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As the King James Version of the Bible celebrates 400 years, scholars hope for a renaissance

PROVO — Coolio rapped with it, Milton wrote about it and Bosch painted from it. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., relied on its calls for charity and civility, and the first time men saw the earth from space they quoted from its opening lines.

For 400 years, the King James Version of the Bible has inspired and instructed painters and poets, peasants and presidents with its vivid descriptions of plagues and miracles and elegant resuscitations of Christian beliefs.

Along the way, hundreds of additional translations have aimed to shed light on the early Christian record, yet none has left a legacy like the KJV.

Yet despite its pivotal role in language, literature and religious culture, the thick book is often forgotten about or relegated to a dusty library shelf.

But not this year.

As the KJV celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2011, groups nationwide plan to celebrate the top-selling book of all time and the literary centerpiece of the Christian world.

"Everyone seems to have woken up," said Tim Brearley, director of the King James Bible Trust. "This is an amazing thing we've got to celebrate."


"I can't imagine the world without the KJV or the language of it," said Jan James, an LDS doctoral student at the University of York whose dissertation focuses on the history of the English Bible. "So many of our common phrases have come from there and our language would not be the same."

The familiar phrases, "my brother's keeper," and "the kiss of death," have their origins in the King James Bible. So too do, "An eye for an eye," "the powers that be," and "signs of the times."

Despite the old Jacobean English, scholars say the King James text carries timeless power, especially read aloud.

"The King James is poetry," said Brearley, director of the King James Bible Trust, a group established in England to commemorate the 400th anniversary through conferences, performances, celebrations and publications. "You find that as soon as you start saying it out loud, it helps you. The words start to carry you along and it's got that resonance to it."

The rhythm has been captured in famous speeches, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream," and his allusion to Amos 5:24: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," and Isaiah 40:4-5, "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted."

"Would a modern translation have that force?" asked Brearley. "I don't know. I think that would be a tough one."

Coolio's rap hit, "Gangster's Paradise" might also not have quite the same opening ring if it were the New Living Translation's version of Psalm 23:4: "Even when I walk through the darkest valley…" rather than the KJV: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…"

"So much of our language, our categories of thinking, so many of our sayings are built off the KJV," said John Kutsko, executive director of the Society for Biblical Literature. "I don't think you're really culturally literate without understanding the impact of the Bible on culture and more specifically, the King James Version."

The KJV also made a tremendous social impact by "democratizing" the availability of the Bible, explained Carol Meyers, a biblical studies and archaeology professor at Duke.

"It used to be the Bible was the sole property of the church," she said. "Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we had to rely on listening to it once a week at church? We are very fortunate that we now live in a culture, which, for the most part, supports people reading the Bible themselves. That couldn't have happened without the breakthrough of the King James Version."

The Bible's history

Though today it can be found in every bookstore, library and hotel, the Bible was once a carefully guarded possession of the church.

Parishioners relied on the clergy to interpret the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts and to teach them about Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus Christ and the apostles.

Around 382 A.D. St. Jerome translated the ancient texts into Latin as 'the Vulgate.' Yet the Latin Bible was still inaccessible to most of the common class who couldn't read.

John Wycliffe forever changed the world when in 1382 he and his followers translated the Vulgate into English — the first complete, handwritten English Bible.

Next, Protestant reformer William Tyndale translated the Bible into English again, but this time from its original Hebrew and Greek sources. Tyndale's "heretical" actions earned him a martyr's death, but his contributions to the King James Bible cannot be overstated, scholars say.

"Even more than 80 years after Tyndale's first translation came out in 1526, his English renderings were so good that the 1611 translators could not improve on them," James said. "They depended upon Tyndale heavily and often quoted him verbatim."

In fact, Tyndale's wording makes up roughly 85 percent of the KJV's New Testament and 70 percent of the KJV's Old Testament (he couldn't complete all of his earlier translation before he was killed).

Tyndale's task was even harder because at the time, English was a simple, undeveloped language, James said. Yet by copying the Hebrew constructions, Tyndale created the unique poetic phrases used by the King James translators and others.

"Tyndale changed the English language from a rather grubby language that only the trash spoke, and turned it into a proper language, partly by translating the Bible," Brearley said.

Soon after, the Coverdale Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible and several others cropped up in England, all relying on Tyndale's earlier work, but approaching translation from different religious backgrounds.

Eventually the biblical babbling was too much. In 1604 King James I assembled the Hampton Court Conference with 54 scholars, 47 of whom actually participated, to create a new, more accurate Bible translation — one that would conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England.

