LONDON – Every Sunday, the majestic cadences of the King James Bible resound in Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal in London, in scattered parish churches in Britain and in countless chapels, halls and congregations around the world.
You may also hear it in a pub or on a street – “the skin of my teeth,” “the root of the matter,” and “turned the world upside down” – or listening to the lyrics of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Still a best-seller, the King James Bible is being celebrated on its 400th anniversary as a religious and literary landmark and formative linguistic and cultural influence on the English-speaking world.
You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate it. When Britain’s most famous atheist, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, read a chapter from the Book of Ruth for a YouTube Bible project, he said “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.”
The celebrations may be tempered by a sense of loss – the decline of churches, a lack of awareness of the King James Bible’s legacy – yet that legacy has more than fulfilled the goal set by its team of translators.
“Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one,” the translators said in a preface to the first edition.
James VI of Scotland, who also became King James I of England in 1603, took a keen interest in religion. James, in the estimation of historian Christopher Hill, was “a learned man, shrewd and pedantic rather than original.”
James summoned a conference at Hampton Court Palace near London in 1604, hoping to thrash out differences between Church of England bishops and Puritans.
Failing to make progress on other issues, Puritan leader John Reynolds proposed a new translation and, as a contemporary account says, “hereupon did his Majestie begin to bethink himself of the good that might ensue.”
The translation – the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek – was assembled by 47 translators in six committees working in London, Oxford and Cambridge, and it emerged seven years later at a propitious moment.
“English was in a particularly fluid state. Both the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible appeared around this formative time and stamped their imprint on the newer forms of the language,” said Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education at King’s College, London.
The date in 1611 when the first edition emerged from the press is uncertain – many celebrate anniversary on May 2.
The King James Version was more of a popularizer than an innovator in forming the English language.
“No other translation reached so many people over so long a period as King James. And this probably explains why so many of its usages entered public consciousness,” David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, wrote in his book, “Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language.”
Crystal traced 257 expressions in modern English which are in the King James Version, but only 18 were newly minted. The rest originated in earlier versions. Among the KJV’s unique contributions are “east of Eden,” “how are the mighty fallen,” “beat their swords into plowshares,” “get thee behind me,” and “a thorn in the flesh.”
Though many translations are now permitted in the Church of England, some parishes cling to the King James Bible. The Scriptures may be available in dozens of languages at the click of a mouse, but legions of today’s readers, believer and nonbeliever alike, find more solemnity in “For dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return” than in the Good News Bible’s “you were made of soil, and you will become soil again.”