To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible, Cambridge University Press has just released a book of essays, The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences. Like many assemblages of its kind from prestige academic presses these days, it has essays about the connection of its subject to various trendy issues of race, gender, and so on — there’s an essay titled, especially invitingly, “Postcolonial Notes on the King James Bible” — but the book nonetheless has all sorts of delightful nuggets in it. I have long wondered, for example, where exactly the Biblical-sounding quote declaimed by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction came from — the one he says is Ezekiel 25:17, but is, only in part? It turns out the passage is actually an adaptation of lines from a 1970s martial-arts movie, Karate Kiba.
And Katherine Clay Bassard’s essay, “The King James Bible and African American Literature,” includes the following arresting passage from Clotel, an 1853 novel by escaped slave William Wells Brown:
“I think de people dat made de Bible was great fools,” said Ned.
“Why?” asked Uncle Simon.
“ ’Cause dey made such a great big book and put nuttin’ in it, but servants obey yer masters.”
Think about the subsequent history: The very book abused by pro-slavery enthusiasts to justify the barbaric reduction of black people to chattel ended up becoming one of the most beloved parts of the African-American heritage. (And in this particular translation: To this day, I am more likely to hear the KJV in a predominantly black church than in a predominantly white one.) It says something about the underlying power of the book, and gives me cause for optimism that the Bible will prevail over other, later abuses of its text for political purposes.
Perhaps the highlight among the essays is Stephen Prickett’s “Language within Language: The King James Steamroller,” which quite perceptively locates the literary strength of the KJV in its essential “modesty” and “translucency” – letting the force of the original show through without overt straining for literary effect. (Prickett uses the “still, small voice” of I Kings 19 as an especially interesting case in point: Modern translations, he notes, do their best to smooth out the basic oddity and ambiguity of the original.)