“I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about a book – a book that, even if you haven’t read it, has had an influence on your life. In fact, its imagery, its language, and its influence have been felt right round the world for the past four hundred years. It also claims to be the living Word of God.”
So John Rhys-Davies (famous for his roles in The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones) begins his narration of the documentary, KJB: The Book That Changed the World. Subtitled The Amazing Tale of the Birth of the King James Bible, the film is in one sense more of a tale—a story—than a documentary.
I assumed when I heard about KJB that it would speak mainly of the influence of which Rhys-Davies so eloquently reminds us in the introduction. Without a doubt the King James Bible has shaped English-speaking culture throughout the world, affecting its view of God and Christianity, and the language itself.
In the book Begat, David Crystal traces no less than 257 idioms used in present day English which come from the King James. (See “The Idioms that the King James Bible Begat” from VisualThesaurus.com.) This is not to say that these idioms originated with the Book. Many are transliterations of Hebraisms, or borrowed from previous English versions such as Tyndale. The KJB did not become popular until the 1660s and has been gradually falling out of use for the past fifty. But the nearly exclusive use of the King James Bible for some three hundred years helped assure the longevity of phrases such as: “God forbid,” “filthy lucre,” and “the powers that be.”
However important, the documentary treats these influences in a cursory way, spending its time on the “birth” of the book and the life of its “father,” rather than on it long life.
For those who believe in God, and Christianity (and Britain’s place in its history), one cannot help but see Providence involved. The wisdom of the virgin Queen Elizabeth electing not to announce her successor until her death bed probably kept partisans from plotting against her relative, King James VI of Scotland. The uniting of England and Scotland when James took the English throne helped secure the future of Britain. James’ interest in a new translation of the Bible united the young Church of England, which was splinted between the Bishops (who used the so-called Bishops’ Bible) and the Puritans (who favored the Geneva Bible).
As the sovereign of both church and state, James was not afraid to criticize both factions. The Geneva Bible was critical of the crown, while the Bishops’ Bible was riddled with poor scholarship. The new Bible would be based on the latest knowledge in ancient languages. Its quality as a work of scholarship and a piece of literature rivals any modern translation. The various scholars who were interviewed for the film were asked whether the Jacobean scholars would be able to compete with those of today. The response was that the seventeenth century scholars were better.
One cannot examine the life of King James without mentioning the Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…” is still chanted throughout England today. The anti-Catholic verses are usually dropped, but fireworks displays celebrate the foiling of the plot, and Fawkes is burned in effigy. The reenactment of the modern “Bonfire Night” for the film caused so much noise that the neighbors phoned the police. The excellent Filmmaker Commentary mentions that engineers have figured if the plot would have succeeded, not only would the explosion have destroyed Parliament, but also an area one kilometer square.
The commentaries are well worth your time if you are at all interested in the intricacies of filmmaking. Those interested in Jacobean history will not want to miss the “Words from the Wise” featurette—a compilation of the interviews with the many scholars consulted for the film.
The closing moments of the documentary present the monument to King James in Westminster Abbey. But I will leave that for you to discover.
Disclosure: A review copy of the DVD was provided by a publicist.
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