Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns

Apr 18, 2011
Originally published on April 19, 2011 3:43 pm

This year, the most influential book you may never have read is celebrating a major birthday. The King James Version of the Bible was published 400 years ago. It's no longer the top-selling Bible, but in those four centuries, it has woven itself deeply into our speech and culture.

Let's travel back to 1603: King James I, who had ruled Scotland, ascended to the throne of England. What he found was a country suspicious of the new king.

"He was regarded as a foreigner," says Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester in England. "He spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him."

At that time, England was in a Bible war between two English translations. The Bishops' Bible was read in churches: It was clunky, inelegant. The Geneva Bible was the choice of the Puritans and the people: It was bolder, more accessible.

"The problem with the Geneva Bible was it had marginal notes," says David Lyle Jeffrey, a historian of biblical interpretation at Baylor University. "And from the point of view of the royalists, and especially King James I, these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings."

Those notes referred to kings as tyrants, they challenged regal authority, and King James wanted them gone. So he hatched an idea: Bring the bishops and the Puritans together, ostensibly to work out their differences about church liturgy. His true goal was to maneuver them into proposing a new Bible. His plans fell into place after he refused every demand of the Puritans to simplify the liturgy, and they finally suggested a new translation. With that, James commissioned a new Bible without those seditious notes. Forty-seven scholars and theologians worked through the Bible line by line for seven years.

"It is, I think, the most scrupulous process of Bible translation that has ever been," says Campbell, author of Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011.

What astonishes Jeffrey is that such beauty could be produced by a committee. "The quality of the poetry is extraordinarily high," he says. "It's memorable. It's beautiful. And in the KJV, it's distinctively the voice of God."

Consider Isaiah 40, he says.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

"You see, see that's not street discourse," Jeffrey says, laughing. "We don't talk like that to each other, do we?"

Today, newer, colloquial translations have pushed the King James aside. It's mainly used in African-American, Mormon and a few Protestant churches. But in moments of tragedy or turmoil or change, leaders have often turned to the King James.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton quoted Proverbs after the bombing in Oklahoma City: "Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind."

And when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, only the King James would suffice. Quoted from memory, his wording is not exact, but the poetry and passion are straight from the prophet: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

The King James is the poetry that inspired Handel's Messiah, but the words also captivated modern musicians. The Byrds sang from Ecclesiastes in Turn Turn Turn: proclaiming that there is "A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, a time to reap, A time to kill, a time to heal."

Simon and Garfunkel echoed the Gospels when they sang, Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down.

And when Kansas voiced its existential angst — All we are is dust in the wind — it was inspired by the Psalms.

And think great literature: Even the secular novel is drenched in the prose and poetry of the King James. "Just think about titles," says Campbell. F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned. John Steinbeck: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath. William Faulkner: Go Down Moses, Absalom Absalom. "There are loads of them," he says. "Buried in the texture of the modern novel, which is a secular form, is a level of religious allusion that reflects the culture from which those novels emerge."

The King James is woven into our lives. It was read in churches and family devotionals for centuries, and today its language laces hundreds of everyday phrases. Consider: "How the mighty are fallen" (Samuel 1:19), and "Can a leopard change its spot?" (Jeremiah 13:23), and "The writing is on the wall" (Daniel 5: 5/6), and "The blind leading the blind" (Matthew 15:14).

"These phrases have become part and parcel then of the general usage in the English language," says Jeffrey. "We do not recognize them any longer perhaps as biblical unless we have a pretty good memory for the language of the KJV."

Campbell adds that this Bible is foundational to the English-speaking world. "It's in the texture of our society rather than on the surface of it, I think. But if you trace back who we are, how we speak, how we think, many of those things have their origins in the King James Bible."

He and others say that new translations will come and go, as our language changes with each generation. But as long we can understand the King James Bible, this four-century-old book will be seen as the voice of God — and the highest poetry of man.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This year, one of the most influential books in world history is celebrating a major birthday. The King James Version of the Bible was published 400 years ago. It's no longer the top-selling Bible, but as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, in those four centuries, it's woven itself deeply into our speech and our culture.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Let's travel back to 1603: King James I, who had ruled Scotland, ascended to the throne of England. What he found, says Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester in England, was a country suspicious of the new king.

