You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How to Read the King James Bible

The English Bible, King James Version Vol. 1, The Old Testament
Edited by Herbert Marks
(Norton Critical Editions, 2,280 pp., $22.50)

Vol. 2, The New Testament and The Apocrypha
Edited by Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch
(Norton Critical Editions, 1,518 pp., $22.50)

THIS PAST YEAR, the four hundredth since the initial publication of the King James Bible, was marked by a spate of celebratory commemorations on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, our canonical translation of the Bible is, as Herbert Marks observes in the preface to his extraordinary edition of the KJV Old Testament, “by far the most influential English book ever published, a formative presence within the history of English literature, high and low, and within the very weave of the language.” The pervasive ineptitude of the sundry English versions produced in the second half of the twentieth century by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic scholarly ecclesiastical committees reminds us through sheer contrast of how fine was the work of the learned divines convened by King James in 1604.

Yet all the paeans delivered last year could not conceal the sad fact that the KJV has rapidly been slipping out of our cultural grasp. At the tri-centennial celebrations a hundred years ago, when the King James Version was praised by such figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as the sublime foundational book of English-speaking culture, it was still the version of the Bible that was almost universally familiar. But by now it has been largely replaced in homes, churches, and even in many English department courses on “the Bible as literature” by more recent translations that are deemed more accurate and, above all, more “accessible.” Accessibility seems to be a fixation in current American thinking about the Bible. Its ultimate manifestation may be a recent translation by a pastor named Eugene H. Peterson, who calls what he has done not the Bible or the Holy Bible but The Message. God, in his version of the creation story, enjoins the plants to “Green up!” and the petitioner in the Lord’s Prayer asks not for “daily bread” but for “three square meals.” The Message, not surprisingly, has been selling like hotcakes in Evangelical circles.

One must grant that there are patent problems in making general use of the KJV in the twenty-first century. The most obvious one is that the English language has changed in the course of four hundred years, so that some of the words used by the seventeenth-century translators are no longer intelligible to the general public or have shifted in meaning. Syntactic inversion and other poetic or quasi-poetic features of style are now less familiar and perhaps even disorienting to some readers. But the continuing popularity of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage, in film, and in the classroom may suggest that this linguistic archaism need not be an insuperable barrier, although modern religious leaders, unwilling to imagine even minimal literacy in their followers, tend to assume that it is.

The KJV also abounds in inaccuracies, especially for the Hebrew, because there have been enormous advances in the understanding of the biblical language since the seventeenth century, and even in its time such understanding was rather uneven in Christian Hebraist circles in comparison with the medieval and early modern Hebrew exegetes. And there is a further problem with the KJV that probably goes unnoticed by most readers, or at least is not consciously noticed. The seventeenth-century version is famously eloquent (as its twentieth-century successors egregiously are not), but the eloquence is more intermittent than we usually choose to remember. By and large, the KJV does very well with the narrative prose, in part because it emulates biblical syntax and diction, and some of its renderings of the poetry are splendid. Yet many lines of verse stumble into arrhythmic sprawls, sometimes using three or four times as many words and syllables as the beautifully compact and strongly cadenced Hebrew. This is an intrinsic structural defect that one has to live with. Also in the poetry, the KJV sometimes deploys polysyllabic Latinate terms with a certain ecclesiastical burnish (the translators were, after all, clergymen) that are alien to the concrete directness of the Hebrew. At least semantically, these are susceptible to correction through annotation, something that Herbert Marks often does.

The framework of the Norton Critical Editions, a series that has provided a valuable college classroom resource for decades, becomes in the hands of these three extremely able editors the occasion for rescuing the King James Version for general use and for serious study. The Norton Critical Editions of major literary texts aim to make them accessible—but not through the strategy of “Green up!”—by offering critically informed introductions, annotations of unfamiliar terms and significant allusions, and generous appendices that include source materials for the works, contemporaneous reviews, modern critical assessments, and other relevant documents. In all these respects, the editors of this new KJV have taken the format of the Norton Critical Edition and raised it to the second mathematical power. Whereas the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment has one or two brief notes on a page and sometimes no notes for several pages, every page of the Norton Critical KJV is crowded with annotation, and often the notes are quantitatively far more of a page than the biblical text proper is. In this respect, as well as in the appended materials, it entirely eclipses the sundry “study Bibles” now in circulation.

What is accomplished through the generous annotation is quite remarkable. First, the notes offer a succinct guide to the precise meanings of seventeenth-century English words. Terms that have become somewhat archaic or altogether obsolete are helpfully glossed: many readers are liable to think that “froward” is a typo, so the term is explained; others probably need to be informed that “ward” means “custody,” that “wotteth not” means “give no thought to,” that “meat” is a general term for food and does not imply having come from a butcher shop. Using such annotations is hardly onerous: confronted with a linguistic perplexity, you glance down the page and can immediately see what is going on in the English of the translation.

