How the English came to be a 'chosen people'

The enduring impact of the 'most influential printed book' in English - the King James Bible, which is 400 years old this month


When the King James translation of the Bible was published in 1611, Jews had been barred from England for over 300 years. The dominant popular image of Jews at the time was found in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

As the Bible brought Christian mission and the English language throughout the British empire - in its heyday the largest empire in history - the King James became the most influential printed book. Yet the King James was only one of many European Bible translations after the invention of printing in the 1450s, often accompanying similar, if not worse, prejudice toward Jews.

Countries which disseminated Church-based hatred of Jews as Christ-killers came to love the Hebrew Bible as their true heritage and to see themselves as the "new Israel".

About three-quarters of the King James version comes from the early 16th-century translations of William Tyndale. Aiming for simplicity and clarity, Tyndale took the revolutionary view (in fact, the norm in Judaism) that a ploughman could understand the Bible as well as, if not better than, a

In their daily prayers and Bible readings, Jews had read the Hebrew original for 2,000 years. Once Tyndale's assistant, Miles Coverdale, printed the first complete Bible in English (1535), large numbers of English readers could also experience the full literary splendour of biblical stories and poetry.

Coverdale's translation of the Psalms, incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, is the best-known and, to many, best-loved poetry in English. (In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations there are more quotations from the Psalms than from Hamlet.) For centuries, translations from the Hebrew Psalms have accompanied Christians from birth to death. The Psalms were prominent in the Order of Service of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton: "This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it" is from the Hallel (Psalm 118: 22).

Many biblical phrases became so well-known in English that their Hebrew origin was forgotten. If, for example, you stand at the parting of the ways, in jeopardy of your life, if you play the fool, if you set your house in order, harden your heart, avenge an eye for an eye, love your neighbour as yourself, or turn the other cheek, you are quoting from the Hebrew Bible translated into English,

If you believe the race is not to the swift, or that love is strong as death, or feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, a still small voice, or if you are slow of speech or slow to anger at those who multiply words without knowledge, and full of sour grapes, or do not see eye to eye with your friends, or put your trust in princes, you are using Hebrew expressions; if you believe the leopard cannot change his spots, or that you must cast your bread upon the waters, for to everything there is a season, or that if you sow the wind you reap the whirlwind, and escape by the skin of your teeth, or that if you spare the rod you spoil the child, or that you have punished a scapegoat, you are quoting from the Hebrew. Examples can be multiplied a hundredfold, not just in English but in all the languages into which the Bible was translated.

Protestant Britain saw the Bible as the blueprint for British history. Major events - coronations, marriages, wars, deaths, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the English Revolution - followed biblical typologies, by which England and ancient Israel were one.

The 17th-century Puritan revolution was driven by the religious-nationalist ideology and fervour of the prophets; by self-identification as a chosen people with a divine covenant and messianic hopes, a love of liberty and opposition to overweening monarchic rule. Oliver Cromwell, who re-admitted the Jews to England in 1656, treated the Bible as a guide in war, revolution, and statecraft.

As the British empire grew, the Bible became a force of religious and cultural unity; its popularity derived partly from its sympathy for the defeated and downtrodden, and its faith in an ethical power beyond the temporal. Even as the empire collapsed, George Orwell wrote in 1945, the King James survived as a yardstick of good English, its clarity a sign of honest government and a strong society.

If the Bible in translation gave many peoples a sense of national chosenness, how much more could the Bible in the original Hebrew stimulate national identity among the Jews. Yet, many Jews rediscovered the Bible only after the rise of European antisemitism in the late 19th century forced the Zionist movement into being and, in a unique revival, increasing numbers began to speak Hebrew.

Four centuries after its publication, the King James translation reminds us of the enduring centrality and vitality of the Bible and Hebrew in civilisation.

Professor Aberbach teaches at McGill University, Montreal and is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University

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