As the King James Version of the Bible celebrates 400 years, scholars hope for a renaissance

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 12:05 a.m. MST

PROVO — Coolio rapped with it, Milton wrote about it and Bosch painted from it. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., relied on its calls for charity and civility, and the first time men saw the earth from space they quoted from its opening lines.

For 400 years, the King James Version of the Bible has inspired and instructed painters and poets, peasants and presidents with its vivid descriptions of plagues and miracles and elegant resuscitations of Christian beliefs.

Along the way, hundreds of additional translations have aimed to shed light on the early Christian record, yet none has left a legacy like the KJV.

Yet despite its pivotal role in language, literature and religious culture, the thick book is often forgotten about or relegated to a dusty library shelf.

But not this year.

As the KJV celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2011, groups nationwide plan to celebrate the top-selling book of all time and the literary centerpiece of the Christian world.

"Everyone seems to have woken up," said Tim Brearley, director of the King James Bible Trust. "This is an amazing thing we've got to celebrate."

Impact

"I can't imagine the world without the KJV or the language of it," said Jan James, an LDS doctoral student at the University of York whose dissertation focuses on the history of the English Bible. "So many of our common phrases have come from there and our language would not be the same."

The familiar phrases, "my brother's keeper," and "the kiss of death," have their origins in the King James Bible. So too do, "An eye for an eye," "the powers that be," and "signs of the times."

Despite the old Jacobean English, scholars say the King James text carries timeless power, especially read aloud.

"The King James is poetry," said Brearley, director of the King James Bible Trust, a group established in England to commemorate the 400th anniversary through conferences, performances, celebrations and publications. "You find that as soon as you start saying it out loud, it helps you. The words start to carry you along and it's got that resonance to it."

The rhythm has been captured in famous speeches, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream," and his allusion to Amos 5:24: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," and Isaiah 40:4-5, "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted."

"Would a modern translation have that force?" asked Brearley. "I don't know. I think that would be a tough one."

Coolio's rap hit, "Gangster's Paradise" might also not have quite the same opening ring if it were the New Living Translation's version of Psalm 23:4: "Even when I walk through the darkest valley…" rather than the KJV: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…"

"So much of our language, our categories of thinking, so many of our sayings are built off the KJV," said John Kutsko, executive director of the Society for Biblical Literature. "I don't think you're really culturally literate without understanding the impact of the Bible on culture and more specifically, the King James Version."

The KJV also made a tremendous social impact by "democratizing" the availability of the Bible, explained Carol Meyers, a biblical studies and archaeology professor at Duke.

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