Gotham Diary:
17 July 2012

What goes around, &c: Over the weekend, a friend called me up, to ask if I could pick him up after a procedure. When he’d scheduled it, he hadn’t known that his wife was going to be out of town — so, would I be free? Of course I was free. It tickled me that I’d get to do what Ray Soleil did for me just last Wednesday. I took a taxi to the hospital and met my friend in the waiting room. I’m not quite sure that anyone checked him — or me — out, but in two shakes we were having lunch at Demarchelier, which I intended to be my treat. When the time came to settle, though, my friend insisted on paying, and I could tell that he would be angry if he didn’t. So I had no choice, after we parted warmly on the sidewalk, but to head down to Crawford Doyle and spend my lunch money on something penitential: the quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible, published last year and in stock at the bookshop for about four months. I hadn’t noticed it before.

It is not quite a facsimile; the black-letter typeface has been replaced by something Roman from the early Nineteenth Century. But the new edition is otherwise a perfect copy, misspelled word for misspelled word, line of verse for line of verse; and all of the ornamental capitals have been preserved. Never having seen a King James Bible before, I was hypnotized by the genealogical charts at the front, beginning with GOD and ending, thirty-odd pages later, with CHRIST. The edition is somewhat smaller than the original, with pages of about eight by eleven inches.

The LORD said vnto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand: vntil I make thine enemies thy foote-stoole.

2 The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.

3 Thy people shalbe willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holinesse || from the wombe of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.

4 The LORD hath sworne, and will not repent, thou art a Priest for euer: after the order of Melchizedek.

That’s the first half of Psalm 110, set by Vivaldi and Handel (and many other composers) in Latin, as Dixit Dominus.


If the King James Bible has a peer, I don’t know what it is. It seems blasphemous somehow to suggest that it is comparable to the Tanakh (the scriptures in Hebrew); the King James is a translation. But its importance to the English language has no correlative in another language. Because of the tensions that were pulling English society apart when the translation was made, the Bible, “appointed to be read in churches,” was the only universally recognized text. And because Modern English was still developing, still in transition from Chaucer to Johnson, there clings to the translation something of the chthonic murk of the Iron Age original. We can understand it, for the most part, but we haven’t spoken its idiom for a very long time. There is a secular power in the King James Bible that is bottled in the genius of its language.

And the New Testament, for which we have only Greek “originals,” found in English a language that took it seriously. From I Corinthians:

11 When I was a childe, I spake as a childe, I vnderstood as a childe, I thought as a childe; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glasse, darkely: but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know euen as also I am knowen.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charitie, these three, but the greatest of these is charitie.

It is impossible to say which benefits more greatly from the translation: Paul’s meaning or the English language.