The Once and Future Bible: Why We Still Need the KJV
- Friday, March 25, 2011
In 1611, English explorer Henry Hudson, his son John, and six members of the crew faced a mutiny and were set adrift around what is known today as Hudson Bay and were never heard from again. William Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, was performed for the first time at Whitehall Palace in London. Denmark attacked neighboring Sweden. Two scientists discovered sunspots.
But probably the most significant event of the year, and perhaps in the last half-millennium, has nothing to do with science, exploration, international relations, or theater—though it has much to do with English literature. It is the May 2, 1611, publication by printer Robert Barker of a new Bible translation. Hardly anyone except a few specialists remembers Barker's name in connection with the project, however. The name that has come to be inextricably linked with it is that of its royal patron, James, addressed by the translators as the "most dread Sovereign."
In their dedication to the King James Bible, the translators declared their purpose: "the blessed continuance of the preaching of God's sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven."
Called the Authorized Version because it had received the royal imprimatur, what we call the King James Version, or KJV, had a reach that extended down from heaven and did much to transform the earth, touching both prince and pauper. "No other book of any kind ever written in English, perhaps no other book ever written in any other tongue, has ever so affected the whole life of a whole people has this authorized version of the Scriptures has affected the life of the English-speaking peoples." Thus said Teddy Roosevelt, and the president with his visage carved on Mount Rushmore can be forgiven if he understated the matter just a bit.
In his fascinating survey, The Legacy of the King James Bible, Wheaton College's Leland Ryken quotes George Lindbeck of Yale as saying, "… most people in traditionally Christian countries lived in the imaginative world of the Bible." The only Bible most of them knew was the KJV. "The text above all texts was the [King James] Bible. Its stories, images, conceptual patterns, and turns of phrase permeated the culture from top to bottom." The "bottom line," Lindbeck noted, was that "Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world."
In the centuries since 1611, the King James Bible profoundly shaped Western culture. While other translations came to the fore and gained a following—such as the American Standard Version—the KJV remained the ultimate standard. Ryken notes, for example, how its melodic and peculiar cadences continued to find their way into the speeches of presidents and other world leaders. One scholar analyzed Lincoln's moving Gettysburg Address and said that 269 of its 272 words appeared in some form in the King James. The address, this scholar noted, is "overwhelmingly biblical." Churchill, responding to Chamberlain's acquiescence to the Nazis, declared in perfect King James style in the House of Commons, "Thou art weighted in the balance and found wanting."
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