The scholars were the brightest in England, with depth and breadth of knowledge that rival any modern scholar, said Richard Lambert, vice chairman of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and a retired U.S. Assistant Attorney in Salt Lake who has dedicated the last few years to learning more about these translators.

They are men like Richard Brett, who attended Oxford where he mastered more than half a dozen languages, including Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian, then spent the rest of his life as a pastor, husband and father in the small village of Quainton, except for the few years he worked on the King James translation.

"These men were just regular people with an enormous amount of knowledge…(and) were on the scene at the right time to make the contribution that they did," Lambert said.

Lambert and photographer Kenneth Mays have made several trips to England to track down translators' birth and death places, as well as the village chapels where they were christened.

Lambert said his appreciation has grown immensely for these men who quietly and efficiently divided up the books in the Old and New Testaments, translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from the existing Greek Bible and the Apocrypha from the Greek and Latin.

By 1611 the new translation was published, and quickly spread throughout Europe, solidifying English, not French, as the dominant language and securing the ability of ordinary people to read, for themselves, God's words.

Constructive criticism

"Even with all the beauty of the KJV's language, there are passages in the book, especially in the Old Testament prophesies where the translation is wrong, clumsy, or just plain baffling," said James. "In addition, many of the KJV's readings of the source texts have been superseded in our day by greater knowledge or by better source texts."

These errors or awkward translations don't negate the King James Bible's influence, but they do make it less appealing to those in academia or some religious circles.

In Meyers' introductory Bible class at Duke, she relies on the 1989 New Revised Standard Version, which is a literal translation with increased clarity thanks to the discovery of earlier manuscripts than those available to the King James translators.

"As good as those 47 scholars were, sometimes they just didn't understand the Hebrew," she said. "The Hebrew in many biblical books is very difficult, and they tried, but sometimes got it wrong."

She cites the vision of the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel. One verse mentions "bone to his bone," yet the male pronoun makes no sense in the context. What the Hebrew word really means, Meyers says, is the bones came together.

It's a simple example, she said, but it makes her point that new discoveries, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, provide scholars with greater insights into the grammatical and linguistic structures of the time.

There's also the issue of gender, which appears "on the radar screen for virtually all Bible translations," Meyers said. When a word has been translated as "men," sometimes that's correct, whereas other times, the Hebrew word actually refers to a more inclusive group, meaning mankind or men and women.

"The King James didn't have that kind of sensitivity," she said. "I don't believe that the translation should change to suit feminist concerns and make things seem more egalitarian than they were, because they weren't, but I don't think translations should mask places in which a more inclusive term is there in the Hebrew."

"What was a wonderful translation, the right translation for 1611," Meyers continued, "is not the best translation for 2011."

Rev. Michael Imperiale, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City prefers a more modern translation when he teaches.

"It seems to me that God has always given his word in the language, the common language of the people," he said, explaining that the original Hebrew and Greek texts used a very simple, base form of the language. "Therefore, I prefer to use a contemporary translation, one that is closer to American, spoken English."

Though the King James was the standard for nearly four centuries, now Imperiale prefers newer versions, like the New International Version.

"There are obviously many passages that people still prefer to hear in the King James because of the beauty of the regal language," he said. "However, when it comes to reading God's words for oneself, or sharing it with others, it's best to put it in common language."

Modern translations

Deciding on the best "common-language" translation is nearly impossible, given the abundance of options and the differing viewpoints of readers.

Some translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, are literal translations from ancient texts, while others, like "The Message" are contemporary paraphrases, where verses have been reworked for increased clarity.

There are options like "The Story," a condensed 31-chapter book of the Bible aimed at teens, or the children's "Adventure Bible," published by Zonderkidz which, along with the NIV, includes 20 full-color pages of jungle-safari-themed activities, including "Who's Who?" "Did you Know?" trivia and "Let's Live it!" with suggestions to help kids remember Bible truths.

Many translations keep a sense of reverence, while some paraphrases can take on a much more conversational and even irreligious tone, says BYU religion professor Jeffrey Marsh.

The account of the Savior's baptism in the King James Bible, Mark 1:10-11 is recorded as: "And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

The same reference in the 2004 Bible, "Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures," says, "A pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God's Spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, 'That's my boy!'"

This version, and occasional others, not only lose their poetic cadence, but often remove references to the miracles or deity of Jesus Christ, place too high an emphasis on gender neutrality and soften or eliminate phrases that could be offensive today, Marsh warns.

Yet people keep buying them, indicative of an increasingly diverse world and the ease of printing, Kutsko said.

