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(Originally Titled "The Learned Men": The Text Here Used Is That Of "The Learned Men")
Chapter 12: The Final Touches
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The Final Touches 

            A story goes that someone put all those commas and colons into the King James Bible, and made the verse and chapter divisions, while riding horseback. If there is any truth in it, the guilty man may have been Dr. Miles Smith, who used to keep at work even on journeys, jogging along on a jennet. Many a stop breaks up a long, loping verse at random.

            One comma in Isaiah 9:6 has enjoyed especial fame: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” As we read that, we can hear the music of Handel’s Messiah. It is splendid verse in groups of balanced words. But the comma does not belong between “Wonderful” and “Counselor”: 

And his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor,

The Mighty God,

The Everlasting Father,

The Prince of Peace. 

Alas, if we leave out the comma, we lose that wondrous pause in The Messiah between the two words!

            Music meant less in the England of James than in the England of Elizabeth, and Handel had yet to come. But music was in the air around, and the rhythms of the King James version are such that, whether or not the verses are set to music, most people seem to recognize that they are poetry. Somewhere, somehow, in the process of translation the prosaic, labored definitions of the original translators and later of Downes and Bois were arranged in rhythms that were to last.

            As an example of how this was done, consider that one verse in the brilliant I Corinthians 13 received from Bois five painstaking readings. For verse 11 he proposed “I understood, I cared as a child, I had a child’s mind, I imagined as a child, I was affected as a child.” The King James Bible says, in words that have become fixed for us with a gravely swinging rhythm, “I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” Would the “imagined as a child” offered by Downes suffice instead of “understood as a child”? The rhythm is much the same.

            Many have discussed the use, in I Corinthians 13, of the word “charity” for the Greek agape. We have no light on how the learned men came to prefer this word to the word “love” which appears in some older versions. The Bishops’ Bible, before that of Geneva, used “charity.” Taste has shifted back and forth between the words in that fine chapter of Paul, and will doubtless shift again as the overtones of definition change. But if we can, as we read I Corinthians, divest the word “charity” of rather smug later meanings, we can sense a fitness in its rhythm.

            Rhythm in the days of King James was important not merely as a source of pleasure to the ear, but as an aid to the mind. Generations to come would learn to read by puzzling out verses in the Bible that for many families would be a whole library. But at the time of translation, a Bible “appointed to be read in churches” was made to be listened to and remembered. Its rhythms were important as a prompting for memory. For that reason, in the words of their own Bible, it is evident that the learned^ men learned to use their ears as they worked – “the ear trieth words as the mouth tasteth meat.”

            There were other tests which the Bible editors used. They remembered that their purpose was to make an English translation, and though many of them could think in the ancient tongues, their King James Bible is indeed English. A striking instance is the word “righteous,” which comes from the older English Bibles, and means right-wise. The Lord our righteousness is the Lord our right-wiseness, a profound meaning which is but faintly in the Hebrew and the Greek. Thus in many cases the English added content as well as form. But the English words as such were preferred. This led naturally to approval of a large proportion of the Tyndale translation in preference to the Bishops’ Bible recommended in the royal directive. The simple, straightforward words of Tyndale appealed to the 1611 editors as they do to us today, so that his New Testament and Pentateuch have come down almost intact, except for minor changes. In the choice of phrasings from Stationers’ Hall a similar standard prevailed.

            Thus, chapter 2:15, of II Timothy in the 1611 Bible is, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Bois offered three choices: “a faithful laborer, a constant laborer, a laborer not ashamed of his work.” The last editors preferred the English word “workman” to the Latin “laborer.”

            The date of the English words used also was considered. For Titus 2:10 Bois gave a vivid term, “no filchers,” which was changed to “not purloining.” “To filch” dates from 1561 and was early Elizabethan slang, whereas “to purloin” dates from 1440 and must have seemed more proper for Holy Scriptures. The King James Bible includes few words that were novel in 1611.

            For Titus 3:8, Bois, who seems sometimes to have been a bit earthy, said “be careful to exercise themselves in honest trades.” The 1611 Bible says, “be careful to maintain good works.” Andrew Downes suggested, for verse 14, “to profess, to practice honest trades.” The published verse reads, “learn to maintain good works for necessary uses.” These readings suggest that the final editors disliked the word “trades.” Yet they could be businesslike. When for verse 17 of Philemon, Bois tendered “If thou thinkest all things common between us, if mine be thine and thine mine,” Smith and Bilson approved the prosy “If thou count me therefore a partner.”

