In the Fourth Nocturn

Review: The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible

If you go to a bookshop today and buy yourself a copy of the Authorized Version of the Bible (i.e. the ‘King James’ Bible), what you are likely to walk out with is not what you may think. While advocates of the Authorized Version often quote the year 1611 when referring to this edition, almost every actual copy of the AV you are likely to see today is actually derived from a later re-editing of the text done by Benjamin Blayney in 1769.

Here’s an extract from the 1611 Bible:

The former treatise haue I made, O Theophilus, of al that Jesus began both to doe and teach, Untill the day in which hee was taken up, after that he through the holy Ghost had giuen commaundements unto the Apostles, whom he had chosen. To whom also he shewed himselfe aliue after his passion, by many infallible proofes, being seene of them fourty dayes, and speaking of the things perteining to the kingdome of God: And being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Hierusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye haue heard of me.

This old spelling is not what you find in most copies of the Bible sold today. Blayney is the person who did most of the cleaning up into something essentially resembling modern spelling. The King James text has, in fact, been so re-edited on multiple occasions since its original publication, and David Norton’s New Cambridge Paragraph Bible is intended to be the latest step in this development, bringing the original text into the 21st century.

This is, therefore, not a updated translation based on the Authorized Version, like the late 19th century Revised Version was. This is exactly the 1611 King James Version text with an editorial make-over, essentially affecting spelling and punctuation only — meanwhile undoing many small changes to the text which crept in over the centuries following the first edition. Thus even the slip-ups of the 1611 version are maintained (just as they are in Blayney’s recension): the Jews are still celebrating Easter, and not Passover, in Acts 12:4; the Epistle to the Hebrews still bears a title calling it the work of Paul; and the Comma Johanneum is intact without so much as an additional footnote. 1 Corinthians 13 still talks of charity and not love, which is not strictly an error but is something which subsequent translations (including the RV) have usually altered.

Rather, what Norton has aimed to do is to produce a text which reflects the original 1611 translation, but which uses modern spelling, punctuation, and formatting. He has done almost exactly the work that Blaney and his predecessors did, but in the 21st century and not the 18th. For instance, though spelling in Blaney’s time was a lot closer to today’s usage than the original 1611 Bible, the usual AV text still uses spellings like shew for show and publickly for publically. Norton has updated these instances and others. Moreover, while Blaney and other editors of the text elected to make corrections to the 1611 translators’ work where they thought they had blundered, Norton’s text deliberately avoids such speculative amendments and presents, as close as possible, the original text.

One example which Norton is seemingly fond of bringing up is Hosea 6:5. Previous editors decided that the AV’s translators meant to write ‘Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets’. Norton used the printed text of the very first edition, the translators’ handwritten annotations in a copy of the Bishops’ Bible, and knowledge of the particular Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts used by the translators, to conclude that they actually intended to write shewed i.e. showed them by the prophets, and corrects the miscorrection which has ended up in all subsequent editions.

It is thus quite interesting to go through the parts of the Authorized Version which one knows well and see how they have changed from the original translators’ intentions, and how Norton has restored them. For instance, it is well-known that the translators of the Authorized Version wrote their Bible in a register that was archaic even for the time. But they were apparently prone to slip into modernisms, and in some places in Norton’s edition, we find that they were actually less linguistically conservative than Blayney, who seemingly tried to cover for them when they slipped up and used a more modern form of words. Thus in the Ecclesiasticus 51:23–4 of Blayney we read ‘Draw near unto me, ye unlearned, and dwell in the house of learning. Wherefore are ye slow, and what say ye to these things, seeing your souls are very thirsty?’ (emphasis mine), grammatically correctly using the archaic subjective form of you. But this is clearly an instance where the 1611 translators failed to keep up the use of forms that were falling out of use in their time, for in Norton we read you for all these yes — and, indeed, in the original printing too.

On the whole, as I will describe later, I cannot recommend this bible strongly enough to someone wanting to buy a copy of the Authorized Version today. I do have one quibble, though.

A modernization too far

Norton’s task, as he describes it in the preface, was to produce an edition of the AV which is as close as possible to the original 1611 version and the translators’ intentions therein, but with three changes: modernization of spelling; introduction of quotation marks around reported speech;1 and the formatting of the text into paragraphs based on the sense of the words.

Under the rubric of spelling updates, however, Norton has made one group of changes with which I strongly disagree, because I would class it instead as a grammatical, not orthographic change: Norton has updated the inflection of various strong verbs to conform to their modern paradigms instead of the older ones used in the original next and the Blayney recension. Thus brake becomes broke, sware becomes swore, etc.

