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In the beginning

Best selling Bible translation marks 400 years of popularity

By Christie Storm

This article was published March 12, 2011 at 4:54 a.m.

— Its words have found their way into the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the soaring choruses of Handel’s Messiah and the literary classics of countless authors. Phrases taken from its pages, such as “no rest for the wicked” and “an eye for an eye,” are common today. And, according to Gallup, 41 percent of Americans have a copy.

It’s the King James Bible.

This is a milestone year for the sacred text - its 400th anniversary - and scholars, churches and publishing houses are celebrating with conferences, exhibits and special editions. The

version remains a top seller at Thomas

Nelson publishing house, which is in the middle of a year-long campaign celebrating the King James.

“It’s a significant part of our publishing program,” said Robert Sanford, vice president and associate publisher for Bibles. San

ford said he has no idea how many King James Bibles the company has sold because they offer so many editions and specialty versions, but that one single product line, the King James Award Bibles, have sold more than 20 million copies since the mid-1980s.

“That’s a lot of copies of a single Bible and that’s just one edition,” he said.

The legacy of the King James Bible can’t be overstated, said Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“This version was so deep in Protestant revivalism that it became a part of the whole oral tradition,” he said, noting that since it was the Bible of choice across the non-Catholic Christian spectrum, everyone shared a common text and common stories. “I know many mountain preachers who are semi-literate but who have committed to memory huge sections of the King James Bible simply because they heard it.”

He sees the loss of that common text as detrimental to biblical literacy.

“We can never go back to the King James Version as the only text, but the loss of that consistent text that enables memory is a huge loss,” he said.

The story of this history-making Bible dates to the very early 1600s and to its namesake monarch, King James I of England. The king wanted a Bible in the language of the people for the entire Church of England and assembled a delegation of scholars and translators to do the job.

It wouldn’t be the first English translation of the Bible. Others existed and were being read by the people, including one James was not fond of - the Geneva Bible, which questions “the divine right of kings.” In commissioning a new translation, James hoped not only to marginalize the Geneva translation but also to draw the country together under “one church, one king and one Bible,” said Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University.

It was a revolutionary idea, and after seven years of work, the King James Bible was finally published in 1611.

Translators pored over ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, but they were also instructed to consult a number of earlier English translations (including, ironically, the Geneva Bible), borrowing from them whenever appropriate.

Their goal, they stated in the preface, was not to create an entirely new translation but “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The King James Bible, however, wasn’t enthusiastically embraced by everyone, especially those who preferred the earlier translations. But it eventually caught on and became the Bible of choice for the English speaking world. Its influence can still be seen today.

“There’s a phrase, ‘Language speaks us.’ It forms the way we think, and in English the King James Bible is at the base of a whole lot of things we do and speak,” Jenkins said. A noted religion scholar, Jenkins will be participating in a King James Bible conference that will examine the text’s his-tory and influence on society at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, next month.

Jenkins said the translators had a “great sense of literature and drama” and it shows in the prose.

“Don’t forget, these men were working at a time where if they got bored they could pop over to London to see the latest production by Shakespeare,” he said. “They understood plot and drama and there are great moments in the King James Version which are heart-stopping.”

Today, an ever-expanding number of translations are available, but for some the King James Bible is the one and only. Hope Baptist Church in Sherwood, like many Independent Baptist churches across the country, is a King James only congregation.

For Pastor Terry Coomer it’s all about the integrity of the Greek and Hebrew texts used by the translators.

“We believe what we have is God’s word to us, and in the Book of Psalms God promised to preserve His word for us and I believe it is preserved in the King James Bible because it was translated from the correct text,” Coomer said.

Other translations are flawed, in Coomer’s opinion.

“Many of them have changed the meanings, the words and left out whole passages,” he said.

Coomer also isn’t a fan of the New King James Version, which was published in the early 1980s.

