King James Bible

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

The quatercentenary commemorative King James Bible (KJB) sits on my desk as I write: a satisfying artefact in its chocolate livery enriched by opulently gilded top, tail and fore edges, with stout chocolate slipcase to match, impressive in its folio bulk, though not nearly as bulky as the originals of 1611, which needed a sturdy lectern to bear them, announcing their presence with a swagger equal to the most majestic of England’s medieval church buildings. Inside, Oxford University Press have thoughtfully provided a sticky-back presentation label, since most of these monuments will no doubt end up as gifts for clergy (I pity the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular). They give something of the flavour of the original: 1611 spelling, ornamental capitals beginning each chapter, a detailed map of Palestine engraved by John Speed (whose maps of English counties were selling so well at the time), a calendar of Church of England holy days and lessons for church services, and, strangest of all, 34 meticulously referenced genealogical tables of biblical characters culminating in Jesus Christ and Paul of Tarsus, to convince the good folk of Jacobean England that the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the notables of the Old Testament were gentry families rather like those who ruled the shires of England in 1611 – or better still, that the whole people of England were like the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Altogether, this array of extras was an encouragement to the English to aspire to the privileged status of Israel in the eyes of a gracious Jehovah, and it hinted that England might even do a bit better than the Israelites under a thoroughly godly Protestant monarch like James I. To hammer home the point, the 1611 book devoted a whole page to the royal arms, just like the big heraldic display which congregations would see proudly affixed to the wall of their parish church as they sat in their pews (in careful hierarchical arrangement), listening to the words of King James’s God. Very often the church walls would also bear the emblems of the Twelve Tribes of Israel; one or two examples can be seen still.

(LRB 3 February 2011)