A History of the Bible as Literature Summary

David Norton


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In January, 1604, several months after his accession to the English throne, James I convened a conference of churchmen and scholars at London’s Hampton Court “for the hearing, and for the determining, [of] things pretended to be amiss in the Church.” At this conference, John Reynolds, a leading scholar and head of Oxford’s Corpus Christi College, proposed a new translation of the Bible. Shortly thereafter; with James’s approval, a committee of translators was formed, with a list of fifteen rules to guide their work. The completed translation, published in 1611, is known as the King James Bible (KJB) or (chiefly in Great Britain) the Authorized Version (AV).

In time, the KJB became the version of the Bible with the widest circulation in the English-speaking world (Roman Catholics generally preferred the Rheims-Douai Bible, a translation completed in 1610). Well into the twentieth century it continued to enjoy that status, not only among believers but also in the culture at large. In the words of The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992):

The KJB has been acclaimed as a landmark in both religious literature and the evolution of the English language, an achievement that comprises all earlier Bible translation and that has set the standard against which all subsequent translation must be judged. Many also consider that its verbal beauty is unsurpassed in the whole of English literature.

This is the received opinion that David Norton wants to correct. The catalyst for A History of the Bible as Literature was Norton’s discovery that “the cliche’ of the King James Bible’s immediate success as an English classic” was not consistent with the historical evidence. Norton was not seeking to discredit the achievement of the KJB-not at all; rather, he sought to understand the discrepancy between the early reception of the translation (which was by no means universally acclaimed in the seventeenth century) and the exalted reputation which it eventually gained.

What initially seemed to be a modestly scaled project turned into a massive undertaking that occupied Norton for more than ten years. The result is a study not simply of the reputation of the KJB but of “literary ideas of the Bible as they have come into and developed in English culture.” Comprising two volumes and more than 850 pages of small print, Norton’s history ranges from the third century B.C. to Prince Charles’ speech on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (December 19, 1989), which included sharp criticism of the New English Bible (NEB; 1961) amid broader reflections on the decline of English usage (“we have arrived at… a dismal wasteland of banality, cliche’ and casual obscenity”). No work of comparable scope to Norton’s exists.

Although the range of topics considered matches the work’s historical sweep, two themes dominate Norton’s narrative. The first concerns a tension implicit in the notion of “biblical eloquence.” Many early Christian writers acknowledged a contrast be-tween the refined style of classical literature and the style of the Bible, which did not conform to classical norms. Some Christians saw this contrast as symbolic of the right relation between the Church and secular culture: the simplicity and purity of truth versus the sophisticated untruths of the unredeemed human imagination. For support they could cite Saint Paul’s dismissals of eloquence; for example, “As for me, brothers, when I came to you, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy, but simply to tell you what God had guaranteed” (1 Corinthians 2:1).

At the same time, but more so as the Church became solidly established, other Christians saw genuine eloquence and aesthetic merit in Scripture. Norton shows how Augustine evolved from the first position—emphasizing the opposition between eloquence and truth-to the...

(The entire section is 1593 words.)