“The word ‘heaven’ is missing 48 out of 550 times,” he said. “The word ‘hell’ is thrown out 22 times and the word ‘blood’ is deleted 18 out of 375 times and the thing that blows me away is that words ‘new testament’ are cast out all six times. ... Yes, I have a problem with that.”

Other Baptists have set aside the King James Version for newer translations. At First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Pastor Douglas Falknor said the church uses the English Standard Version.

“Language is always changing,” he said. “The reason we use the ESV is because it follows the great tradition of the King James Version of being a word-for-word translation, of seeking to be the best possible translation in a language that is understandable. ... That was the purpose of the King James Version.”

Although he doesn’t use the King James Bible in preaching, Falknor said he appreciates its impact and its poetic tone.

“When we quote the Lord’s Prayer or 23rd Psalm ... some things only sound right when you hear them in the beautiful cadence of the King James Version,” he said.

Baptist scholar Leonard said for many evangelicals,the debate over King James versus newer translations sometimes pits conservative churches against even more conservative churches.

“It has become a way of certain conservative groups saying they are more orthodox than other groups,” he said. Some, he said, even consider their fellow Baptists, including Southern Baptists, to be “liberal” for not using the King James.

The King James Bible also holds a revered place within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their preference for the text today can be traced to the very founding of the church. It was the text early church leaders had grown up reading, hearing and learning. It was also the version preferred by their founder, Joseph Smith. He used the King James Bible in crafting his own “inspired version” of the Scriptures.

David Stout, president of the Rogers Stake of the church, said he appreciates the language of the King James Bible.

“It hasn’t been modernized,” he said. “I like that. Most people would call it formal but I would call it an intimate way of speaking with God. We don’t want to have a casual relationship with God. We want to have an intimate relationship with God.”

Other texts used by Mormons, such as the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, were also written in the same style of high speech used in the King James Bible.

The King James also has a significant role in worship services of Christian Science churches. Two texts, the Bible and Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures by founder Mary Baker Eddy, serve as the “pastor” of the church. Pat Babb, president of the board of directors for the Fayetteville congregation, said other versions can be used during midweek services, but for Sunday worship services the King James is used.

“One of the misconceptions is we don’t use a Bible at all,” Babb said. “But our text book is based on the Bible. We think it’s the best translation. ... We really cherish the King James.”

For many denominations the choice of Bible is left up to each individual minister and congregation. At West-Ark Church of Christ in Fort Smith, for example, the church has no official translation.

“We encourage people to read God’s word, whatever the language and version that gets them reading,” said Chris Benjamin, one of the church’s ministers.

Benjamin said he uses various versions while preaching and selects the one that will most effectively convey the message. Benjamin said the King James has strengths and weaknesses. One strength is that it was translated “from the best possible sources,” he said, while a weakness is that it is based on 17th-century language.

“In 400 years’ time the English language has changed,” Benjamin said. “If you grew up with the King James it’s going to be very common for you to say, ‘the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ and do the ‘thees’ and ‘thous,’ but for a modern English speaker they’re not going to have that experience with it.”

Benjamin said the King James is important because of its place in history, but he doesn’t consider it to be the one and only valid translation.

“I’ll give it a special seat at the table for its historical place, but if we say this is the only English translation that has ever been accurate and ever will be accurate and the only one God approves of, that’s ludicrous,” he said. “That flies in the face of the King James translators. That was not their intent. If we stay true to the spirit of what they were trying to accomplish, we always want God’s word to be available in the best of ways in the language and culture of the people.”

As for Coomer, he’s excited about the 400th anniversary of the Bible his church holds dear.

“It’s basically been the Bible of the English-speaking world for 400 years,” he said. “It was the fabric of our society ... and it’s had a wonderful and glorious history. It’s still here, and even though the modernistic movement wants to do away with it, they still have not succeeded because there are thousands of churches across the country that still use the King James Bible.”

Information on King James celebrations and events is available online at

Religion, Pages 14 on 03/12/2011

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