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

Many translations keep a sense of reverence, while some paraphrases can take on a much more conversational and even irreligious tone, says BYU religion professor Jeffrey Marsh.

The account of the Savior's baptism in the King James Bible, Mark 1:10-11 is recorded as: "And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

The same reference in the 2004 Bible, "Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures," says, "A pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God's Spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, 'That's my boy!'"

This version, and occasional others, not only lose their poetic cadence, but often remove references to the miracles or deity of Jesus Christ, place too high an emphasis on gender neutrality and soften or eliminate phrases that could be offensive today, Marsh warns.

Yet people keep buying them, indicative of an increasingly diverse world and the ease of printing, Kutsko said.

"I don't think it's going to let up," he said. "I think it's an outgrowth of a post-modern society that sees more opportunity in diversity and less in this singular nature of an authoritative text."

Some believe that any Bible exposure is a good thing, but David Lyle Jeffrey, a professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University, believes the flood of new translations and paraphrased versions are motivated by a desire for market share, not a goal to increase ecclesiastical insight.

"We're trying to make (these versions)… as much like us as possible," he said, referring specifically to Bible magazines, complete with advertisements, for teenage girls. "The risk with that is we're trying to make God in our image, rather than accept that it was really done the other way around. (In Bibles like that)

we have a pretty good understanding of what we like, but maybe not as good of an understanding of what God is saying."

Jeffrey said he'd love to see one, new modern translation that could be adopted by a wide range of denominations to provide greater interreligious common ground — which is what the King James version did for more than 300 years.

It may be wishful thinking, so in the meantime, Jeffrey teaches his course on the literary Bible with the KJV and allows his students a second translation, but not a paraphrase.

For some, turning to a new translation can seem "dangerous" or even "scary," Kutsko said.

Yet "any scholar would say, and I really think most religious authorities would say that knowledge is always a good thing," he continued. "While expanding your horizons and expanding your understanding can be a little bit rattling, that inevitably serves to widen a person and deepen an understanding."

The LDS and King James Version

In the spring of 1820, a young boy named Joseph went to the family Bible and found himself in the epistle of James: "If any of ye lack wisdom, let him ask of God."

Those words from the King James version inspired the young boy to ask God about his religious future and set him on a course that would change his life and the lives of millions of future Latter-day Saints.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still adheres to the King James Version, with its added references to the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures.

Besides being the version that inspired Joseph Smith, it's also the version he used for the Joseph Smith Translation.

BYU religion professor Ray Huntington said his love of the King James text and an appreciation for the men who gave their lives to translate it has grown over the years, especially after a recent trip to look at early translations of the Bible, from New York to Germany.

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