Norton writes in his introduction:

The removal of obsolete and inconsistent spellings, old-fashioned punctuation and cumbersome presentation will be more obvious than the changes to readings. Spelling is the most important issue, especially because it may appear that the King James Bible no longer sounds quite like itself. Where in current texts, Jesus ‘spake’ to the multitude, in The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible he ‘spoke’. The word is the same but the sound is different. Now, in 1611 spelling varied freely. One notable aspect of this variation involves forms that we would think would have to be pronounced differently, for instance ‘murderer’ and ‘murtherer’ (Num. 35:18 and 19). Similarly, a word might be treated as aspirated according to the printer’s convenience, as in Ezek. 40:42, ‘a cubite and an halfe long, and a cubite & a halfe broad’. Such variations in close proximity strongly suggest that the 1611 spelling cannot be taken as a reliable guide to pronunciation, and that therefore editors should ignore apparent changes of sound in modernising the spelling.

He goes on to say that his text ‘keeps the modernisation within strict limits: spellings may be modernized, but words and grammatical forms cannot be changed.’

Now, in the cases of murderer and a/an half I can sympathize with Norton’s argument that the pronunciation in practice may have been different from the written form.2 With the strong verbs, however, I do not think this holds sway. There is ample historical evidence that spake comes down from an Old English sp(r)æc, sp(r)ecan (still preserved in German sprach for instance), that went down through Middle English spak and into Early Modern English as spake, and that this form followed a regular phonetic development from [spæːk] to [spaːk], then being raised through the Great Vowel Shift to [spɛːk] and [speːk] and then finally diphthongized to the modern [spe͜ɪ̆k]. Spoke [spəʊk] pays no part in this regular and purely phonetic development and is best classed as a new inflection. It is true that several such verbs have so shifted from a to o — but this is not a general, language-wide phonetic change. It is a family of new inflections of a particular family of verbs, which emerged only in the 16th century — not long before the King James translators themselves began work.

Thus when Norton writes ‘the word is the same but the sound is different’, he is correct that it is the same lemma, pointing to the same collection of meanings, which appears under the same dictionary entry. But the inflectional paradigm has most definitely changed in a way that goes beyond the spelling, and the spelling (marked still in use as ‘archaic, dialect, or poetic’ by the OED) spake best reflects the natural descendent; and the same goes for the other verbs so affected. There is no reason for anything other than absolute certainty that the pronunciations with a, still recognizable today by every speaker of English, were what the translators of 1611 intended when they chose the older spellings, and therefore I very much wish that Norton had retained the older forms. I take particular exception to the forms spokest and brokest which are essentially neo-archaisms, since thou was already hardly ever used in common speech by the time the new forms with o took firm hold.

Those who are really bothered by this, however, can simply remember to consistently pronounce these words in the old way despite the spelling.

Conclusion: A should-be new standard text

The back-story for the development of the NCPB is that Cambridge’s printing plates for their copies of the Authorized Versions of the Bible were getting worn and needed replacement and thus the Bible would have to be re-typeset, so they began to consider what (if any) changes they should make in the new version. That led to them commissioning this re-edited text, which was presumably supposed to take the place of the 1769 Blaney text in subsequent Cambridge editions.

But … it hasn’t. If you buy the ordinary ‘King James Bible’ from Cambridge, what you still get is the Blaney text. It’s not clear why this is, because by rights Norton’s recension ought to be the new standard. You have to buy this text under the special title of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible which doesn’t make it immediately clear that this is a King James edition. If you buy a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, the epistles, gospels, and other lections are printed there according to the Blaney text.3

As the Queen’s Printer, the Cambridge University Press which commissioned this edition is in a privileged position in that it could, in theory, enforce the use of Norton’s version by all other British publishers of the King James Bible;4 and, given its obviously closer resemblance to the true text of the Bible that was authorized that would be an entirely proper use of its power to control editions for quality. Outside of the UK, the new standard text would likely not catch on quite so easily because the Blaney edition has the advantage of being out of copyright and thus royalty-free for publishers. But the new text is so clearly superior from the viewpoint of comprehensibility that it seems strange to keep the old one around at all, especially as the most prominent edition; and I’m certain that, were the NCPB more widely distributed within the UK, the American publishers would soon catch up with it.5

The Authorized Version is, in Norton’s version as in any other, a true treasure of the Christian faith and the English language — but Norton’s work has blown the dust off this masterpiece of prose and made it more of a pleasure to read than ever. I only wish it were more widely known.

Norton, David (ed.) The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (With the Apocrypha): King James Version (2005, rev. 2011). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-76284-7.

  1. The introduction also implies that there are some places where other aspects of the original 1611 punctuation have been slightly altered, but that as a rule the first edition’s usages have been maintained.

  2. Though, if I had had the chance to decide the policy, I would perhaps still have kept the form murtherer.

  3. Although to be fair the entire prayer book could do with a hand like Norton’s to re-edit it, to undo the unauthorized changes which the printers have snuck into it over the years, and to finally do away with spellings like shew and catholick.

  4. Except the Oxford University Press, which retains its own independent ancient right to print the Bible.

  5. What would also help is easier digital access to the text, which as far as I can tell is only available in electronic form as a module for the (very expensive) Bible software Logos.