11 June 2004

The English Bible and constitutional government

I've recently been reading Benson Bobrick's The Making of the English Bible (reissued, it seems, under another title), which I picked up in the discount section at Chapters. It tells a fascinating tale of the history of Bible translation into English, beginning with Wycliffe and up to the publication of the King James Version in 1611. It wends its way through the turbulent 16th century, as Rome and the Reformation contest for supremacy over the British Isles in the persons of the Tudor monarchs of the period.

In the final chapter Bobrick draws out the political implications of making the scriptures available in the language of the common people. Usually it is thought that this development paved the way for democracy by contributing to greater tolerance for the public expression of individual interpretive opinions less dependent on ecclesiastical machinery. Bobrick puts a different spin on this:

The great unwritten Constitution of England, and the arguably greater written Constitution of the United States, with its Bill of Rights, took the theological place in Civil Society of the Received Wisdom laid down by Church councils and preserved in Creeds. Although Protestants and Catholics remained divided over the respective weight of Scripture and Tradition, in politics this dichotomy was, in a sense, resolved. For Law, especially common law, was an example of Tradition, in all its secular and saving grace. And like the ongoing decisions of Church councils, that law became a kind of evolving Scripture for the evolution of a free society where everyone could also think, speak, and worship as he pleased. One could almost say that the modern democratic state owed its origins in part to a defiance of Catholic dogma, but ended by adopting one of its fundamental tenets in the secular sphere (p. 306).

Bobrick discusses the various predecessors to the King James Version, including the Bishops' Bible, published in 1568. One of the translators of this version (which largely failed to catch on) was Archbishop Edwin Sandys, who may or may not have been my 13th great grandfather, depending on the veracity of a marital link between two possible ancestors.

Of Sandys, Bobrick writes:

Assigned the four books of Kings and Chronicles, Sandys closely adhered to the Great Bible readings but put alternative renderings from the Geneva Bible in the notes. Some of his notes were rather anxiously chaste. At I Kings 1:2, where old King David is nursed by a lovely maid, he explained: 'David took this virgin, not for lust but for the health of his body, by the advice of his Council; which seemeth to be done by a special dispensation of God, and therefore not to be followed as an example.' At I Kings 11:1, he felt obliged to justify Solomon's polygamy: 'God tolerated in his people the Israelites plurality of wives, as well for the increase of his people, as also for their mystery [mystical meaning], for Abraham's wives and Jacob's wives were figures of the Synagogue and the true Church. But Christ hath called us to the first institution, "There shall be two in one flesh."' Ironically enough, after Sandys became Archbishop of York, one of his tenants tried to blackmail him by hiding a woman in his bed. He came home, drew open the curtains, and there she was! And just at that moment her husband rushed in! With blushing embarrassment, Sandys immediately reported the incident to the queen.

The King James Version is still to be seen in the bookstores. It was the standard translation used by all English-speaking Christians well into my own childhood. Along with Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer, its cadences have made their way into the language. People must still be reading it. But it has now been largely replaced by more recent versions which make the Word of God more comprehensible to contemporary readers but which will likely prove to be much less enduring over the long term.

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