You may have heard that 2011 marks the 400th anniversary since the original publication of the King James Bible. So what? The KJV (King James Version) is not simply a Bible, it is the Bible that has influenced the English-speaking world more than any other.
There are, however, several popular, mistaken notions about this book. First of all, it was not the first English translation of the Bible. Several came before it, including a famous one by a guy named Wycliffe and another by a man who was burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into the vernacular, Tyndale.
Second, King James did none of the work. He appointed someone who then assembled a series of translation committees made up of scholars and poets who did the work.
Third, there is no record of King James ever actually authorizing the KJV for use in the churches of England once it was completed, making it all the more odd that the KJV is also often referred to as the "Authorized Version." That's what my grandfathers called it.
I grew up a conservative Baptist in the American Midwest. My grandfathers were both preachers and believed, for doctrinal reasons, that nothing should replace the KJV. They thought that this particular Bible represented a pure moment in the history of human connection to God. They each had fat, black KJV study Bibles, which they shook in their right hands while exhorting from behind their pulpits.
I still love the cadence and language of the KJV, although I don't agree with Gramps that newer translations are somehow deficient or unfaithful to the original text. In fact, I know the exact opposite is usually true. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the preferred translation of most of today's academics because of its contemporary scholarship, use of the most recent manuscripts -- including those discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls -- removal of archaisms, attention to the differences between genres (typesetting poetry as poetry, presenting the Song of Songs as drama and so on) and the use of appropriate gender-inclusive language.
There are many other good translations, too. For example, I know that the New International Version (NIV) and Today's New International Version (TNIV) are preferred by many Protestant pastors; the New Jerusalem Bible is a favorite among Catholics and only comes in "Catholic editions" (which means the Apocrypha is always there); and then I know quite a few poets and writers who are partial to the Revised English Bible (REB).
But the KJV is the only one that is a building block of our collective cultural heritage. What other Bible would U.S. presidents lay their right hand upon while swearing the oath of office? None. From George Washington to Barack Obama, the KJV it is. In 2009, President Obama re-used Abraham Lincoln's KJV.
The language of the KJV is also ingrained in many of our memories and imaginations. The expressions and idioms are -- whether you realize it or not -- familiar. This makes the KJV like the characters in Dickens or the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (both fans). Where would we be without phrases like these?
• eat, drink, be merry (Luke 12:19)
• the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10)
• an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38)
• it came to pass (Genesis 38:27)
• fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12)
• fell flat on his face (Numbers 22:31)
• the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4 and Ephesians 1:10)
• can a leopard change his spots? (Jeremiah 13:23)
• am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4:9).
However, for the last two decades I have been involved with progressive Christian churches where you aren't really supposed to read the KJV anymore. It can be embarrassing to admit at an Episcopalian cocktail party. It feels like saying that your favorite television show is still Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. But it shouldn't be.
Phrases from the King James Bible have explained subtle life lessons to us over and over again in ways that are irreplaceable. It's not necessarily that these expressions are better than those in other Bible translations, but that they have formed the minds and hearts of more English-speakers than any other translation. For example:
• God's care for us: "The Lord is my shepherd" (Psalm 23:1)
• Freedom from slavery: "Let my people go" (Deuteronomy 5:1)
• A life wasted in worries over unimportant things: "Vanity of vanities" (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
• A self-righteous person: "Holier than thou" (Isaiah 65:5)
• Work that you adore: "A labor of love" (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
• A metaphor for being good in the world: "The salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13)
• A metaphor against in-fighting: "A house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matthew 12:25)
• Our relationship to truth: "We see through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12)
• What we say when a politician's dirty secrets are revealed: "How are the mighty fallen" (2 Samuel 1:27)
• A really close call: "By the skin of my teeth" (Job 19:20).
OK, but what about all of those obscure, ancient words and phrases? Behold ... forasmuch ... thence. Do the Jacobean adverbs and pronouns keep us from hearing what the text has to say? I hope not. Just as reading Shakespeare's King Lear can be difficult, so can reading the KJV. So think about it another way: those difficult phrases can also be part of its charm. The setting, context and language of another era can yield rich color and nuance to what might otherwise seem more ordinary. Lo, verily verily, whoso!
The translators of the KJV sometimes chose language that was even a bit old by the standards of their own day. They didn't always aim for what we might call "contemporary English." Accessibility wasn't their only intention. In contrast, to reach people who feel that what the Bible has to say is already alien to their experience, most Bible publishers today often use language that's made to read like a popular novel. There doesn't seem to be much evidence that these strategies have worked to find more readers, however. Does the average adult know the Bible better today, with our dozens of contemporary English translations, than a similar adult may have, say, 150 years ago? No way.
So in this anniversary year, give the KJV another try. It has changed more lives than any other book in history. You might even hear echoes of the speeches of Abraham Lincoln as you turn its pages. You may find yourself writing in the margins and memorizing some of the great phrases and verses that earlier generations of Americans did. Your cup may, for a time, "runneth over" rather than "overflow" (Psalm 23:5)!
Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and book publisher living in Vermont. His book, Verily, Verily: The KJV--400 Years of Influence and Beauty was just published (March 1, 2011) by Zondervan.