Another pervasive issue addressed in the notes is mistakes in construing the original. The KJV abounds in misunderstandings of the original, many of them minor but some of them real howlers. When, for example, the King James translators at Job 3:8 have “who are ready to raise up their mourning,” they have badly mistaken livyatan, or “leviathan,” for an exclusively post-biblical homonym that actually means “funeral.” Herbert Marks discreetly and succinctly corrects the error, going on to explain in a few words Leviathan’s role in Canaanite mythology. The process of correcting the errors of the King James Version began in 1885 with the Revised Standard Version, but tinkering with the language of the 1611 version and slightly modernizing it were concomitant with taking away more than a little of its stylistic grandeur, and the use of corrective annotation seems a wiser strategy.

But much more is going on in these notes than glossing and correction. For both the Old Testament and the New, we are given in these important volumes a wealth of contextual information—extra-biblical sources drawn on by the writers, intra-biblical allusions, concepts and practices of the ancient Near East and of Late Antiquity that are manifested in the biblical texts, theological notions that are adumbrated in the texts, comments on the formal configurations of the texts. The three editors bring together a wide range of expert knowledge in carrying out this Herculean task of annotation. Herbert Marks is a polyglot professor of comparative literature at Indiana University with interests ranging from Homer, Virgil, and Dante to Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop, and equipped with an excellent knowledge of biblical Hebrew and of the wide field of biblical scholarship. Gerald Hammond, emeritus professor of English at the University of Manchester, has written finely on English translations of the Bible (he contributes an excellent essay on that subject to the Marks volume) as well as on sixteenth-century poetry. Austin Busch, an assistant professor of early world literatures in the English department at the State University of New York at Brockport, has a thorough grounding in classical literature and a manifest mastery of New Testament scholarship. Of the three, Marks appears to be the most deeply literary, and so there is a good deal of literary interpretation, some of it quite remarkable, in his introductions and notes. That is an aspect of the Norton Critical Old Testament that deserves closer attention, and I shall turn to it presently.

EACH OF THE TWO VOLUMES begins with a preface of more than four thousand words explaining what kind of ancient anthology is embodied in the Testament in question and, in the case of Marks, what are the issues of translation in reading the King James Version. Busch’s preface puts special emphasis on the backgrounds of the scriptural texts, providing lucid and balanced guidance to what he calls “the matrices” of the New Testament—the Hebrew Bible, the sundry Jewish communities of faith of Late Antiquity, the Greco-Roman world with its literary genres and conventions. The notes, which were evidently written collaboratively by Busch and Hammond (no explanation of the collaboration is given, though it appears to be the case that Busch played the principal role), are similarly strong on issues of context as well as on theological and thematic questions.

In each of the two volumes, the preface is followed by introductory essays on the major divisions of the Testament and then brief introductions to each of the biblical books. The Busch-Hammond essay on “New Testament Narratives,” or the four Gospels and Acts, is a model of expository clarity. It lays out the two competing theories for the compositional history of the Gospels and offers incisive accounts of the differences among the three Synoptic Gospels and then of the differences between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel. With their firm sense of historical context, Busch and Hammond make a series of plausible proposals for how the evolving relationship of Jesus’s followers to the Jewish community and to the Roman empire are reflected in the differing themes and attitudes of the four Gospels. This, in sum, is exactly what any reader—student or otherwise—would need in order to enter into the world of the New Testament.

The introductions and notes for each volume are complemented by hundreds of pages of appended texts—for the Old Testament, an abundance of ancient Near Eastern materials, Hellenistic, rabbinic, and Islamic exegesis, philosophical reflections, modern philological and literary discussions, relevant poems and parables; for the New Testament, a spectrum of Late Antique texts, patristic commentary, modern critical and literary exegesis, poems, and a sampling of English translations spanning five hundred years.

Marks’s preface and introductions exhibit similar virtues to those of Busch and Hammond. Like them, he seems to be fully abreast of all the current developments in biblical scholarship and makes judicious use of them. Only one choice strikes me as somewhat eccentric, and it concerns the compositional history of the Pentateuch. The established theory, which goes back to the eighteenth century, assumes that the Torah was woven out of four principal literary strands: the Yahwistic (J), the Elohistic (E), the Priestly (P), and the Deuteronomistic (D). There is general agreement that the core of Deuteronomy was formulated during the cultic reforms of King Josiah around 621 B.C.E., with a series of later accretions during the Babylonian exile. At an early moment in modern biblical scholarship, Julius Wellhausen dated J and E respectively to the tenth and ninth century B.C.E., though more recent studies, amid considerable debate, place both in the eighth century, which may also be the era of P (again, disagreements persist). These divisions are still by and large maintained—plausibly, in my view—by American biblical scholars, but Marks has chosen to embrace a revisionist theory more popular in German biblical studies.

