“Keep my commandments and live;
And my law as the apple of thine eye”
Footnote: ”rather as the pupil of thine eye” Dr Durell
I want to discuss this ‘apple’ and this ‘pupil’. It offers a comparison which holds I believe some interesting ideas; one not the least being a consideration of what was in the mind of Dr Durell when he made his observation.
The KJV as a Bible Version is either loved or loathed by readers of the Bible. It tends to polarise opinions upon itself. The one camp holds the aficionados, those who love it and love it quite often for the sake of its beautiful expression and that antiquated style which is nowadays associated with elevation of thought and with sublime considerations; probably in large part these associations being due to the KJV itself and its history as a translation in the English-speaking nations
The other camp is usually the group of the modernists, sticklers for ‘accuracy’ and for the latest knowledge and understanding of Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
Even this distinction between the aesthetes of the KJV and the progressives who see advances in scholarship as a prime desire and criterion for their Bible version of choice; is a distinction worth unpacking and elaborating upon. There are arguments for and against on either side of the divide; and in the end whether they really matter to an engaged and devout Christian is for my money probably – not a lot.
The KJV has indeed an illustrious history behind it. The greatest scholars of the realm were called upon by King James 1 (and VI of Scotland) to come together and form a committee which would oversee a new translation of the Bible into English.
Wicklif and Tyndale, Coverdale and Erasmus, in the centuries preceding had all done a great deal of Reformation service in the centuries previous to the publication of the KJV in 1611, and had translated all or a good part of the Bible into English in their roles as self-sacrificing, sometimes to the death, Protestant divines who strongly saw the absolute need of a Bible for the common man to have access to the Scriptures, which vision is perhaps the backbone of Protestant life and activity, even today.
Wicklif in the 15th century had translated the whole of the New and most the Old Testaments. His work is published today in specialised presses and it is readable and enjoyable and evangelical in its clarity and faithfulness. Much of his work was adopted by the KJV committee in their version.
(It is worth noting that the KJV is an outstanding work and an enduring one; one of the few I can think of which were put together and have achieved great success by a committee. I do believe not only that The Holy Spirit was at work in the committee members; but that the Holy Spirit was at work in them all because they were to a man self-sacrificing men who set aside their egos and self –assertions in order humbly to agree to work together modestly and with a lowly consent and inclusion of all who sat on the panel or were involved otherwise in the venture)
Another translator a century later (16th) was Tyndale, whose New Testament was later to be ransacked and today might have suffered copyright infringement because of the KJV committee’s free and liberal uptake and use of Tyndale’s impeccable style of English language.
Tyndale more than anyone else translating the New Testament into English, before or since his time, has perhaps given more astonishingly lucent images and idioms to the English language in general, idioms alive and in use today; and many, possibly not recognised as his, or even as being KJV Biblical. No other figure of such eminence in divinity has achieved such a thing; and he vies with Shakespeare in this respest.
Erasmus and Coverdale were no less dedicated; Erasmus saying famously (I paraphrase) “When there is money I buy ink and paper, and if there is some money left over; I eat”. This paraphrase of his words shows startlingly the calibre of the men I am writing about.
Now the King James Version was commissioned as much or even more as a political move by King James. He had a nation lately seceded from Rome to unite and to bring into concord. A Reformation had been declared fifty years beforehand and as it developed so too developed factions, divided denominations, which were multiplying, splintering and fragmenting religious views; and likewise was atomising the united resolve and joint consensus of a nation which James had inherited largely by lucky chance of fate.
James wanted a Bible which emphasised his religious views, which were inseparable –in his mind and in society historically at that time – from his political views and objectives. But I don’t want to get bogged down here right now.
The KJV was overseen under James by a man named Lancelot Andrewes, Chaplain to King James himself, and a man of great intellect and holiness; one whose writings again are available from specialised presses today, and are a model of piety, thoroughness, instruction and beauty, hardly paralleled in English literature.
