Friday, January 15, 2010

The King James Bible: If It Was Good Enough for Jesus, It's Good Enough for CBS

I was skimming the web for references to "black bonded Bibles" just now -- you know, those staid, traditional, non-flashy and quite sober behemoths of days gone by. Heirloom Bibles of stitched and fragrant Genuine Moroccan Leather. Gift Bibles given and given and given from year to everlasting year. What the President gets sworn in with. You know, those kind of Bibles

I had originally intended this to be a short post about the video I came across, which I have embedded below, where Denzel Washington is discussing his involvement in the 2007 audio Bible, The Bible Experience, which apparently has been a runaway bestseller.

After watching the video, however, I began to read the article, from CBS News Online, accompanying it. And, well. suddenly this post became a little more pointed.

The article is largely about the increasing trend of recent years to publish "designer Bibles," something that I certainly enjoy seeing reported. My trouble with the article, though, concerns several grossly misleading and inaccurate statements made by its author, Caitlin A. Johnson.

Let's take this one, for example, from right at the start of the piece:

In the beginning, there was the King James Bible: 66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses — usually bound in sober black leather. The King James Bible was the English language standard for more than 400 years.

Okay. Hold on. Never mind the versions in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, used by the Church for over a millennium. A statement like this also manages to erase the long (and thorny) history of Tyndale, Huss, Luther, the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva Bible, and a host of other lesser-known, but no less influential, predecessors to the King James Version in English.

Now yes, Johnson is partially correct in her characterization of the influence and importance of the King James. If this were the only such statement in the article, and if the article otherwise had carefully-researched claims, I might have let it slide. Not so. Johnson later makes the statement, "For more than 400 years, the King James version was the first — and for many, the only — Bible. "

The first alternative noted in the article does not occur until "September 1966, [when] an alternative was created with today's English version, known as 'Good News for Modern Man,' published by the non-profit American Bible society."

These statements reflect the popular misconceptions surrounding Bible "origins." The notion, as the article asserts, that the Bible has been available for sale "year after year...for 2,000 years" (as Sara Nelson, of Publishers Weekly, claims) is patently untrue. While you can say that commodities that begin to look like what we call a Bible have been part of commerce since before the invention of the movable type press, it is really not until the late 17th century that you can locate the beginnings of "book trade," in the manner that Nelson means.

The last bone of contention I have with the piece comes in response to this:

"It's the best seller of all times," Abyssinian Baptist pastor Dr. Calvin Butts said. "It has to be. It's got everything you would want in a book: sex, violence, intrigue, mystery, the supernatural — it's all here."

The "it has to be" that Dr. Butts asserts is a pretty common sentiment among laypeople in the West. We assume the hegemony of the Bible to be a worldwide phenomenon that simply cannot be touched by any other book.

However, while the Bible is definitely high up there on the list of bestsellers of all time (and the list is, admittedly, a hard one to tabulate - after all, are we talking sales, or copies in print, or...) there is a good chance that another book written in response to a charismatic individual, Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, actually holds the title.

Unfortunately, the historical, exegetical, and political complexities that arise in the wake of this tension between Jesus and Mao seem far beyond the ken of the writers and "newspeople" associated with CBS, who cannot even seem to get the facts about the King James right. Shame.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And why 66 books? There's a KJV Apocrypha. - J. Barker