In the New Statesman:
The King James Bible occupies nearly 42 pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, only narrowly beaten by Shakespeare, with 45. Not just literature in the high sense but everyday speech is laced, suffused – riddled, even – with biblical phrases the status of which ranges from telling quotation (“They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind”) to cliché (“No peace for the wicked”) and all points between. A word in season and perhaps we can see eye to eye. Although I wouldn't call the Bible my ewe lamb, and I would have to go the extra mile before I killed the fatted calf for it, you don't need the wisdom of Solomon to see how biblical imagery dominates our English. If my words fall on stony ground – if you pass me by as a voice crying in the wilderness – be sure your sin will find you out. Between us there is a great gulf fixed and you are a thorn in my flesh. We have come to the parting of the ways. I fear it is a sign of the times.
It has to be the King James version, of course. Modern translations break the spell as surely as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Listen to this, if you can bear to, from the Good News Bible, whose clunking title matches its style:
It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless./You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same.
Older readers might hear the voice of Tony Hancock. Or is it Victor Meldrew? Anyway, now here's the real thing:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity./What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?/One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
Real thing? Well, let me not emulate that notorious slogan against the teaching of Spanish in Texas schools: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas.” Hebrew, alas, is a sealed book to me (yes, that's another one: Isaiah 29:11), but I have it on respected authority that Ecclesiastes, at least, is pretty damn good poetry in the original. If so, it certainly doesn't make it through the Good News mangling. But I shall argue that poetry can gain in translation, and I believe this may have been achieved with the King James Bible.