John Drury’s clear, marvelously erudite, and richly detailed introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of The New Testament reminds us why the King James Version, first published in 1611, has been the favorite of English readers for centuries. Despite a plethora of new translations in the second half of the twentieth century, the King James Version retains its power and appeal because “it has the intrinsic value of a classic and is an enduring masterpiece.”
Drury outlines the fascinating history of this magisterial translation, marveling at the “patient generosity” with which the translators sifted through and distilled a century of previous scholarship. He points out that their work has endured not only because of the astonishing care they took to reflect faithfully the syntax of the original Hebrew and Greek–which enabled them to dispense with the densely entangled prose style that characterized English writing at the time–but also because of their concern to writers from Milton to Coleridge to George Eliot. From the doctrinal richness of the letters of St. Paul to those four masterpieces of storytelling, the Gospels, The New Testament has served as a source of inspiration for centuries.
To quote George Steiner on the centrality of the Bible: “What you have in hand is not a book. It is the book. That, of course, is what ‘Bible’ means. It is the book which, not only in Western humanity, defines the concept of a text. All our other books, however different in matter or method, relate, be it indirectly, to this book of books…All other books are inhabited by the murmur of that distant source.”