The King James Bible celebrates 400 years - Norfolk people on what it means to them

Next month is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, our culture's most significant translation of the best selling book of all time. MICHAEL ALLEN asked community leaders and others around the region for their thoughts on how this magnificent work has profoundly shaped the English-speaking world since its publication in 1611.

Nowadays, books aren't what they used to be. You can get a whole library of 1500 books on to an electronic reader. Even ordinary paper books we consume in great quantities because they are inexpensive and disposable.

For me, however, the Bible can never be a disposable book. It contains the good news of God's loving purposes for all of humanity and all of creation. It is our Book of Life. The translators of the King James Version rendered its text into English of timeless power and dignity. Since 1611, the greatest printers in the English-speaking world have seen printing this Bible as their highest challenge: to create a book of extraordinary beauty, worthy of the eternal significance of its contents.

As a student, I learned the craft of printing with metal types, so I know first hand the skill that went into making these magnificent books. Now, as a priest at the Cathedral, it is my privilege to read daily in public worship from one of the finest of these, the Oxford Lectern Bible, designed by the American typographer Bruce Rogers and printed by Oxford University Press in 1935. The Book of Life takes a physical form that makes an indelible impression on mind and heart.

- Canon Peter Doll, Norwich Cathedral

The King James Bible has shaped our language, thoughts, customs and laws more than most of us realise. One of the good things about this 400th celebration of its publication is that it reminds us that it's not just a literary treasure but a spiritual one too.

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-The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich

The King James Bible is widely regarded as a great work of literature and scholarship. It has shaped the English language and underpinned the values and culture of this country – and English-speaking countries throughout the world – ever since its first publication in 1611. By putting God's word into the common language of the people of England, it empowered ordinary men and women, gave them a new sense of their worth, and provided a national text for the advancement of literacy.

Although it was the work of nearly 50 translators working in six committees, there is a remarkable quality, clarity and consistency in its use of the English language. This was partly because they all drew heavily on the earlier translation by William Tyndale. The King James Bible became the foundation of Modern English. Technically, it settled the balance we have in our language today between its Anglo-Saxon and Latin-based roots; for example, in its opening sentence: 'In the beginning (Anglo-Saxon) God created (Latin-based) …'

The translation that King James commissioned was always intended to be read out loud in public, so it is exciting for the churches in Norwich to have the opportunity to do this in the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library (10-17 April).

For me, the King James Version was the Bible I grew up with. So, even though I started using more modern translations when I was a student - currently I use the New International Version for my daily reading and at church - the language of the KJB still resonates strongly. As a musician, I guess that Handel's Messiah has had a lot to do with that! 'For unto is a child is born, unto us a son is given ...', 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', 'Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!', For me, the magnificent words from the KJB combine with Handel's glorious music to communicate eternal and life-changing truth.

- Dr Derek Haylock, education author and consultant and senior fellow at UEA, Norwich, elder at Surrey Chapel Free Church, Norwich and organiser of the King James Bible Reading 2011

It's the only great work of art ever created by a committee.

When I was a boy I learned its notes and tunes without even trying to, in church and out.

In 1611 Bishop Andrewes and his cohort of scholars fashioned out of Tyndale and his sources a great and imperishable poem, with resonances that have shaped our mode of belief, our language and thinking for four hundred years.

Read Christopher Hitchens' brilliant article about the Bible in this month's Vanity Fair. Hitchens, perhaps the pre-eminent stylist (apart from everything else) of his generation, absolutely nails the political forces that gave birth to the King James Bible.

But its main resonance is poetic.

We can scarcely complete a thought or sentence without referring to it – 'faith, hope and charity' – 'when I was a child I spake as a child' – 'eat, drink and be merry' – 'salt of the earth' – these and a thousand other phrases speak to our hearts as no other single source apart from Shakespeare does.

When in the 1960s the Church of England refashioned the Bible to make it more 'relevant' they drained a linguistic well of emotion shared by English-speaking people around the globe. And yet in spite of their dour and plodding determination to strip away some of the great cadences of our flexible language, the one part of it they dared not discard remains with us unaltered to this day; 'Our Father, which art in heaven...'

That, at least abides.

- Peter Wilson, Chief Executive of Norwich Theatre Royal

I was given a KJB as a child - I think all secondary school children in Gloucestershire were given one - and I've still got mine. We used them in assembly and RE lessons, but my copy came into its own when I became a Christian in my twenties, and started going to church on a regular basis. Although it served me well I came to realise that language has moved on significantly since 1611 and that some passages in the King James translation can even be misleading when understood with modern usage, so when the New International Version of the Bible became available I changed to that for everyday use. But I still read my old King James Bible from time to time; the language - and the way it flows - is lovely.

I can only marvel when I think what an impact the King James Bible has made on this land. It didn't immediately unify the kingdom in the way James had hoped, but it did give everyone the opportunity to hear the Bible in their everyday language. They could now start to think for themselves about what the Bible said, and that was undoubtedly of far greater consequence than James could ever have imagined. Individuals were inspired to think in new ways and often motivated to action. For example the realisation that God values all people equally… that led to the abolition of the slave trade, to prison reform, the evolution of our judicial system, the development of education and so on. In fact, values that were triggered by the King James Bible underpin much modern secular thought in this country and elsewhere.