In this new account, there is no clear-cut distinction between J and E. Instead, we are invited to see a contrast between the Priestly writings and a Lay narrative. Part of the latter is imagined to be the product of the Babylonian exile, perhaps even as late as the Persian period, which draws on literary documents and fragments carried into exile but is essentially a new composition. Marks speaks of “a reactive or revisionist J” in Genesis 2-4 who is responding polemically to P. This view strikes me as implausible on two grounds. J is in many ways archaic, his God palpably anthropomorphic and entrammeled in myth, especially in Genesis, and one does not readily imagine such a conception of the deity emerging in the sixth or fifth century among Judean exiles living in the age of the loftily monotheistic Second Isaiah. A writer who was active relatively early in the First Temple period seems a far more likely candidate for all of J. The other problem with the theory is linguistic, an issue to which the German scholars have paid scant attention. Biblical Hebrew, like any language, evolves through time. The Hebrew prose written in the exilic period, and especially under the Persians, demonstrably differs from the Hebrew prose of the first two or three centuries of the Davidic monarchy, and it strains credence to imagine that J’s classic style would have been fashioned in the exile, half a millennium after David.

In any case, Marks’s promotion of the two-document hypothesis for the first four books of the Torah is no more than a local oddity. Otherwise, like his two New Testament colleagues, he deploys a fine sense of balance in explaining the historical contexts, addressing the often vexed issues of dating particular books, and sifting through biblical scholarship in ways that are likely to be quite helpful to the general reader. Yet what is most impressive about his introductions and notes is their illumination of the literary aspects of the Hebrew Bible. It should be stressed that such commentary is by no means a special offering for courses on the Bible as literature, but an engagement with an essential feature of the biblical texts. 

LITERARY POWER is abundantly evident in both Testaments, but the narratives of the New Testament work with a structural limitation in their representation of character and motive because the Gospels tell the story of a more-than-human protagonist who is variously set at a distance—in John, an altogether ontological distance—from his rather less interesting followers. The Old Testament, by contrast, gives us, in the stories of Jacob and David, two of the most subtle and profound representations in ancient literature of character evolving through time and shifting circumstances, and it provides many insights elsewhere into the conflicts, the perplexities, the unfathomability, and the sheer vividness of human character. It furnishes brief but probing inside views of the characters, and invents a form of revelatory dialogue that would not be equaled in literature until the advent of the novel. Moreover, biblical poetry at its best—Job, many of the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Song of Songs—ranks among the greatest poetry composed in the ancient Mediterranean world.

I mention all this not to promote the Hebrew Bible, but simply to register a crucial fact about its formal status: these religiously impelled writers chose, for the most part, to cast their vision of God, creation, and covenantal history in narrative and in poetry, much of it remarkably artful and formally intricate. If you want to read the Hebrew Bible competently even with an intended focus on it as a set of religious documents, you have to follow closely its literary articulations, and this is what Marks’s commentary does with considerable flair.

He has learned from the various literary analysts of the Bible active over the past three decades, but many of his interpretive insights are quite original, reflecting a grasp of the narratives and the poems that is subtle and deeply meditated. Alongside the flagging of intra-biblical allusions and parallels and the tracing of formal symmetries and structural elements, Marks repeatedly puts forth ideas that throw light on the thematic and conceptual underpinnings of the biblical texts. Here is his comment on Genesis 12:1, God’s call to Abram to go forth from his land and his birthplace and his father’s house: “Like cosmic creation, sacred history begins with an act of division or separation.” In the next chapter, noting the moment when Abram and Lot decide to go their separate ways, Marks beautifully observes: “Prompted to ‘lift up his eyes,’ Lot predictably looks down to the luxurious cities of the plain (v. 10), whereas Abram lifts his eyes to the hill country of Canaan (v. 14) and eventually to the stars (15:5, cf. 22:4, 13).” On the cloud that covers the tabernacle and God’s glory that fills it, which are reported in Exodus 40:34, Marks sensitively comments: “A paradoxical figure of permanence in mobility, the tabernacle here assumes the function as well as the appearance of the fiery cloud through which the divine majesty first made itself visible at the start of Israel’s ‘journeys’ (see 13:21-22).”