"I don't think it's going to let up," he said. "I think it's an outgrowth of a post-modern society that sees more opportunity in diversity and less in this singular nature of an authoritative text."

Some believe that any Bible exposure is a good thing, but David Lyle Jeffrey, a professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University, believes the flood of new translations and paraphrased versions are motivated by a desire for market share, not a goal to increase ecclesiastical insight.

"We're trying to make (these versions)… as much like us as possible," he said, referring specifically to Bible magazines, complete with advertisements, for teenage girls. "The risk with that is we're trying to make God in our image, rather than accept that it was really done the other way around. (In Bibles like that)

we have a pretty good understanding of what we like, but maybe not as good of an understanding of what God is saying."

Jeffrey said he'd love to see one, new modern translation that could be adopted by a wide range of denominations to provide greater interreligious common ground — which is what the King James version did for more than 300 years.

It may be wishful thinking, so in the meantime, Jeffrey teaches his course on the literary Bible with the KJV and allows his students a second translation, but not a paraphrase.

For some, turning to a new translation can seem "dangerous" or even "scary," Kutsko said.

Yet "any scholar would say, and I really think most religious authorities would say that knowledge is always a good thing," he continued. "While expanding your horizons and expanding your understanding can be a little bit rattling, that inevitably serves to widen a person and deepen an understanding."

The LDS and King James Version

In the spring of 1820, a young boy named Joseph went to the family Bible and found himself in the epistle of James: "If any of ye lack wisdom, let him ask of God."

Those words from the King James version inspired the young boy to ask God about his religious future and set him on a course that would change his life and the lives of millions of future Latter-day Saints.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still adheres to the King James Version, with its added references to the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures.

Besides being the version that inspired Joseph Smith, it's also the version he used for the Joseph Smith Translation.

BYU religion professor Ray Huntington said his love of the King James text and an appreciation for the men who gave their lives to translate it has grown over the years, especially after a recent trip to look at early translations of the Bible, from New York to Germany.

"The Bible is a book that everybody knows about, and it often sits on the shelf," he said. "I'm not sure people are aware of its history. I think if they were there would be a greater, deeper appreciation of the Bible and what we have."

Each year, the LDS church prints and ships nearly 240,000 copies of the LDS version of the King James Bible, then another 158,000 copies of the Bible paired with the LDS canon of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

Since July, when the church began producing a stand-alone New Testament, they've printed and shipped 40,000 copies of that, according to the LDS church.

"English-speaking Church members are encouraged to use the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible," said LDS spokesman Scott Trotter. "Although other versions of the Bible may use more contemporary language, in doctrinal matters, latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations."

Spreading the word

Given its miraculous history and almost incalculable impact, Brearley is determined that the King James Bible be returned to the spotlight, at least in England, the country of its birth, he said.

"The King James version is a bit of a prophet without honor," he said.

Brearley's goal for the highly secular country is to get it back into the schools, where it was read to him each morning as a child.

"I feel very lucky that I had the chance to encounter it when I was young," he said. "I got it, kids get it. They might not understand it technically, but they can feel the power of the poetry and these words."

The King James Bible Trust launched their year-long celebration in November 2010, as they gathered at the Banqueting House in White Hall, which was built for King James.

Throughout the year across the world, colleges, congregations, libraries, governments and even airports will be talking about, presenting and displaying information on the KJV.

The Society of Biblical Literature is publishing a short book on the Bible, as well as starting a new website to increase Bible literacy, and BYU will present a symposium on Feb. 23.

When the year wraps up, the Trust has a final program in Westminster Abbey.

"It seems to have kicked up a huge amount of interest over here," Brearley said. "A lot of people seem to be saying, 'How have we let this book, which is as important as Shakespeare, some say more important, how have we neglected this?' And what surprised me was how many people love it who aren't necessarily devout."

Yet not enough people love it, Brearley said.

When the Trust conducted a survey in 2000, it found that 51 percent of Brits ages 18 to 24 hadn't heard of the King James Bible. Only 20 percent of those aged 55 and above were uninformed.

Reading and becoming acquainted with the King James Version doesn't mean one automatically becomes a Christian, or abandons other translations. Instead, it should leave the reader with a greater appreciation for the history of language and culture that has survived for hundreds of years and thoroughly impacted the daily communication of the English-speaking world.

As British poet laureate Andrew Motion is quoted on the Trust's website:

"The King James Bible is a cornerstone of our culture and our language," Motion says. "Whatever our faith, whatever we believe, we have to recognize that the rhetorical power of this book, and in particular its power to fuse history with poetry, connects at the most fundamental level with our own history and poetry."