You could say ‘the face of the deep’ was found or chosen or selected by the 1611 translators, but you can’t say it was theirs. And, in that respect, the coinage joins ‘let there be light’, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, ‘be fruitful and multiply’, ‘pillar of salt’, ‘bald as a coot’, ‘let my people go’, ‘by the skin of my teeth’, ‘tender mercies’, ‘the spirit is willing’, ‘a man after his own heart’, ‘vanity of vanities’, ‘sign of the times’, ‘wages of sin’, ‘all things to all men’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘through a glass darkly’, ‘grave, where is thy victory?’ and ‘the powers that be’ among phrases that appear in English versions of the Bible published long before the King James translators took up their pens.
Celebrants of this year’s anniversary have enjoyed pointing out the ironies of the translation: that it was commissioned to mollify the losing faction at a religious conference; that far from ‘inventing the language’, it was written in archaic prose; and – most surprising of all – that it was made not by an individual genius but by six largely anonymous committees. But its authorship is much broader than the 53 clerics and one lay scholar who were selected to do James I’s bidding in 1604. Most of the memorable Biblical phrases listed above were coined not in the hallowed cloisters of Oxford colleges or in the sepulchral calm of the Jerusalem Chamber but on the run. Five of the seven major English Bibles of the 16th century were produced in exile; two of their makers died at the stake. Each new Bible was the manifesto of a faction in the religious wars that revolutionised Tudor England, each subsequent Bible a revision and many a riposte. The full, 80-year-plus history of the English Bible is the story of the English reformation; it is spattered with blood and scorched with fire.