Four hundred years since the King's Printer published the first edition in 1611, the King James Version Bible continues to reign supreme. Not only is it by far the bestselling translation of all time, with more than 5 billion copies sold, it is the very icon of Bibleness, the Book of books, the premier image of the printed and bound Word. Indeed, many assume it's the only Bible. "I've never read the Bible," people tell me. "I just can't stand all those thees and thous," despite the fact that no modern translations have them. And whether anyone ever seriously said, "If it was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me," many think so. No wonder those behind the evangelical New International Version and the Catholic New American Bible translations decided to launch their highly publicized major revisions this year: They're hoping to catch a draft off the seeming timelessness of the King of Bibles.
The King James Bible's 400th may well be its biggest birthday ever, but also its most poignant. For its end draws nigh. Sure, it'll hang around for a while, mostly in hotels and old folks homes. But it's not long for this world, at least in any form we'd recognize from the bookish years of its youth.
Often touted as the purest and holiest of all English Bibles, the King James Bible was itself born of political and religious turmoil. King James I commissioned it as a counter-revolutionary alternative to the very popular Geneva Bible, which had been published in 1560 by Puritan exiles in Switzerland. Harshly critical of the English monarchy, their translation and marginal commentary often had a subversive edge. In Exodus, for example, when the midwives didn't follow Pharaoh's order to kill the Hebrew males as soon as they were born, a marginal note from the translators says that they were right to disobey the unjust law but wrong to do so secretly. And when Pharaoh next orders that all Hebrew boys be tossed into the Nile, a note adds, "When tyrants can not prevaile by craft, they brast [i.e., burst] forthe into open rage." No wonder King James I declared such notes "seditious, and savouring too much of daungerous, and trayterous conceites." And no surprise his rival prohibited any notes or illustrations and strictly regulated who was authorized to publish it and how. Thus it became known as the "Authorized Version."
Many of us assume that was pretty much the end of the story, that King James I had effectively closed the book on Bible, that his Authorized Version quickly established itself as the one and only English Bible. Not so. Unauthorized yet ambitious printers soon found profitable ways around the government's controls on Bible publishing. Some purchased Bibles published by authorized printers, took them apart and inserted illustrations and other value-adding content like maps and illustrations, and then rebound and resold them at higher costs. Some sold as "commentaries" books that happened to include all or nearly all of the text of the King James Bible. Some radically abridged the text of the King James Bible to make portable editions, like the 16-page Souldiers Pocket Bible (1643). Others completely reshuffled its contents. The most dramatic was Matthew Talbot's Bible (1800), which took all the verses of the Old and New Testaments out of their original contexts and put them into 30 new topical "books."
Still others imported King James and Geneva Bibles printed in other countries, often underselling the authorized printers, who protested that they lacked quality control and were full of misprints. In an imported Bible from 1682, for example, a passage about divorce addresses a situation in which a husband "ate," rather than "hate," his wife. But such protests were undermined by the errors of licensed printers. Consider the so-called Wicked Bible, published in 1631 by the King's Printer, which forgot a rather significant "not" in the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt commit adultery."
We tend to think that the printing press led to a standardization of the Bible, and that the King James Version was the culmination of that process. Indeed, it stands in our cultural imagination for the immortality of the book. It represents the transcendent immutability of the printed Word.
Yet, the reality of the Bible in the age of print, including the King James Version, has been the complete opposite: a flood of biblical proportions, covering the world in more Bibles in more forms and contents than ever. Already by 1800, at least a thousand different editions of the Bible in English had been published. Over the next two centuries, the number and variety grew exponentially, to the point that, by the 1970s, the American Bible Society in New York gave up trying to collect every new edition in English. A wise decision, because since then Bible publishers have pulled out all the stops. This year, about 6,000 editions of the Bible will be published in English alone, representing an incredibly wide variety of things and contents, from nostalgically appealing zippered leatherbound Bibles and family Bibles, to chronological Bibles in which all the verses have been rearranged into someone's idea of biblical history, to graphic-novel style Manga Bibles and R. Crumb's Genesis Illustrated, to niche-marketed Bibles like The Golfer's Bible and The Bride's Bible, to Biblezines, biblical magazines that are designed to target different age groups and genders, like Refuel for teen boys, which includes biblical war stories from Joshua, Judges and Kings along with lots of callouts and text boxes about sex and dating, pop music and how to grill a steak. These newfangled Bibles include volumes of value-adding and values-adding notes and comments, and they come in dozens and dozens of translations, including the non-copyrighted texts like the King James Version as well as a growing number of proprietary translations, most notably the New King James Version from evangelical publishing behemoth Thomas Nelson (it's not very King Jamesian, but Nelson knows there's still capital in that name). And all these wildly divergent things and contents will be sold as "the Bible." No king or anyone else can restrict extensions, revisions and reinventions of the Bible. And so it will continue, ad infinitum. Biblical liquidation.
The larger setting in which this biblical fire sale is happening is, of course, the twilight of print culture and the dawning of the digital revolution. Traditional print books are rapidly losing ground as the dominant medium for reading and writing. How will the way we think about, read, and share the Bible change in the emerging networked, digital media culture in which everything is editable, movable, cut-copy-and-pastable, mashup-able, and in which the lines between inside and outside, canonical and non-canonical, are fuzzy and permeable? The decline of print culture and the rise of a digital network culture means the end of the book as we know it, and the end of the book as we know it will be the end of the Word, The Book of books, as we know it, and of its flagship, the King James Version.
As we gather around to sing "happy birthday," it's less about celebrating the eternal triumph of the printed Word and more about nostalgia for earlier days. We are aware more than ever before of the good old King James Bible's mortality, that it too shall pass and go the way of all Bibles. Indeed, we are aware, more or less consciously, that the idea of the Bible that it has represented for so long -- the authorized and authoritative Word, printed and bound and fixed for all time -- was an illusion. The King James Bible's seeming steadfastness as the cultural icon of the Word without end hides the actual, historical reality of biblical impermanence. But it's now on cultural life support, and the writing is on the wall.
No doubt, here in the twilight years of book culture, innovative media entrepreneurs will find ways to reanimate the text of the King James Version for a new hypertextual dawn. Some will recoil in horror at their recreations, declaring their monstrous progeny an abomination against God and King. Still others will embrace its post-print resurrections. A "Bible believer" from my youth, I sympathize with the former and their longing for that old time religion. But I number myself among the latter, seeing this moment as a chance to reimagine the Bible after the Bible. If there's one thing that's constant in the history of the Bible, it's change. The end of the Word as we know it will open up other ways of knowing.
Follow Timothy Beal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@timothybeal