As all of these examples illustrate, Marks is especially good at identifying connections within the biblical texts that bring their underlying thematic design into sharp focus. Arguing for a set of parallels between Jacob and Moses, he remarks: “Like Jacob, Moses flees after committing a crime, meets his future wife at a well, serves his protector as a shepherd, fathers offspring, has a vision and receives a promise of divine protection and a command to return home, endures supernatural attack and a genital wound, is reunited with his fraternal rival, and finally returns, this time as the leader of an incipient nation, to the site of his original solitary vision, where God addresses him once more.”

Marks’s strength as a critic is not merely in locating parallels, but also in making excellent interpretive sense out of them. The allusions to the Abraham story in the Book of Ruth have been observed by others, but Marks draws from them an incisive interpretive conclusion: “As often in the Bible, such parallels serve to highlight ideological differences. The future great-grandmother of David represents a sharp swerve from Abraham’s exclusionary insistence on marriage within the tribe. Hers is a story not of rupture, isolation, and exclusion, but of community and ‘ingathering.’” With his ample sense of the broad expanse of literature, Marks goes on to say that Ruth’s “brief chapters combine the two principal archetypes of Western narrative: the Abrahamic myth of definitive rupture, the journey forward into a world unknown; and the Odyssean myth of ultimate return, the journey home.” This is an intuition that Joyce, who reflected on these matters in Ulysses, would have relished.

Perhaps motivated in part by the constraints of space of the annotations and the brief introductions, Marks often exhibits a kind of epigrammatic incisiveness in formulating his perceptions. Thus, on Saul flung to the ground naked when seized by a devastating prophetic ecstasy and David exposing himself as he cavorts before the ark, Marks writes: “If Saul lies before us rigid in his nakedness, David’s nakedness is a dance.” One could scarcely state more precisely and evocatively the antithesis between Israel’s first two kings. Commenting on what he calls the “ritual present” of the cultic laws in Leviticus, he observes: “Set amid the flow of narrative, it offers a timeless vantage point from which identity turns not on a unique act of election or redemption, but on the continuous circulation of holiness.” Introducing the biblical histories, and with an eye to the broader ancient literary context, Marks produces a pointed aphorism: “Ancient historians, whose aim was generally didactic or apologetic, recorded ‘events’ not because they were true but because they were significant.” Again on David and Saul, he writes aphoristically: “The one seems to embody the enigma of human freedom, the other the inevitability of human fate. While the elusive David remains unpredictable, Saul’s every step only brings him closer to his predetermined end.” In keeping with this perception of David’s elusiveness, Marks tellingly observes (as I think no one before him has) that over half of David’s speeches “are built around questions.”

This commentary on the Old Testament is finely attentive to the details of the stories and the poems, but it also exhibits an enlarging richness of exegetical perspective. Here are the two concluding sentences of the introduction to Genesis: “Home for the ancestors remains a promise; what they have in its place is the desire for home, which ensures they are constantly becoming, constantly turned toward the future. In the language of Genesis, such desire is known as ‘the blessing.’” Contrasting the different challenges to the dominant biblical worldview of Job and Ecclesiastes, Marks concludes, again in his aphoristic mode, that “If Job is the Bible’s response to the despair born of privation, Ecclesiastes is the response to the despair born of affluence. Where suffering gave rise to urgent protest, ease and privilege give rise to skepticism and a caustic equanimity.”

MARKS, BUSCH, and Hammond have done splendid jobs in giving their readers an enlightened orientation to Scripture and an invaluable explication of the terms and references of the King James translation. Marks goes a step beyond his New Testament colleagues in the illuminating literary interpretations that he offers. Until this point in his career, the criticism he has published had been limited to a series of brilliant articles on the Bible and on modern literature. Now, in the somewhat unlikely vehicle of a Norton Critical Edition, he has produced a major work of literary criticism.

The series in which these two hefty volumes appear is primarily intended, of course, for the college classroom. Both volumes should be eminently usable in that setting; they certainly ought to be the text of choice for university courses on the Bible as literature. But I hope that they find a wider readership. This ambitious undertaking takes the King James Version out of the museum display-case to which it has been largely relegated, making it vividly readable again. More than any other English Bible, it gives readers the tools to understand the historical and cultural contexts of the biblical books, the debates about their nature and dating, and even what they have led to in later Western culture. But the greatest gift to readers may be Herbert Marks’s deeply instructive guidance to the meaningful literary shaping of the Hebrew Bible and its reverberating resonances in the tradition of narrative and verse from Homer to Joyce.

Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of The Wisdom Books: A Translation With Commentary (Norton). This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.