance of the KJB.

  • 7
     Helen Moore and Reid, Julian (eds.) (2011). Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible. Bodleian Library Publishing.
  • Contributions from Diarmaid MacCulloch, Peter McCullough, Judity Maltby and others introduce readers to the traveling library exhibition first featured at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, April 22 through Sept. 4, 2011. For exhibition schedule, see: http://www.manifoldgreatness.org/index.php/see-the-exhibition/.

  • 8
     Nicolson, Adam. (2003). God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: HarperCollins. Published in Great Britain in 2003 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. as Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible.
  • A lively and informative account of the cultural context and personalities of the scholars who translated and published the KJB, 1604–1611.

  • 9
     Lemon, Rebecca, Mason, Emma, Roberts, Jonathan and Rowland, Christopher (eds.) (2009). The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature. Chichester, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • A useful guide to the scores of books and articles on the literary influence of the KJB and other English versions of the Bible.

  • 10
     Thuesen, Peter J. (1999). In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • A fascinating and well-researched study of the King James Only movement in twentieth-century America, centered on resistance to the Revised Standard Version of 1952 with good background on nineteenth-century contexts.

Online Materials

Sample Syllabus

This syllabus includes readings appropriate both to general-level courses (indicated by A) and advanced or seminar courses (B).

Week 1. The King James Bible at 400: its Legacy and Influence

  • A
     Bagley, Ellie G. (2011). Writing the History of the English Bible: A Review of Recent Scholarship, Religion Compass.
  • B
     Prickett, Stephen. (2010). Language within Language: The King James Steamroller; and Robert Alter, The Glories and Glitches of the KJB. In: H. Hamlin and N. Jones (eds.), The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences.

Week 1. Before the King James Bible

  • A
     Norton, David. The King James Bible: A Short History (2011), chapter 1, “Predecessors”; Christopher de Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (2001), chapter 9, “Bibles of the Protestant Reformation.”
  • B
     Gritsch, Eric W. Luther as Bible Translator and Baker, Oswald, Luther as an interpreter of Holy Scripture in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge, 2003); Alexandra Walsham, Unclasping the Book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Vernacular Bible, Journal of British Studies (2003).

Week 2. Translating, Interpreting, and Reading Early English Bibles

  • A
     Anne Ferrell, Lori. The Bible and the People, chapter 3, “The Politics of Translation: The Bible in English, c. 1500–1700”; David Wright, The Study and Use of the Bible: The Reformation to 1700, History of the Bible, 192–217.
  • B
     Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapters 1–8, in the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Rheims New Testament (1582) available online (see above).

Week 2. The Making of the King James Bible

  • A
     Norton, David. The KJB: A Short History, chapter 2, “Drafting the King James Bible,” and chapter 4, “Working on the King James Bible”.
  • B
     Nicolson, Adam. (2003). God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. Harper; Tadmor, Naomi. (2010). The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society, and Culture in Early Modern England. Cambridge.

Week 3. The 1611 Edition and Early Print History

  • A
     Norton, David. The KJB: A Short History, chapter 5, “1611: the first edition”; Christopher de Hamel, The Book. A History of the Bible, chapter 10, “The English and American Bible Industry”.
  • B
     Norton, David. The Textual History of the KJB, chapter 4, “The King’s Printer at Work, 1612–1617,” and chapter 5, “Correcting and Corrupting the text, 1629–1760”; selected pages from the 1611 edition and the English Hexapla, both available online.

Week 3. The KJB’s Reception to 1800

  • A
     Norton, David. The KJB: A Short History, chapter 6, “Printing, editing, and the development of a standard text”; Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford, 2010), chapter 6, “The Seventeenth Century,” and chapter 7, “The Eighteenth Century”.
  • B
     Norton, David. (2004). A History of the English Bible as Literature, chapter 5, “The Struggle for Acceptance”; Scott Mandelbrote, Writing the History of the English Bible in the Early Eighteenth Century, In: R. N. Swanson (ed.), The Church and the Book, Studies in Church History, no. 38, pp. 268–78. Boydell Press.

Week 4. The Bible in English Literature

  • A
     Daniell, David. (2001). The Bible in English, chapter 15, An English Plain Style, and Bible Reading; David Jasper, The Bible in Literature. In: J. Rogerson (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible. Oxford.
  • B
     Fisch, Harold. (1999). The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake: A Comparative Study. Clarendon Press; Hamlin, Hannibal. (2010). Bunyan’s Biblical Progresses. In: H. Hamlin and N. Jones (eds.), The King James Bible after 400 years. Cambridge.

