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Feature: The King James Bible

Monday 3rd January 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is calling on people of all faiths to celebrate the astonishing contribution made by the King James Bible 400 years ago.

As part of this celebration, the Archbishop recorded four introductions for a BBC Radio 4 programme which included readings from the King James Bible.

Read the transcripts below, or click links on the right to listen to the Archbishop's introductions: 

  • The Song of Solomon [2Mb] 
  • The Book of Daniel [2Mb]
  • The Birth of Jesus [2Mb]
  • The Word Was God [2Mb]

He gave the following introduction to The Song of Solomon:

No one knows the origin of the Song of Solomon. As we have it it's a collection of love songs arranged as a kind of drama with male and female speakers and a chorus of onlookers. Sometimes they're songs about the fulfilment of physical love, and sometimes they're about the agonies of separation and suffering.

Not surprisingly, given how very intense the celebration is here of erotic love, there's been a lot of controversy about the interpretation of the book. Both Jews and Christians have for many centuries seen it as a sort of allegory, a symbolic story about the love between God and God's people; the love between God and the individual soul.

The original Hebrew is quite difficult. It's not clear what particular images or phrases exactly mean. And that gives any translation something of a dreamlike quality. A sense of drifting events and pictures and images, almost an erotic haze. And the King James version makes the most of this 'drift'. It captures the breathing in and out of the Hebrew line of poetry. Something is said slowly and thoughtfully, the second half of the line responds and takes it a bit further.

It's worth noticing something that's really very typical of the King James version: the way in which is uses sequences of vowels and soft consonants and how at climactic and important moments, monosyllables come in.

Comely with rows of jewels ye feedeth among the lilies. A young hart among the mountains of spices.

-- and then delivering an unanswerable punch --

Love is strong as death.


He gave the following introduction to The Book of Daniel:

The atmosphere of the Book of Daniel is full of dreams, like the song of Solomon but these are very different sorts of dreams. This time we're in a sort of Arabian Nights environment, fabulously powerful kings who live in oriental splendour, cruelty, triumph, victory disaster. But at the same time this is a story abut the unlikely victory of the simple faithful over the great potentates of the world.

The book as we have it comes from a time of persecution when the Jewish people were under great pressure to abandon their ancestral faith.

The King James version reproduces the dramatic almost theatrical technique of the original. We only see what the characters see. We don't know what the king's dream is about until Daniel tells us. We don't know till the morning whether Daniel has survived in the lions' den.

The storytelling is incantatory. It still has the characteristics of aural storytelling – repetitions and formulae: 'whom he would he slew and whom he would he kept alive, whom he would he set up and whom he would he put down'.

There is the art of the aural storyteller captured in the heavy tread of these words. But the important thing is that these are stories – as you might say – 'look sideways' around the apparently all-important figure of the monarchs, the powerful people who fill the horizon. It looks behind them and beyond them, towards the triumph of the oppressed who are the people that God loves.


He gave the following introduction to The Birth of Jesus:

As the story of Jesus begins in the New Testament we move into a very different world from that of the book of Daniel, a very different world from the Arabian Nights. We begin with a mention of Kings – the great people of the earth. But then immediately the focus shifts to the ordinary and the local, to small-town life in an occupied country on the edges of the Empire.

And the point is that that particular theme in Daniel -- which is about how the values of this world are turned upside down -- is here brought into fresh focus and taken even further. The focus of everything here, the one on whom all the glory and the splendour converge, is the homeless peasant child.

The narrative is very simple: a narrative written within about 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. There are very few repetitions, and very few formulae. It's simply event after event, 'and ...and ...and ...and it came to pass ...' Steadily the events build up, ordinary events with extraordinary depths to them, extraordinary events made prosaic in the telling, without comment. And so the translators go for a very simple style, just building up event after event. They don't load it down with formulae. They spell out the simple fact that in these ordinary situations, small-town life -- in the villages of Galilee and Judaea -- that life, the very life of the whole universe, is coming into focus.


He gave the following introduction to The Word Was God:

Every writer knows that less is more. And the Gospel according to St John, written rather later than the other gospels attempts to bring that 'something more' into focus, to tell us more than the others do. And it does so with simplicity and directness and unparalleled depth. Here is the drama of the inner life of all creation. Here you see a landscape opened up into the far distance, a very very distant horizon of glory and light within, between, among all the events and conversations of a person moving through human affairs and yet uncovering their depths.

In the original Greek the style is very simple even though the thoughts are very complex. And the translators respond by their most effective use yet of monosyllables. In the first 18 verses of the Gospel, only a handful of words have only one syllable. And the climax of those verses: 'And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' is the most use of all of heavy monosyllables. The same technique comes back later: 'For God so loved the world', yet again we can hear how sequences of vowels are used to bring out the music, the continuity of the text. But here the consonants are hard, like rocks in the road, to slow our journey down. Read the beginning of St John's Gospel, and you know how to read the rest.

This is about an eternal communication from the source of all things; from God himself, the flowing out of light and glory and life from God. And here is this communication in the 'stuff', in the business of earthly life, the heart of reality showing through: showing through the confused, resistant 'stuff' of the world, a river flowing over the rocks but flowing still in spite of suffering, and darkness and doubt, flowing on into glory.

In his recent New Year message recorded for the BBC the Archbishop said:

"Whether you're a Christian or belong to another religion - or whether you have nothing you'd want to call a religion at all - some sort of big picture matters."

Over the coming year we will post the Archbishop's comments surrounding the KJV Bible together with his New Year Message on this website.

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