Verily, Verily: The KJV – 400 Years of Influence and Beauty by Jon Sweeny

For those not already in the know, I am not a Christian, nor am I in any danger of becoming one.  So why this book?  A fair question.  I have a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s because I recognize the cultural impact of the KJV.  While other translations of The Bible continually outsell this older version, most of the idioms and common expressions in the English language come from either this version or from Shakespeare.  It’s an even more curious hallmark that many of our common expressions that do not come from either of these sources are assumed to do so.  For example, “God helps those who help themselves” is actually Benjamin Franklin, from Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it’s most commonly attributed to the KJV.

As a medievalist, I appreciate the KJV’s place in history, often comparing it to the lesser-known Geneva Bible of only a few years before (discussed briefly herein).  As I can’t read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, this is the closest I’ll get to the understanding the cornerstone of medieval culture.  The history of The Bible is the history of the Middle Ages, and the history of the KJV is the history of the Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII a mere 4 years after Henry’s men executed Tyndale for (you guessed it) the heresy of translating The Bible.  I do love some Tudor era intrigue.  Similarly, as someone who enjoys the likes of Tolkien and Shakespeare, I’ve learned to appreciate the music of the language.  When the KJV was crafted, it did not use the vernacular of the age, but instead conscious decisions were made to use more elevated language that would make it sound strange and even a bit spooky.  That’s what makes it memorable over a modern translation.  It forces the reader to slow down… which is an idea our modern culture doesn’t seem to be able to grasp.  It’s like actively listening to classical music or anything else that doesn’t seem to permeate our everyday lives.  As someone who appreciates radio, I was immediately intrigued by the author’s early parallel in that not every radio personality speaks with a clear, smooth voice.  The ones that stand out as most recognizable are the ones with local accents or the occasional lisp.  Likewise, if you’re conversing with someone who doesn’t speak your language natively, their broken or inaccurate language will likely cause you to slow down and truly consider what it is they’re saying.  You will hear them more clearly than you would a native speaker, and you will gain greater understanding as a direct result.  It’s something I’d not truly considered before.  By using the elevated language, perhaps comprehension doesn’t come as quickly, but it instantly creates a mood that encapsulates the idea of the experience.

The author approaches this book with the (logical) assumption that his target audience is one of the faithful who are perhaps more familiar with newer translations and seek deeper appreciation of the KJV.  As stated above, I don’t fit in that category, but like the author, I see the literary and cultural value of this book, especially as Biblical literacy declines.  As a result, I’m often curious about analysis and commentary that can deepen such appreciation without pushing the dogma.  And that’s the real trick.  I like insider commentary on the historical side of things and even on the spiritual side, but I don’t like to be preached at.  Go figure.

And that’s where this book is truly interesting, because it doesn’t preach at all.  This book covers the often colorful and bloody history, the explanations, and even the printing errors (including the intentional, the hilarious, and the blasphemous).  It’s certainly a wake-up call for anyone who believes this to be the literal Word of God and lives by technicality.  In fact, the “KJV only” movement is discussed at one point, which I find amusing considering how many people I know who subscribe to this today.  From there, it covers the people and literary works that were inspired by the KJV, be it for direct religion, literary and social commentary (both positive and negative), or just the cadence and poetry of the language.  Of note, Shakespeare is not included because he wrote his works largely before the publication of the KJV.

Bottom line, this is fascinating little book.  I enjoyed it immensely and found it as entertaining as much as I found it enlightening despite a couple of points of argument to be found here and there, such as the idea that there are no missing books or that Shakespeare was influenced by the Geneva Bible.  The “missing” books were not included in The Bible, so it’s a bit of a non-argument.  Even so, I appreciate that the author likes to proverbially slap Dan Brown every so often.  As to Shakespeare, the Gevena Bible was published in 1603, and it was an unabashedly Protestant work.  Many of Shakespeare’s works were published before this, and he was a closet Catholic.  As I say, minor points in regards to the presentation of this book, and it doesn’t take away from the overall discussion.

4 stars


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