Week 4. The Bible in America

  • A
     Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the King James Version, chapter 10, “The Bible in America”; David Daniell, The Bible in English, chapter 31, “The Bible in America to 1776.”
  • B
     Gutjahr, Paul. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880, chapter 1, An Overview of Bible Production in the United States, (1999); by the same author, From Monarchy to Democracy: The Dethroning of the KJB in the United States, and Katherine Clay Bassard, The KJB and African American Literature, both in H. Hamlin and N. Jones (eds.), The King James Bible after 400 Years.

Week 5. Missions, Colonialism, and the Bible

  • A
     de Hamel, Christopher. The Book. A History of the Bible, chapter 11, “Missionary Bibles.”
  • B
     Sugirtharajah, R. S. Postcolonial notes on the KJB. In: H. Hamlin and N. Jones (eds.), The KJB after 400 years; R. H. Martin, Anglicans and Baptists in Conflict: The Bible Society, Bengal and the Baptizo Controversy, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1998); selections from William Canton, The Story of the Bible Society (London, 1904), also on Google Books.

Week 5. The Revised Version

  • A
     Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the KJV, chapter 11, “The Revised Version.”
  • B
     Daniell, The Bible in English, chapter 37, “The English Revised Version, 1870–1885”; Peter Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures, chapter 2, “Coronation of ‘King Truth’: Bible Revision and the Late-Nineteenth-Century Imagination” (Oxford, 1999).

Week 6. Twentieth-Century Versions

  • A
     Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the KJV, chapter 12, “The Early Twentieth Century”; Stanley Porter, “Modern Translations,” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible.
  • B
     Thuesen, Peter. In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Tranlsating the Bible, chapter 4, “The Great RSV Controversy”; F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (OUP, 1978), chapter 15, “Recent Roman Catholic Versions”; Daniell, chapter 39, “Bible Translation into English in the Twentieth Century.”

Week 6. The King James Bible Since 1952

  • A
     Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the KJV, chapter 13, “The KJV in the Modern World”; Peter Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures, chapter 5, “The Virgin Text: Evangelicals and Liberals in the Quest for an Undefiled Book.”
  • B
     Anne Ferrell, Lori. The Bible and the People, chapter 8, Old Wine in New Wineskins: the Bible in the Twentieth Century; Norman Jones, The KJB as Ghost in Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved. In H. Hamlin and N. Jones (eds.), The KJB after 400 years.

Focus Questions

  • 1
     Why did the King James Bible become such a popular version? Discuss literary, social, and political reasons.
  • 2
     What aspects of text, translation, and interpretation make Catholic English Bibles (especially the Rheims NT of 1582) distinctive from Protestant ones?
  • 3
     David Norton asserts, “The KJB, as it became the only Bible in England, assumed a unique place not just in religious consciousness but in linguistic and literary consciousness…It was a part of home and loved (or occasionally reacted against) like home.”The King James Bible: A Short History, 189. How might Christianity in England and America have developed differently without one translation of the Bible becoming so prominent?
  • 4
     What are the theological and political stakes of the “KJB-Only” movement today? What other English versions attract particular attention, and why? At what other times in religious history, and with what effects, have religious groups preferred older versions or translations of a sacred text, compared with contemporary translations?
  • 5
     Compare modern English translations of the Bible in a variety of layouts, in printed and online formats, and with accompanying commentaries directed at specific audiences. What is gained and lost with so many reading choices and frameworks of interpretation available to contemporary readers of the Bible?

Seminar Activity

Divide the seminar class into four groups, distributing facsimile copies of Romans 1–3 as follows. Group 1: the Geneva Bible (1560); Group 2: the Rheims NT (1582); Group 3: the King James Bible (1611); and Group 4: the English Hexapla. Ask Groups 1–3 to discuss the merits of the versions they have been assigned: is the translation clear and easy to understand? Is the layout “user-friendly”? To what extent is the theology of the translators evident in the text, annotations, and layout? When does translation itself become interpretation? Ask Group 4 to compare the three translations in parallel columns. Where does the KJB borrow extensively from previous versions? Where is it unique and with what stylistic and/or theological effects? Which translation would you have preferred as an early modern reader and why? A similar seminar activity on 20th-century English versions could be introduced later in the term.