            Beyond thought and skill in the choice of words, and beyond even the rhythmic patterns that make poetry, the learned men had to think of meaning. At about this time Francis Bacon, Lancelot Andrewes’ friend, was warning: “Whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning.” An important duty of the translators was to see that this did not happen. But this required agreement on meaning – if not “mine thine and thine mine, with all things common between us,” then at least a working partnership. For the six linguists at Stationers’ Hall this must have been easier than for the many men of varying views in the colleges and at Westminster. But the doctrinal implications of the words they dealt with must have occasioned many discussions during the nine months.

            Perhaps it was no accident that the two final editors differed in their views, for thus they could best represent the whole group of translators and, indeed, the readers for whom all worked. Of the two. Miles Smith was not unfriendly to the Puritan point of view and in after years acted a good deal in accord with it. Bishop Bilson was a dullish, dogged churchman; yet the two balanced each other and represented their times.

            About the basic issues they could agree. As a whole their great work was of course Protestant, against the Church of Rome, which was even then, at Douay in France, publishing its own revised Old Testament in English. Its translators were mostly expatriate Catholics from Oxford, one of them John Rainolds’ brother William. On September 7, 1608, the leading English Catholic, Birkhead, wrote a letter to Dr. Thomas Worthington, president of Douay College. Birkhead, who for safety signed with an alias, George Lambton, said “I am glad the Bible is so forward.” The complete Douay Bible came out in 1610, a year ahead of the King James Version.

            The Douay Bible often has its sturdy charm. Yet it differs remarkably from the King James Bible. In Psalm 23 it reads, “Thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is!” Psalm 91 begins, “He that dwelleth in the aid of the most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Jacob.” Verse 13 says “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk.” Isaiah 61:1 starts, “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem.” At places it seems almost as if the Roman and the King James Bibles had determined to make their words differ as much as they could, to show that their standpoints were poles apart.

            Fortunately for their text, the King James men were in somewhat better agreement, yet they differed to the end. Miles Smith, as final editor, protested that after he and Bilson had finished. Bishop Bancroft made fourteen more changes. “He is so potent there is no contradicting him,” said Smith, and cited as an example of Bancroft’s bias his insistence on using “the glorious word bishopric” even for Judas, in Acts 1:20: “His bishopric let another take.”

            The fact that Smith was the one to protest Bancroft’s amendments suggests that he stood against both Bilson and Bancroft in such matters as the importance of bishoprics. Yet there is some reason to believe that if he stood alone. Smith was more than a match for his associates. He was admitted to be a modest man yet a hard worker, and these combined traits could have given him the opportunity to do a great deal to the work about which he had – except for possible interference from Bilson or Bancroft – the final say.

            While others among the translators won praise for pulpit eloquence or strength in argument, there is evidence that Smith could write directly and to the point. Besides his sermons, which reveal too little of his real talents, we have the preface that he wrote for the Bible. Regrettably, those who publish the 1611 Bible now as a rule leave it out. It remains a good piece of writing, well worth reading for what it says as well as an example of what Miles Smith could do with words.

            The whole task of translation could hardly be better described than in Smith’s terse statement of purpose, “to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they understand.” This talent for summarizing, for cutting through verbiage to say what was meant with force and the fewest possible words, was exactly what must have been needed at this stage of the work, and it was a talent Smith had. He also had the imagination to grasp a meaning not immediately obvious, and make it clear, as when he quoted St. Augustine’s “A man would rather be with his dog than with a stranger,” and explained the stranger as one “whose tongue is strange unto him.” Finally, the very structure of his sentences as well as their content proves that Smith had energy and determination, what he described – in a phrase to find an echo in the American Constitution – as “zeal to promote the common good.”

            Again and again the final version shortens or changes the careful phrasing of Stationers’ Hall to one of the memorable homely phrases of the King James Version. Thus for Hebrews 4:15, where Andrew Downes suggested, “such an one as had experience of all things,” the final reading became, “in all points tempted like as we are.” When for Hebrews 6:6 Bois offered, “caused him to be had in derision, or traduced him,” the king’s Bible says, “put him to an open shame.”

            For a famous verse, Hebrews 11:1, Bois put down, “Faith is a most sure warrant of things, is a being of things hoped for, a discovery, a demonstration of things that are not seen.” This became, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

            Sometimes the considerations of rhythm, sound of letters, and homely English were combined in the changes. Thus for Hebrews 11:3, “Things which are seen were not made of things which do appear,” replaced Bois’s phrase “made of things that were not extant.” Perhaps the word “extant” sounded fancy, and also the three t’s are unattractive. Later in the same chapter, however, the final editing slipped into heavy alliteration in the phrase of verse 26, “he had respect unto the recompense of the reward.” Bois had written only, “He looked at the reward to be rendered,” and the Revised Standard Version prefers Bois, saying simply, “he looked to the reward.”