- Paddy Anstey, elder at the Surrey Chapel and organiser of an exhibition of the St Peter Mancroft exhibition (Norwich)

This was of course the golden age of English literature, the age of Shakespeare and of John Donne (who was Dean of St Paul's as well as a great poet) and many others. So it is a masterpiece of English literature we can all enjoy. It appeared simultaneously with the first Catholic translation into English, but there is cross-fertilisation. One of King James's translators was a brother of one of the Catholic translators (the Rainolds brothers who notoriously had converted one another!) Although Catholics and Protestants were long to argue about what the Bible meant, all could agree that the Bible really mattered, and so we today, even more than then, can all celebrate a triumph of intellectual agility and aesthetic refinement.

As a translation, the King James version has that most rare of qualities: timelessness.

- John Morrill, a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic diocese of East Anglia and professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge

Looking back I can see now that the language of the period out of which emerged the King James translation was one of the things that enticed me into becoming a Tudor-Stuart historian. The enticement was all the greater because I was taught by Robert Ashton, the founding professor of English History at UEA. In Robert's lectures the cadences of our chosen period drew living breath again. What was quotation and what was new coinage was not always distinct to the listening ear.

What those academics in Oxford, Cambridge and London produced by way of a new translation was no happenstance. It fructified in the rich soil of a period in which language itself was central to the great purposes of the time.

Language had become the most effective tool of persuasion, and persuasion was the key to power. The people had become used to the sonorous tones of authority in the printed proclamations of the ever-more-intrusive Elizabethan central government. These were voiced by those who read them aloud from Norwich's Guildhall or the market crosses of the county's towns and villages. Or, again, when the so-called 'apostle of Norwich', John More, preached to an open-air auditory in the area in front of St Andrew's Hall language was the means by which he and his like sought to build the new Jerusalem within the walls of the earthly city.

Moreover, the new king's new bible came from somewhere: it was the culmination of a process of both linguistic development and biblical translations that stretched back over many decades.

The late sixteenth century had seen an educational revolution. As a consequence a highly educated clergy had spread out into the parishes. Passages from the Bible issued from their pulpits; its imagery found place in their sermons. Across the county, in numerous parish-porch schools young boys learned their letters from the book that each parish was required to own: the Bible in English.

Equally, the scions of gentry families began to attend university in unprecedented numbers and received an education that placed at its centre the skills of oratory and rhetoric.

So, when today we sit in study, lecture theatre or pew to relish the mellifluous flow from the King James' translation, we need to recognise that its still-engaging tones had both purpose and reason in the world from which it arose. The immediate purpose and reason have long passed, but the biblical language to which they gave birth survives. It continues to engage any who have the least sensitivity to the word upon the lips, the sentence upon the air.

That is one of the reasons why I never regret having devoted my professional life as a historian to the period in which this quality of language was born and of which the King's Bible was the outcome.

- Victor Morgan is Senior Lecturer in English and Regional History at UEA.

As a child my mother taught me to read the bible and pray (I am 74 years old). Of course back then there was only the King James, Authorised Version. I was sent to Sunday school where I learned all those wonderful Bible stories.

As a young man I was called up for national service. The local church I attended gave me a New Testament to take with me. I read it under the pillow, so that no one saw what I was doing, until the day I became a Christian (aged 20). From then on I sat on my bed in the barrack room and read the Bible openly. Not the way to draw attention to yourself in those surroundings if you are sensitive to criticism.

Having became a committed Christian, almost right away, I felt called to Christian ministry. This meant studying the Bible at greater depth and later going to Bible School to study theology. In 1965 I was ordained into the ministry and have been a preacher and teacher of God's word ever since.

My reading and understanding of the teachings of the Bible has affected many of my major life decisions. For instance my choice of a wife, we met at Bible School, our decision to come to Norwich in 1969, (We felt lead by the Lord through our reading of the Bible), the way we raised our family etc. My wife and I have always sought to live by the moral values of the Bible, that same Bible I was taught to read as a child.

We are still both actively involved in Christian service and enjoying God's word on a daily basis.

- John Betts – New Hope Christian Centre, Norwich

I've just been looking at Melvyn Bragg's new book about the King James, where he stresses not only its function as a kind of template for the English literature that followed it, but its value as a kind of prose poem informing much subsequent poetry, whether religious or secular. For example, I found some lines of Gerald Manley Hopkins' Felix Randal running through my head the other day ('Felix Randall the farrier, oh is he dead then? My duty all ended') and realised how the cadences, imagery, language etc stem from this source. It seems to me that one of the clinching points in the King James' favour is that even people who don't believe in God acknowledge its achievement and demand that it should be taught in schools. As for an historical perspective, in a pre-literate age its ability to inform the speech-patterns and thought processes of 'ordinary speech', to act a linguistic stimulus to people who by and large couldn't read, is unprecedented.

- DJ Taylor, Norwich-based author, academic and media commentator

At college in a cold northern town I warmed to a book whose author, like me, was fired up by the poetry of the King James Bible.

This was By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart, whom I later encountered, drinking and gardening, in her final base at Flixton near Bungay.

First published in 1945, this brief burst of lyricism charted her doomed war-time affair in America with married poet George Barker, latterly of Itteringham, near Aylsham.

Although George gave her some of the content and all of the title (plus four children), the ecstatic and agonised account owed most to the 1611 translation, by Cambridge scholars, of the Song of Solomon.

In reworking that hymn to love and lovely language in the heart of the best of Bibles, Elizabeth blithely ignored injunctions elsewhere in the revered text to flings with other people's husbands.

Or she may have been working from that short-lived second edition of the KJB which omitted the three-letter word in the commandment Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.

Although a founder member of AA (Atheist Anglicans), I remain baffled by the obsession of organised religion with sex. I favour an 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Mind Thine Own Business.

Elizabeth Smart, never quite writing George out of her system, became a passionate gardener. I see her reciting to herself:

'Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.'

- Ian Collins, EDP arts critic

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