Before this volume, Penguin's dabblings in Biblical literature had been sporadic and incomplete: segments had been reproduced with no critical apparatus in the mighty Viking Portable World Bible, and the four Gospels of the New Testament had been given four intensely interesting volumes of commentary in the Pelican line, and a volume of Paul's letters had appeared, also laden with commentary, but while publisher after publisher produced a critically annotated Bible, Penguin held back. Until the appearance of this volume, the best such Bibles in the general market were the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 and the Oxford World's Classics Bible of 1997. And that's an apt echo as well, since until the appearance of the King James Bible in 1611, there were also two main contenders for the top spot, the Bishop's Bible of 1568 and the Geneva Bible of 1560. When King James I gave his command that "a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek," forty-four scholars set to work on separate sections and labored both under their own rather remarkable sense of literary perfectionism and also under the goad of the king, who clearly didn't want the whole project mired forever in academic hair-splitting.
The result, of course, was an unparalleled thing, a mightier achievement than a dozen Taj Mahals. The blood and grandeur of the Old Testament comes alive as in no previous English rendition:
Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa. And the Philistines followed hard after Saul, and after his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him, and he was wounded by the archers. Then said Saul to his armour-bearer, 'Draw thy sword and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumscribed come and abuse me.' But his armour-bearer would not, for he was sore afraid. So Saul took a sword, and fell upon it. And when he armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise on the sword, and died. So Saul died, and his three sons, and all his house died together. And when all the men of Israel that were in the valley saw that they fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead. Then they forsook their cities, and fled, and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.
And likewise most of the much thinner, nervier beauty of the New Testament is made clear to the common reader:
And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, 'Answerest thou nothing? What is it which these witnesses against thee?' But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, 'Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.' Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, 'What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye?' And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.
And this Penguin Classic volume itself is also an amazing success, starting with Norton's simple, lucid Introduction, which makes a stirring case for the sheer worth of those forty-four scholars' work:
The King James Bible offers the reader both the meaning of the Bible and a religious or aesthetic experience of language that no modern translation can match. For instance, after Adam and Eve have eaten fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the King James Bible has Adam give this simple reply to God: 'And the man said, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat" (Gen. 3:12). The meaning is clear except perhaps for 'she gave me of the tree,' but in context it is obvious that he is saying she gave him fruit from the tree. The language is simple, almost entirely monosyllabic English, without a trace of pretence to grandeur. Only the archaic form, 'thou gavest' markes it out as biblical English.
Modern versions usually stay close to the King James in this verse. Here is the New International Version: 'The man said, "The woman you put here with me - she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." It is still powerful, but not as powerful. There are no uncertainties of meaning, nor any archaism, but the rhythm has almost vanished, and there are several touches, all of them associated with a move from literal translation towards paraphrase, which make it less effective. The dash before 'she gave me' underlines the effect of having the subject stated twice (as it is in the Hebrew), but it goes along with the changes that make Adam close to vindictive in his attitude to Eve. 'The woman you put here with me' is a bitter statement, as if Eve were inflicted on him. The sense of Eve as a gift is lost - 'The woman whom thou gavest to be with me'; lost too is the parallel between Eve being given and Eve giving - 'she gave' (the Hebrew uses the same verb in both places). The change at the end of the verse, 'and I ate it', comes about not just because the New International Version, paraphrasing for clarity, has added 'some fruit' (not in the Hebrew), and so must finish with 'it' (again not in the Hebrew).
There's something refreshingly nuts-and-bolts about such a line of defense, and it's just the beginning of this volume's charms. There are plenty of excellent maps, and the end notes are a triumph, fully the complement of those Pelican commentary volumes of long ago. The stark elegance of the end product is reminiscent of the original appearance of the King James Bible, which was made to be both beautiful and useful, worth every penny of its cover price, as it were, loaded with extras that always take the breath away from museum-goers who view a copy on display.