The KJV in its first published form was largely due to his overall shepherding of it into print.
This KJV was a success from the first; possibly because its use of language was so vivid and expressive; using, as Jesus was their example and mentor, everyday English situations of the day by which to translate Hebrew and Greek etc, so that ordinary people who were able to read English were greatly familiar with the situations used in the translation. Farming, buying and selling, fairs, markets, trades, guilds, warfare, taverns and inns, travel in horseback or on foot, and so on.
The king had ordered that every church should hold a copy; he has even tried to force it onto the dissenters and on other breakaway worshippers, and its appeal had much success even in this controversial area. So much so that soon it became venerated as a portal opening the Scriptures to common Englishmen and women (and in Wales and Scotland too); and it has been said and I think justly that within fifty years any family in these nations which possessed one book or more had a copy of the KJV.
One has to remember that to possess more than a half dozen books of one’s own meant you were not just a scholar but a wealthy scholar in those days. Our times sees far to many books being published and second-hand shelves filled with them and burners stoked with them; in a way which such persons as the Reformers would have thought wantonly disgraceful.
The KJV has made billions of friends all over the world since 1611, and like Johnnie Walker is ‘still going strong’.
Criticism levelled at it is usually felt to be at its strongest on the grounds of accuracy and clarity. Parts of the Old Testament particularly, and at a time when knowledge of Hebrew was a new and revived discipline in Renaissance Europe, were translated using an approach which sought to translate as literally as possible whenever the meaning of the Hebrew was not adequately known or else unclear to committee members.
(Committee members were all very great scholars and were they not to know the Hebrew meaning then it is doubtful whether it was known or knowable at that date)
Thus by use of this literalist approach in these obscure places was preserved in the English Old Testament of the KJV much help and guidance available to scholars who came later and right up to today; a philologist’s dream, a Bible scholar’s vade mecum.
This KJV Old Testament then has been able to be ‘mined’ as we say nowadays so as to yield up help and data by which even now new advances in Hebrew and Biblical understanding can be dug out.
To a layman such as myself these KJV literal translations mean nothing much more than garbled uncertainties, but not so to those whom, as Jesus says, are ‘those who have ears to hear’.
But here in the title citation I have placed above, we have a reverend doctor (Dr Burell) annotating a passage in The Book of Proverbs, and two well-known and in their time eminent editors, D’Oyly and Mant, accepting the doctor’s annotation; one which substitutes the word ‘pupil’ for the word ‘apple’ in the Biblical phrase, possibly from Wickilf or Tyndale, ‘the apple of thine eye’. Who is it today who has not heard this now commonplace English idiom, (slightly adjusted, no ‘thine’ and instead ‘your’) put to use in everyday speech today? Stevie Wonder uses it in his song ‘You are the Sunshine of my Life’
But why does Dr Burell insist on ‘pupil’ and on not ‘apple’? The sense is not improved. The ideas are not clarified or expanded in any way advantageously to a lay or to any other reader. In fact, why does Dr Burell take such a literal approach to correcting this idiom? It appears to me like a person correcting another who had said something metaphorical, such as ‘he’s a saucepan’ or ‘she’s a handbag’.
There’s colour here, even some delight in words and in life and expression; and by the context in which such metaphors are placed for their usage, often a good stab by a reader or listener, at their meaning can be had first time of hearing or reading. Such a context might indicate pretty clearly that ‘a saucepan’ ‘is a person who is impudent and irreverent’ or that ‘a handbag’ is a person ‘who collects lots of assorted things which most of us wouldn’t bother with’? These are just single possibilities for each metaphor.
Dr Burell by recommending our substituting ‘pupil’ has pretty much destroyed the beauty, delight, expressive force of the idiom which uses the figure of an ‘apple’. It is the very fact that the word ‘apple ‘ is used and not ‘pupil’ that the idiom stands out and is so distinctive as to have come into the language as a proverb itself. ‘Pupil’ destructively solves the question mark over the word ‘apple’ by killing off the reader’s need to think further about why the word ‘apple’ was chosen by the KJV translators.
