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The Influence of the King James Bible on English Literature

by Dr. James Hedges, professor of English Emeritus

Experts passionately debate the 400-year-old issue in classrooms, conferences, and forums around the world—Did the King James Bible actually influence English literature or merely serve as a cultural icon? Dictionary-maker Noah Webster once said, “The language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national [American] language.” More recently, however, theologian Alister McGrath proclaimed it “is a model English text, which can be studied as a landmark in the history of the English language, and is to be seen as a major influence on English literature.”

As C.S. Lewis argued in a 1950 lecture on “The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version,” to consider the claim that the King James Version (KJV), a translation, has served not only as a source, even a powerful cultural conditioner in thought and language, but also as a literary influence on subsequent English literature, the term “influence” must be understood in relation to the terms “source” and “translation.” Discussion of influence on language must be placed in the context of the KJV as a translation of a collection of books composed over time by different authors in different languages, and therefore, only as good as its sources. Further, the King James translators followed a mandate to rely on existing English translations, offering a unified expression of Christian belief and guidance to be read aloud for public worship as well as silently for private study. The final KJV text borrows 83 percent of the New Testament and 79 percent of the Old Testament from Tyndale’s 1530s translations, perpetuating vocabulary and sentence patterns already nearly 100 years old. The translators also followed Tyndale’s lead in emphasizing simplicity and clarity, avoiding “inkhorn” terms. Of their 8,000 different words, they incorporated as much as 93 percent native English, with only 7 percent “imports” from Latin or continental languages. Shakespeare, by contrast, used 30,000 different words, luxuriating in Latinate polysyllabic imports.

In addition to its importance as a sacred text, the KJV exerted significant cultural influence as a “treasure house of English prose,” as Lewis noted, providing quotes and allusions infused throughout subsequent English literature. Even those who deny the religious aspect of the Bible, praise its literary value. Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion denies the God of the Bible but insists we should remain acquainted with KJV phraseology and imagery in order to understand our cultural past, cites more than 100 expressions to underscore its pervasive presence, from “signs of the times,” to “grapes of wrath,” to “no peace for the wicked.” Further, Canadian critic Northrop Frye created a course in the Bible as literature, citing William Blake’s proclamation, “The Old Testament and the New Testament are the Great Code of Art.”

Clearly, the dominance of the KJV, as the translation known to writers of English literature since the late 17th century, created a familiarity of expression recognizable to most present-day readers. Its literary allusions play an undeniably important role in the imagery and symbolism of major works revered in literature such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. Literature also supplies parallel biblical events in such unexpected places as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Harry freely offers himself as a sacrifice to save others, a less-overt symbolic act than Aslan’s dying for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The allusions to biblical incidents, characters, and language color much of British and American literature from the 17th century to the present, including biblical stories recast in innumerable “versions” of poetry, fiction, and drama, in apocalyptic narratives as well as pastoral idylls. From Bunyan to Beckett, from Milton to Morrison, the influence of the KJV broods over the corpus of literature in English, infusing its richness of texture, familiarity of phrasing, fund of imagery, force of simplicity into the very texture of our cultural heritage and the products of our permeated imaginations. That it has informed so much of our sense of community, of common language, of belief however diffused, may offer hope that it can continue to inspire, instruct, and inform our creative work and our beliefs.

Suggested Reading:

Atwan, Robert and Laurance Wieder, eds. Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Cavill, Paul, Heather Ward, et. al., editors. Christian Tradition in English Literature: Poetry, Plays, and Shorter Prose. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007.

Daniell, David. The Bible in English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

Lewis, C.S. “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

McGrath, Alister. In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001.

Nicolson, Adam. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Dr. James Hedges is professor of English Emeritus.