I did a double take the other day when I read the headline of an article Christopher Hitchens recently wrote for Vanity Fair.
When the King Saved God it read.
Certainly this wasn’t the work of Mr. Hitchens, one of the most famous atheists of our day.
But indeed it was, and the article was completely consistent with the body of Mr. Hitchens’s life work. In addition to being a renowned skeptic, Mr. Hitchens is also somewhat of a literary scholar, and this marvelous little article demonstrated his knowledge of the King James Bible as a literary work.
The king in question is, of course, King James I, the founder of the Stuart line of English Kings, champion of the Divine Right of Kings, and successor to Elizabeth I of England. Hitchens argues that when James ascended to the throne in 1603, he saved the Protestant religion in England by ordering a team of scholars to produce a new English language translation of the Bible.
Hitchens’ praise for their resulting effort, as might be expected, is not for the theological certitudes contained therein, but instead for the extraordinarily effective use of the English language found in its pages.
Mr. Hitchens gives a tip of the hat to the 1561 Geneva Bible, the first widely circulated English language Bible used in England, whose signficance has been discussed previously in this space. What I learned from Mr. Hitchens that I did not know is how thoroughly the King James Bible drew upon an even earlier version of an English language Bible–the Tyndale Bible, the translation of which cost its creator, William Tyndale, his life. I also learned that it was “the sainted Thomas More” who was responsible for Tyndale’s execution.
I believe Mr. Hitchens missteps, however, when he calls the King James version “a triumph for rebellion and dissent.” The Tyndale Bible certainly was, as was the Geneva Bible, which promoted concepts of congregational self governance that quickly translated into the notion of civil self governance, the very essence of the republicanism which Mr. Hitchens reveres and advocates for his native England. But the last things King James I wanted to encourage at any time in his reign were rebellion and dissent. Indeed, one of the reasons he called for the new translation was to diffuse the popularity of the Geneva Bible. Those subjects who read the Geneva Bible were much more likely to reject his vision of the Divine Right of Kings than were those who read the King James Bible.
Mr. Hitchens observes this, but doesn’t really comment on its significance when he notes that the King James version ” had Saint Paul saying in his Epistle to the Romans… ‘ The powers that be . . .are ordained of God.’ ”
The entire passage in the King James version, Romans Chapter 13, Verses 1-3, reads:
” (1)Let every soul be subject unto the highest powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
(2) Whoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
(3) For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and then thou shalt have praise of the same.”
This is precisely the kind of translation that would be expected to please a king like James I who would tolerate no challenge to his divine authority.
But how does the same passage read in the Geneva Bible?
” (1) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: and the powers that be, are ordained of God.
(2) Whosever therefore resisteth ye power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgement.
(3) For princes are not to be feared for good workes, but for evil. Will ye then be without fear of the power? Do well so shalt thou have praise of the same.
The first two verses are virtually the same. But the third verse offers radically different interpretations. The King James version reads that every action of the ruler must be, by definition, a good work. In contrast, the Geneva Bible reads that princes aren’t to be feared for their good works, but for their evil works. And if they do evil works should their power be feared? No. You can read the Geneva Bible to suggest that you “do well” to resist the evil works of princes, thereby receiving praise from others who do well.
It’s the Geneva Bible, written by a handful of expatriate scholars who fled the wrath of an English monarch on pain of death, not the King James Bible, written by the officials of the Church of England at whose pinnacle stood King James himself, that fueled the cause of rebellion against tyranny.
On the whole, though, I agree with Mr. Hitchens. We would do well to study the influence the King James Bible has had on the development of our culture and literature. In fact, if you add the Geneva Bible and its influence on our concepts of self-governance, you have the makings of a fine Voices of the Tea Party e-book.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new e-book, I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial, will be published in July, 2011. His new book, Covenant of Liberty, will be published by Broadside Books in spring, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .