The King James Bible: 400 and Going Strong

This year marks the 400th anniversary of publication of a Bible translation known as the King James Version (KJV), a translation that, in the words of Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, "changed a nation, a language, and a culture." There has been a great deal of activity thus far in 2011 commemorating the occasion, including at least six books and 12 columns or blogs in the Huffington Post. This commentary is one more, aimed at exploring what it was about the King James Bible to account for its enduring influence.

Crowned in 1603, James I found his new realm mired in religious controversy, with two bitterly opposed factions in the Church of England. One, the high church Anglicans, wanted to maintain a hierarchical structure and a formal liturgy while the other sought to "purify" it (hence their name Puritans) of what they regarded as abominable remnants of Roman Catholicism. When a conference called to resolve these differences convened on January14, 1604, it soon became clear that the cards were stacked against the Puritans. They were outnumbered and, moreover, the King's preference for structure and authority soon became evident. Thus, one after another, the decisions favored the Anglican side and positions advocated by the Puritans were rejected.

At this point came a spur-of-the-moment decision that would have far-reaching effects. The agenda for the conference did not include anything about a new Bible translation, but the leader of the minority Puritan delegation finally proposed exactly that. The Anglicans opposed it, but James seemed intrigued by the idea. Perhaps he thought a new Bible might heal wounds and even unite the two opposing groups. A resolution was adopted calling for a completely new translation, "as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek." So it was that the decision leading to the most influential version of the world most influential book, in what would become its most influential language, was reached in the most casual of manners.

The 47 translators, all members of the Church of England and all but one ordained clergy, came from England's two universities (Oxford and Cambridge), Westminster Abbey and other cathedrals and churches. Each was well versed in Bible scholarship as well as in the languages of the original texts, Hebrew and a small amount of Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament.

The final product and its reception:
The new Bible was eventually published in 1611, to a reception that was favorable but hardly spectacular. Gradually it gained in popularity and by about the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the KJV reigned supreme among English Bibles, at least for Protestants. From English-speaking areas, it spread to the rest of the world. As the British Empire extended around the globe, its explorers and empire builders and especially its missionaries brought the Bible with them, and that Bible was the KJV. Thus it was that natives of places such as Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas learned the English language along with the Christian message from a book that had been ordered by James I at the beginning of the 17th century. As English became the world's ascendant language, many of those studying it became ingrained with the words and phrases of the KJV.

The new translation had a great impact on religion. It was read and its verses memorized in Christian homes and its words and phrases found expression in countless sermons and hymns. After reigning supreme for three centuries or longer, by the mid-20th century there were suggestions that the KJV's popularity might be waning. Improvements in Bible scholarship and new evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls identified room for improvement in the quality of the translation and the archaic language of the KJV (the thees and the thous) became increasingly problematic for some. These concerns were far from unanimous and many Christians clung tenaciously to the view that that the KJV is and always would represent the moment when humanity's connection to God was purest and closest, a view expressed today in a loose confederation known as the "King James Only" movement. Nevertheless, the increasing popularity of other translations (e.g., the New International Bible was the best seller in 2011) led to an ebbing of the KJV's religious significance.

Even if the KJV's religious influence may be fading, there is certainly no evidence that its other effects, those on language, culture, and communication, show any signs of diminishing. What is there about a translation now entering its fifth century that continues to influence on language, literature and culture? Part of the reason might be in timing, for the period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries was an era of remarkable literary creativity in the English language. It was the time a little island housing a second-rate power and speaking a second-rate language produced arguably the greatest literature of the world, of which the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible stand as the ultimate.

The KJV translators used words and phrases that were so wonderfully descriptive they found their way into common, everyday language, remained for 400 years, and will undoubtedly still be there as long as English is spoken. English Professor Leland Ryken, in his recent book The Legacy of the King James Bible, identified four distinctive prose styles characteristic of the KJV: noun-of-noun constructions (men of strength rather than strong men, woman of Samaria rather than Samaritan woman), interjections such as lo and behold to call attention to something important, the intensifying word verily and frequent and repeated use of the conjunction 'and.'

