Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 10. The English of the Bible

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. The “Authorised Version” and its Influence

§ 10. The English of the Bible

Hallam, though he admits that the style of the Authorised Version is “the perfection of our English language,” has often been censured for declaring that the English of the Jacobean version “is not the English of Daniel, of Raleigh, or Bacon”—in fact, that “it is not the language of the reign of James I.” Yet this is strictly true, and for the reason that he assigns, namely, “in consequence of the principle of adherence to the original versions which had been kept up since the time of Henry VIII.” It is true, in a sense, that no great writer’s diction is of his age, any more than he himself is of his age. Coleridge declares of Shakespeare, “His is not the style of the age,” just as Ben Jonson declared of the poet himself, “He was not of an age.” Indeed, it seems as though this were the necessary condition, at least in the case of great writers, of being “for all time,” that one shall not be too much “of an age.” Great thought and great feeling draw their own appropriate diction to themselves, somewhat as the magnet attracts steel filings; and, after the appropriate diction has thus been attracted, the union between it and the substance of discourse seems to be almost indissoluble. It is as if a soul had been clothed upon with flesh. From that moment, nothing can be changed with impunity; if you wrench away a word, it is as if a portion of the life-blood followed it. Now the time when the soul of the Bible began to take upon itself flesh for us was nearly three-quarters of a century before the work of the Jacobean revisers. But, since the life-process, so to speak, did not absolutely begin with Tindale, it really extended over a considerably longer period than that named above, especially if we consider that Wyclif was concerned in it; for, if the Wyclifite versions be included, the Vulgate can hardly be ignored, so that eventually the Septuagint must be regarded as having initiated a process which the Jacobean revisers completed. If the substance of the Bible may thus be compared to a soul which was to be fitted with a body, it will follow that the diction will differ somewhat from member to member, even as it did in the Hebrew and Greek originals; but it will also follow, in proportion to the assumed relation and interdependence of these parts of members, that this diction will have a certain homogeneity, so that a radical change in the vocabulary at any point would be likely to throw that part out of keeping with the rest. The truth of this was recognised by Ellicott, when, in 1870, he advised future revisers to

  • limit the choice of words to the vocabulary of the present [Authorised] version, combined with that of the versions that preceded it; and in alterations preserve as far as possible the rhythm and cadence of the Authorised Version.
  • It is not a little remarkable that the effects wrought by the English Bible should require so few words. The editors of the New English Dictionary reckon the words in A to L, inclusive, as 160,813, of which number 113,677 are what they call main words. Shakespeare, it has been estimated, employs about 21,000 (others say 15,000, or 24,000); Milton, in his verse, about 13,000. The Hebrew (with the Chaldee) of the Old Testament, according to the computations of Leusden, comprises 5,642 words, and the New Testament, it is said, has 4,800, while the whole English Bible, if we may trust Marsh, employs about 6,000. Making all due allowances for the “myriad-mindedness” of a Shakespeare, there is still room for the conclusion that the capacities of words, especially of the simpler words, are much greater than is believed by those who use a large and heterogeneous vocabulary. In this respect there is not so much difference between native English and Norman-French words as is commonly supposed. In the following examples, the words clean, pure, and clear translate the same Greek adjective, and all seem equally expressive, or nearly so:

  • Rev. XV, 6: “And the seven angels came out of the temple, … clothed in pure and white linen.”
  • Rev. XIX, 8: “And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white.”
  • Rev. xxi, 18: “And the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.”
  • That, in this sense, they are fairly interchangeable may be seen by comparing Job XV, 15, “Yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight,” with Tennyson’s
  • Make thou my spirit pure and clear
  • As are the frosty skies.