NORRIS: He was regarded as a foreigner in the first instance. He spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At that time, England was in a Bible war between two English translations: The Bishops' Bible was read in churches. It was clunky, inelegant. The Geneva Bible was the choice of the Puritans and the people. It was bolder, more accessible.

NORRIS: The problem with the Geneva Bible was that it had marginal notes.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: David Lyle Jeffrey is a historian of biblical interpretation at Baylor University.

NORRIS: And from the point of view of the royalists, and especially King James I, these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Those notes referred to kings as tyrants, they challenged regal authority, and King James wanted them gone. So he hatched an idea: Bring the bishops and the Puritans together, ostensibly to work out their differences about church liturgy. But as dramatized in a new documentary, "The King James Bible: The Book That Changed the World," his true goal was to maneuver them into proposing a new Bible, one more to his liking.

W: The Book That Changed the World")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: You are suggesting a completely new translation of God's holy word, agreeable to everyone.

U: Yes. With all things considered, I...

U: Gentlemen, you have spoken excellent good sense for the first time.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: With that, James commissioned a Bible without those seditious notes. Gordon Campbell, who has written a book about the King James Bible, says 47 translators worked line by line for seven years.

NORRIS: It is, I think, the most scrupulous process of Bible translation that has ever been.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: What astonishes David Jeffrey is that a committee could produce such beauty.

NORRIS: The quality of the poetry is extraordinarily high. It's memorable, it's beautiful, and in the KJV, it's distinctively the voice of God.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: He says, consider Isaiah 40.

NORRIS: Now, see, that's not street discourse. We don't talk like that to each other, do we?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Four hundred years later, newer, colloquial translations have pushed the King James aside. It's mainly used in African-American, Mormon and a few Protestant churches. But in moments of tragedy or turmoil or change, leaders have often turned to the King James, as did President Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

P: Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Or President Bush after the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

P: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This quote actually comes from the New International Version.]

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And when Martin Luther King dreamed, only the King James would suffice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The King James is the poetry that inspired Handel's "Messiah," but the words also captivated modern musicians. The Byrds sang from Ecclesiastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN, TURN, TURN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Simon and Garfunkel echoed the Gospels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER")

SIMON: (Singing) Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And when Kansas voiced its existential angst, it turned to the Psalms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST IN THE WIND")

KANSAS: (Singing): All we are is dust in the wind, dust in the wind. Everything is dust in the wind.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And then there's great literature. Gordon Campbell says even the secular novel is drenched in the prose and poetry of the King James.

NORRIS: Just think about titles: "This Side of Paradise," Fitzgerald, "The Beautiful and the Damned"; John Steinbeck, "East of Eden," "Grapes of Wrath"; Faulkner, "Go Down Moses," "Absalom Absalom." There are loads of them.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The King James is woven into our lives. It was read in churches and family devotionals for centuries, and today its language is buried in hundreds of everyday phrases.

U: Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket.

U: Apple of his eye.

U: Can a leopard change its spots?

U: Put your house in order.

U: Put words in her mouth.

U: The root of the matter.

U: By the skin of your teeth.

U: By the sweat of your brow.

U: The straight and narrow.

U: The writing is on the wall.

U: No rest for the wicked.

U: The blind leading the blind.

U: Fall by the wayside.

U: Fall from grace.

U: How the mighty have fallen.

NORRIS: These phrases have become part and parcel, then, of the general usage in the English language.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Again, David Jeffrey.

NORRIS: We do not recognize them any longer, perhaps, as biblical unless we have a pretty good memory for the KJV.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Gordon Campbell says this Bible is a foundation of the English language.

NORRIS: It's in the texture of our society rather than on the surface of it, I think. But if you trace back who we are, how we speak, how we think, many of those things have their origins in the King James Bible.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN, TURN, TURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.