Linguist David Crystal in his book Begat, tabulated 257 Biblical expressions found in everyday, modern English. He also traced their origins to the KJV and the five English translations that preceded it. Among those original in the KJV are
• How are the mighty fallen (2 Samuel 1:19)
• A still small voice (1 Kings 19:12)
• The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
• Be horribly afraid (Jeremiah 2:12)
• Eat, drink, be merry (Luke 12:19)

Another factor in the KJV's enduring influence on language comes from its extensive use of idioms, distinctive and colorful expressions whose meanings are not literal. Hebrew is an idiom-rich language and the translators typically rendered these expressions directly, giving rise to many idioms in English used widely and meaningfully to everyday language, such as
• Like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7)
• The skin of my teeth (Job 19:20)
• Pride goeth before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
• To fall flat on his face (Numbers 22:31)
• To put words in his mouth (Exodus 4:15)

A third factor that likely accounts for the enduring influence of the KJV lies in its cadence -- the combination of sequence, rhythm, and accent that gives emphasis and can with repetition become almost hypnotic. Handel's Messiah, every word of it from the KJV, illustrates this most clearly. It's impossible, for example, to mouth the words of Isaiah's prophecy, "For unto us a son is born, unto us a son is given" without unconsciously falling into the rhythm and accents of Handel's magnificent oratorio.

These three characteristics -- distinctively descriptive words and phrases, colorful idioms and rhythmic cadence -- are some of the reasons the KJV over time came to be called "the noblest monument of English prose," as more than one writer put it. Alister McGrath pointed out that King James' translators aimed primarily and perhaps solely at accuracy, giving no thought to literary or linguistic matters, so their eloquence came by accident: "Aiming at truth, they achieved what later generations recognized as beauty and elegance."

Fans of the KJV:
The history of the last two or three centuries years is full of influential speakers and writers who owed their persuasiveness to words and phrases they borrowed from the KJV. Prominent among them was Abraham Lincoln. Raised on the frontier where there was but one book in the house, he learned to read by the KJV and in the process its rolling, majestic words and phrases became integral to him. Inevitably and almost unconsciously, his speeches and writings teemed with Biblical allusions and direct quotations. Without question, the best known and loved American oration is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. A. E. Elmore wrote a book devoted entirely to this 10-sentence speech and he determined that 269 of its 272 words appeared in some form in the KJV.

Winston Churchill was thoroughly conversant with the Bible. He had read the KJV as a young man and, with his photographic memory, tucked it away to be brought out later, often many years later, in quotes or stories exactly appropriate to the situation at hand. David Holley, noting that Churchill alluded to the KJV more than any other book or group of books, found 247 Biblical allusions among Churchill's writings. There are many instances when Churchill used his vast Biblical knowledge to persuade or urge or inspire others, but none more poignantly than his first radio speech as Prime Minister on May 19, 1940. Scarcely a week in office, he was faced with France collapsing to the Nazi juggernaut. The American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, advised his President that Britain's cause was hopeless. Many in Britain, including some in leadership positions, agreed with this assessment and urged the government to sue for peace. Churchill would have none of it and, in addressing the British people, his task was to convince them to fight on, even if their cause seemed forlorn. In preparing this critical speech, he reached back into that incredible memory and called up an obscure passage (which, always the good editor, he modified slightly) from the KJV Apocrypha (1 Maccabees 3:38-40):

Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even let it so be.

In our own time, probably no one has spoken with the ability to touch peoples' souls and inspire them to lofty goals as has Martin Luther King, Jr. He was nurtured on the King James Bible as a heritage from his minister father and its influence was further honed during his own seminary studies and his preaching career. Thus, its unique style found its way into his inspiring speeches and writings. Without doubt, the memorable of these came on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in a repetitious, cadenced recital, "I have a dream..." (Isaiah 40:4) that echoed the structure and majesty of the KJV. It was a speech and a day that would change America.

It is hard to imagine English or the people who have spoken it over these past 400 years if this most influential publication had never existed. Perhaps its religious importance has faded a bit recently, but its effect on culture and literature will remain as long as people communicate in the language we call English.