Even the theology goes askew when we substitute ‘pupil’ for ‘apple’ here. It is clear to me, as it was to Sleeping Beauty, that an apple, red and round and very shiny, is a delectable and appetising, even a beautiful, attractive work of nature; something to be cherished. Remember in King James’s days fruit did not come in on container ships from the other side of the world night and day; but a pomegranate or a pineapple was a curiosity and reserved for Royal Palaces and palates. Only came home grown apples and only in season; the English autumn (or fall). Fresh apples then in those days were doubly delightful to possess and to enjoy. To look forward to.
I do not think the old Hebrews had apples growing in Palestine; the fruit was chosen I think by the translators because everyone in the land of Britain knew of it and probably d it and looked forward to harvesting and enjoying it. And so everyone would ‘understand with their hearts’ the import of its use as an idiom here – it may already have been an idiom in current usage and taken up as appropriate by the KJV translators, or by other translators beforehand?
Thus ‘the apple of his eye’ becomes a phrase pregnant with allure and has an emotional hook which draws on in and engages one in the participation of what is being said, brings the meaning alive.
Further, the ‘apple’ is not the eye itself; it is the vision of an apple which possesses the eye as a magnetic attraction by its desirability. It is ‘out there’ in the way that things are in the sense data world; it is what we call a material object; and it is not a part of the visual cortex and nerves of a human who is in the act of seeing; it is not a ‘pupil’.
Thus God’s commandments which are to be the ‘apples of our eyes’ are not part of ourselves as such, but items in their own rights to be observed (in both senses) and held close to our hearts. They are items of desire and are not objects of facility belonging to us, which are used in providing us our vision wily-nilly and so demanding no particular restraint upon us or self-command. God’s commandments however do expect discipline and good conduct from us.
God’s ‘apples’ are delightful and they attract us; they are those commandments which the Psalmist tells us that ‘he meditates upon on his bed at night’, and which fulfil absolutely his peace and wellbeing. A ‘pupil’ is a paltry thing compared with such bountiful graces of gifts.
Dr Burell, the man who would substitute ‘pupil’ for ‘apple’ comes across as being a person constrained in his imagination; unable to see the fineness of the figurative use of the word ‘apple’ in the context here used. He appears to be a literalist interpreter; one for whom the letter of the law tends ever towards muting the spirit of the law. And I do think his recommendation to us to amend our reading would have been better left to one side and so omitted from this edition of the Bible I am using.
For myself Dr Burell, to whom I mean no disregard, and who is long dead besides, prefigures our present age, him being a nineteenth century figure or possibly slightly earlier – say late 1780s or 90s, – and our age being one which has been overtaken wholesale by empirical verifications and testings, and by admitting and accepting only advances claimed in the fields of technology and theoretical science; ours is an age then which is very much a literalist age, one which crawls along the ground seeking parings of hard tack fact, rather than it being one which as Oscar Wilde said; ‘Lies in the gutter but looks up at the stars’.
Ours is an age levelled by democracy (to a degree) but more so by a sense of relativism which likes to say that everything is as good as everything else – and merely on a basis that one ‘likes’ a thing. We have songs to which we give our approval which tell us ‘Whatever gets you through the night’ and ‘Happiness is the Truth’ and ‘I want to live forever; I want to learn how to fly’ and so on. Thus because of this levelling of values in the wake of relativism’s hold on us, nothing spiritually aspirational any longer shines for us; nothing outstands; nothing has objective collateral or value; all is interchangeably acceptable and banally equal Thus the art of seeing transcendent value has been dampened.
The substitution of ‘pupil’ for ‘apple’ then has become largely and falsely significant to us and encourages our love for subjective preferences over above honoured true and just public and objective standards.
Indeed a cat is able to look at a king; but a cat is still a cat and a king is still a king. (I am obliged to Samuel Johnson for this general thought)