King James Bible’s 400-year reign

Quadricentennial of KJV to get royal treatment

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Its cadence is found in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the lyrics of Paul Simon. Renowned narrator Alexander Scourby and country music legend Johnny Cash have recorded spoken versions of the text. It’s estimated that 1 billion copies have been printed since the first volume rolled off the press in 1611.

The King James Version of the Bible, also known as the “Authorized Version,” marks its 400th anniversary in 2011, and by any measure, it has had a lasting impact on the world and on the language into which it was sent. The “authorized” moniker comes from a title-page declaration that this Bible was “authorized to be read in churches.”

“The sheer poetry of the King James Version, not to mention its almost half-millennium of absolute authority, militates against its slipping into obscurity any time soon,” declared Phyllis Tickle, longtime religion editor at Publishers Weekly magazine.

Even noted atheist Richard Dawkins has praise for the volume: “You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are to some extent steeped in the King James Bible. There are phrases that come from it — people don’t realize they come from it — proverbial phrases, phrases that make echoes in people’s minds,” he said in a video released by the King James Bible Trust, the British organization that is one promoter of the 400th-anniversary celebrations due next year.

“Not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian,” Mr. Dawkins added.

Indeed, many of its phrases have entered everyday use, among them: “my brother’s keeper,” “salt of the earth,” “give up the ghost,” “scapegoats,” “an eye for an eye,” “casting your pearls before swine,” “scarlet woman,” “writing on the wall” and “the blind leading the blind.”

“A house divided against itself,” Lincoln’s signature sentiment, was translated that way 250 years before Lincoln was elected president.

Geof Morin, communications director for the American Bible Society, whose New York headquarters will host a King James Bible exhibit next year, called the King James “still relevant” in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

“It was the Bible staring Thomas Jefferson in the face,” Mr. Morin said. Its words, he added, were “in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the language we still use today. It’s part of the American psyche, of how we see ourselves as a nation.”

But before the KJV — as the version is known by many readers and scholars — came into America’s consciousness, it had to arrive on the scene at all. That happened following a contentious 1604 meeting at Hampton Court palace, when a young James VI of Scotland, newly crowned as James I of England, was trying to iron out differences between the Church of England and a dissident sect known as the Puritans.

Putting the Scriptures into English could be a dangerous practice: 16th-century translator William Tyndale was executed. After Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and established the Church of England under the monarch, there were some efforts to approve a complete English-language Bible.

Henry authorized production of what came to be known as the “Great Bible,” while the 1583 “Bishop’s Bible” followed during the reign of Elizabeth I. In Geneva, English-speaking exiles who opposed Mary I’s moves to reconcile with Rome produced the “Geneva Bible,” whose translation and margin notes took a decidedly anti-monarchist and anti-clerical stance.

The Hampton Court Conference was drifting into sectarian arguments, historians note, when Puritan leader John Rainolds (also spelled Reynolds), took the bold step of addressing James and asking for a new translation of the Bible, since the previous Bibles “were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.”

By almost all accounts, James was delighted: He didn’t like the Geneva Bible, and the earlier versions weren’t fully up to his standards of scholarship. As a boy, James had immersed himself in Greek and Latin, among other intellectual pursuits. He hardly had known his parents and was installed on the Scottish throne while just a year old with a regent in charge.

It took seven years to create the volume known as the KJV. And while the title page stated it was “newly translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised,” the actual work drew more on an earlier English version, said Larry Stone, a former vice president at Thomas Nelson Publishers and author of “The Story of the Bible,” a new history of the Scriptures published to coincide with the anniversary.

The translators “were told to follow the ‘Great Bible,’” Mr. Stone said in a telephone interview, “and they would compare the translation of the ‘Great Bible’ with the Greek and the Hebrew. If they wanted to change [the wording], it would change for several reasons; either the ‘Great Bible’ translation was not accurate, or they could say the words better.”

And because the ‘Great Bible’ drew on Tyndale’s translations, the 16th-century “thee” and “thou” entered into the King James Version, even though they were long departed from common usage.

Would James I, the only English monarch to ascend the throne as a published author, be happy his eponymous Bible has survived this long?

“I actually think he would be somewhat pleased, because of its longevity,” said David Teems, author of “Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible,” a 2010 biography of the monarch and his most famous book.

A strong believer in the “divine right of kings,” Mr. Teems explained, James was determined “his Bible would reflect his reign, unite realms of Scotland and England. His desire was to unify, and to unify all of Christendom.”

While that didn’t happen, the impact of the KJV is without question: It quickly displaced the Geneva Bible as the Protestant standard in the English-speaking world, and was often the primary “reader” for generations.

Evangelists from Charles Finney to Billy Graham preached from it; Paul Simon derived the phrase “workman’s wages” in his song “The Boxer,” from reading I Timothy, he once told Rolling Stone magazine.

Author Joe Kovacs, whose 2009 “Shocked by the Bible” explored the lesser-known stories and facts of the Bible text, said he chose the King James to quote in his book because “it’s the most well-known and frequently quoted translation.”

Beginning in November, Thomas Nelson Publishers, which sold 329,000 printed copies of the King James Bible between July 2009 and July 2010, has mounted a major campaign to promote the text, with a website, www.kjv400celebration.com, and national marketing campaigns.

The firm also is working with the History Channel to promote the anniversary.

“To me, the 400th anniversary, is not just about KJV, but about the Bible. The fact that it is a historic milestone gives us the opportunity to go beyond and look at the impact of Scripture. It’s not a translation story; it really is a Bible story,” said Carla Ballerini, Nelson’s bible group marketing vice president.

Despite the language changes and continued research of the past four centuries, the King James Version retains a great deal of authority, said Alister McGrath, head of the Center for Theology, Mission and Culture at King’s College in London.

“The KJV is a surprisingly reliable translation, even though some minor translation changes are necessary on account of advances in our understanding of the manuscript tradition over the last 400 years,” said Mr. McGrath, whose 2001 “In the Beginning” was a history of the KJV’s development.

However, “the day of a single dominant biblical translation is past,” he added. “In many ways, the KJV held a monopoly in English from about 1700 to 1950, as no other translation was seen as being significant over that period. Nowadays, there are multiple [English language] translations.”

That may be the case, but there may be life in the older text yet: Compare its “Give us this day our daily bread,” found in Matthew 6:11, to the rendering in “The Message,” a popular modern version: “Keep us alive with three square meals.”

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