KJV 400: Prefer your history with or without witches?

TRIO OF WITCHES FROM SHAKESPEARE’S MACBETH.The Violent History of King James Version of the Bible

So, what’s the story?!? Why is this translation of the Bible commissioned by an English king—a book that turned out to be a dud when it first appeared—such a grand historical moment? Right now, there are many choices to satisfy the fascination with the 400th birthday of the King James Bible. Stay tuned throughout the week, because we’ll tell you about some surprising choices in this series of articles.

Today, we’ll tell you about 2 popular histories of the KJV and “the movie version,” too!

DVD Review: KJB, Amazing Tale of Birth of King James Bible

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES in the movie KJB.This exciting 94-minute movie combines a star narrator from “Lord of the Rings” with doses of actual history and some flat-out evangelical preaching. It’s a great choice for church Bible-study groups to tell the turbulent “tale” of the Bible’s creation in the midst of both violence and the creativity of the Shakesperean era. Even members of your small group who don’t care much for history will pay attention. Plus, this film santizes the actual history so much that it’s even appropriate for teens in a church setting.

This DVD, called KJB: The Book That Changed the World/The Amazing Tale of the Birth of the King James Bible, is available from Amazon.

The “Lord of the Rings” co-star is John Rhys-Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli in the epic series of Tolkien films. He breathlessly scurries through corridors, up stairways and into obscure archives to unveil artifacts. Rhys-Davies also appeared in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when he was much younger. In this new movie, we fear for his health as he huffs and puffs through a few scenes—but it’s great to see him in action once again and hear his resonant voice intoning this text.

However, to put this bluntly: The movie amounts to an evangelical infomercial for the King James Version of the Bible, which still is a multi-million-dollar publishing enterprise. Over and over again, Rhys-Davies and other carefully chosen talking heads call King James a “genius” who ranks among the world’s top scholars. The film boasts that the translation team he assembled produced “the finest translation ever completed”—“raising the level of academic excellence to an unprecedented new level.” The movie even tries to suggest that James instructed his translators to dig back into the original ancient texts and avoid consulting any of the earlier English versions. The historical fact is: James’ translators did closely follow earlier versions and they were instructed to keep in mind how this text would be used in the Church of England. And, the historical fact is: No serious Bible scholar today would claim the KJV reflects the latest in scholarship.

Part of the evangelical infomercial is a whitewash of James himself. A good deal of the movie is comprised of historical re-enactments with a capable cast of actors from the UK, including a handsome, dashing young James. In real life, James truly was obsessed with religious orthodoxy—but he grew up in a traumatic era of political intrigue. His mother, Mary Queen of Scotts, infamously lost her head. As a child, James was declared king of Scotland, then was battered by various regents who ruled in his place, plus a particularly brutal tutor. He witnessed countless palace intrigues, including murder, before Elizabeth I died in 1603 and ordered that he follow her as ruler of England.

King James and Macbeth: With or without Witches?

When William Shakespeare penned the blood-soaked Macbeth, he grabbed his most horrific scenes from headlines that had been coming southward out of Scotland for years—and that includes the witches. The producers of the “KJB” movie bend over backwards to recast James as a well-scrubbed evangelical saint. They avoid even mentioning that some historians believe James was bisexual—most likely gay but attentive to producing children with his wife. The movie portrays James as chastely virgin until he finds a fairy-tale-like love of his life. And, the movie never mentions James’ obsession with torturing women. During his life in Scotland, before he ascended the throne of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James devoted much of his life to “studying” witchcraft. He personally wrote a major guidebook about investigating witches and torturing women until they confessed. He enjoyed conducting the torture himself.

Certainly, James was far closer to the psychologically tortured, blood-soaked wretches who populate Macbeth than to the heart-throb saint portrayed in this DVD. There are many other examples of whitewashing, not worth detailing here. In the end, the purpose of this movie is to reach into congregations and spark excitement about history without offending anyone.

The movie does honestly admit that James died a sad figure. By today’s standards, his book’s debut would be judged a flop. For many years, congregations didn’t use it. Just as is the case today, many people didn’t like a new version. Many church leaders felt they couldn’t afford to buy a new Bible. But, as Rhys-Davies points out in the dramatic closing minutes of the DVD, James triumphed in the end—because the majority of American households now own a copy of James’ Bible today.

Book Review: Majestie—the King behind the King James Bible

Aimed at evangelical readers who want an inspirational tale of James’ life, David Teems’ book is highly readable. It’s a great choice to convince that reluctant-to-read member of your Bible-study group to crack open a history book. Teems writes in casual language in a style that feels like he is in your classroom with you, spinning the tale.

And, yes, Teems’ book does cover the witches. However, many readers will feel uneasy as Teems is quick to argue that James’ obsession with torturing women was part of his contemporary culture—and his lust for blood was a bit like his love of big-game hunting in the woods of Scotland and England. Teems does not apologize for James and he does not shy away from covering his witch hunting, but that section of the book will leave many readers uncomfortable, to say the least.

Teems is not a historian with any serious academic credentials. He holds only a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Mainly, he is a popular evangelical musician and inspirational writer, known for encouraging devout spiritual practices through his music, writing and speaking. These days, for example, Teems performs KJV readings along with inspirational musical. In recent years, he developed a personal interest in researching this era of the Christian church and Nelson, a major KJV publisher, published his version of James’ story as “Majestie.”

You can order Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible by David Teems from Amazon.

Book Review: Bible by Gordon Campbell for Oxford

We’re not alone in reporting that a far better choice, if you want an authoritative history is: Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, which you also can order via Amazon. This highly readable book is by the noted scholar Gordon Campbell, professor of Renaissance Literature at England’s University of Leicester. Veteran religion newswriter Bill Tammeus also recommends Campbell’s book as the first choice in reading about this era.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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