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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

"It used to be the Bible was the sole property of the church," she said. "Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we had to rely on listening to it once a week at church? We are very fortunate that we now live in a culture, which, for the most part, supports people reading the Bible themselves. That couldn't have happened without the breakthrough of the King James Version."

The Bible's history

Though today it can be found in every bookstore, library and hotel, the Bible was once a carefully guarded possession of the church.

Parishioners relied on the clergy to interpret the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts and to teach them about Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus Christ and the apostles.

Around 382 A.D. St. Jerome translated the ancient texts into Latin as 'the Vulgate.' Yet the Latin Bible was still inaccessible to most of the common class who couldn't read.

John Wycliffe forever changed the world when in 1382 he and his followers translated the Vulgate into English — the first complete, handwritten English Bible.

Next, Protestant reformer William Tyndale translated the Bible into English again, but this time from its original Hebrew and Greek sources. Tyndale's "heretical" actions earned him a martyr's death, but his contributions to the King James Bible cannot be overstated, scholars say.

"Even more than 80 years after Tyndale's first translation came out in 1526, his English renderings were so good that the 1611 translators could not improve on them," James said. "They depended upon Tyndale heavily and often quoted him verbatim."

In fact, Tyndale's wording makes up roughly 85 percent of the KJV's New Testament and 70 percent of the KJV's Old Testament (he couldn't complete all of his earlier translation before he was killed).

Tyndale's task was even harder because at the time, English was a simple, undeveloped language, James said. Yet by copying the Hebrew constructions, Tyndale created the unique poetic phrases used by the King James translators and others.

"Tyndale changed the English language from a rather grubby language that only the trash spoke, and turned it into a proper language, partly by translating the Bible," Brearley said.

Soon after, the Coverdale Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible and several others cropped up in England, all relying on Tyndale's earlier work, but approaching translation from different religious backgrounds.

Eventually the biblical babbling was too much. In 1604 King James I assembled the Hampton Court Conference with 54 scholars, 47 of whom actually participated, to create a new, more accurate Bible translation — one that would conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England.

The scholars were the brightest in England, with depth and breadth of knowledge that rival any modern scholar, said Richard Lambert, vice chairman of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and a retired U.S. Assistant Attorney in Salt Lake who has dedicated the last few years to learning more about these translators.

They are men like Richard Brett, who attended Oxford where he mastered more than half a dozen languages, including Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian, then spent the rest of his life as a pastor, husband and father in the small village of Quainton, except for the few years he worked on the King James translation.

"These men were just regular people with an enormous amount of knowledge…(and) were on the scene at the right time to make the contribution that they did," Lambert said.

Lambert and photographer Kenneth Mays have made several trips to England to track down translators' birth and death places, as well as the village chapels where they were christened.

Lambert said his appreciation has grown immensely for these men who quietly and efficiently divided up the books in the Old and New Testaments, translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from the existing Greek Bible and the Apocrypha from the Greek and Latin.

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