            The learned men who finished the work had great skill with the little words that connect the main words. They used them to give swing to their phrases. Many have remarked on their taste with short words, on how they made them pliant. About this they knew much more than those who had dealt with the English Bible before them. They tried their best to have their words fitly joined.

            Now and then as they smoothed the Bois phrases they made a real change in meaning, as when the Bois phrase for Hebrews 12:2, “the leader and finisher of our faith,” became “the author and finisher of our faith.” But mainly the editing supplied more direct sentence structure and subtler groupings and rhythms. When Bois suggested for Hebrews 12:12, “lift up your slack hands and feeble or shaking knees,” the finished Bible reads “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees.” When in chapter 13:8 Bois put down, “yesterday and today the same and forever,” we have from a hearing ear, “the same yesterday and today and forever,” For Bois’s phrase in verse 21, “disposing of you, or working with you as it pleaseth him,” the final reading is “working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight.”

            Now and then a phrase with original meaning based on a simile proved untranslatable, as when in James 1:5 Bois’s literal rendering of the Greek, “twitting or hitting in the teeth”—with a sense of casting in the teeth—became “upbraideth not.” Similarly in James 2:10, Bois’s verb “trip,” rendering a Greek verb meaning to fall down, became “offend in one point” of the law. But when for verse 8 of the first chapter Bois said “a wavering man,” final editing supplied a more concrete image: “a double-minded man.”

            Occasionally different words were chosen to avoid repetition. For I Peter 3:14 Bois said, “fear not their fear, nor be troubled,” and AL suggested “be not afraid of their fear.” The final version reads, “be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled.” Such changes make appropriate the verse in II Peter 1:19 for which Bois wrote “and (hereby) we have the word,” and AL said, “and hereby the speeches of the prophets are more confirmed unto us, are made of greater credit unto us, a more firm speech, etc.” The edited reading is, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy.”

            For the complexities of Revelation, Bois really exerted himself. Thus for 7:15 he proposed, “He shall pitch his tent over them, he shall protect them, he shall dwell with ^hem, he shall rest upon them, he shall rule over them,” and in a note he added one more reading, “He shall stretch his pavilion over them.” The approved reading adapted Bois’s third and simplest reading, “He shall dwell among them.” For chapter 19:9, AL translated “These true sayings are of God.” For the king’s Bible, the master rhythmists changed this to “These are the true sayings of God.”

            The final editors had also to supply punctuation and decide questions of grammar, unless they were able to find helpers for the work which today would be called “copy editing.” Some points of grammar in the King James Bible have bothered readers more than they did the men of 1611, who like the Elizabethans wrote with the freedom of a language still more or less fluid. What to Christians is perhaps the greatest question of all time reads ungrammatically, in Matthew 16:13, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” English grammar has never been static; then as always it was growing and the use of pronouns was changing. “It is me” is today accepted by many experts in grammar, and here me is a usage comparable to the whom. With their feeling for sound, it is possible that the translators considered it far less objectionable than “Who do . . . ?”

            Some other points of grammar in the King James Bible require us simply to forbear in adverse judgment. Elizabethan grammar has a charm of its own, even when a wrong pronoun gives a comic effect; in I Kings 13:27, the 1611 Bible says, “And he spake unto his sons, saying, Saddle me the ass. And they saddled him.” The “him” is in italics to indicate that it is not in the original Hebrew, so there can be no argument when subsequent versions change “him” to “it.”

            Whether Smith and Bilson attended only to the final details of publishing scripts that were nearly complete except for disputed passages worked over at Stationers’ Hall, or whether they are to be credited with a final editing that made the King James version into literature, cannot be decided from the data now at hand. From the first there were among the translators, as we have seen, men hailed in their own time as masters of language, sweet preachers, persuasive, and of a pretty wit. Rainolds, Andrewes, Savile, Layfield, Bing – any of these, and several others, might well have contributed chapters so well turned as to require no rewriting. The difficulty is that, to a modern reader, the thought occurs that nothing in all their many volumes of sermons and other writing seems to march with the Bible cadence quite as does the prefatory address to the reader written by Miles Smith. On this similarity (which does not extend to his sermons) must rest any case for saying that Smith brought to the final editing its real inspiration.

            The 1611 Bible had also to be prefaced by an address to the king. We do not know who addressed James as “Your majesty . . . the principal Mover and Author of the work.” The task of this writing would have been considered an honor, and must have been one congenial to Bishop Bilson, perhaps with help from Bancroft. In his preface to the reader, which even contained a polite reference to Bishop Bancroft, Miles Smith said simply and fairly: “And what can the King command to be done, that will bring him more true honor than this?”

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