The King James Bible - 400 Years

Title Page of 1611 Edition
Title Page of 1611 Edition

The King James Bible (KJB) is still alive and well after 400 years of dominating all other English translations.  In our own Augusta Chronicle, a verse from the KJB is printed on the masthead of the opinion page.  USA Today reported that "the King James version is the Bible most adults own.  Of the 89% of U.S. adults who own at least one Bible, 67% own a King James, and 82% of those who read the Bible at least once a month rely on it."

 

American acceptance and usage of the KJB is profound.  With only a few exceptions, every President from George Washington to Barak Obama began his administration with his hand on the King James Bible to take the oath to uphold the United States Constitution.  

 

The first book read in outer space was the King James Bible.  With the inspiring background of the sun rising on the lunar landscape, the Apollo 8 astronauts read the creation account, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" from Genesis 1:1 through verse 10 to the largest television audience in the world at that time on December 24, 1968.   

 

Colleagues of Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan who served from 1877-1911 said, "He went to his rest each night with one hand on the Bible and the other on the Constitution of the United States."  Harlan donated his King James Bible to the United States Supreme Court, and since 1906, every Justice has signed that Bible's flyleaf.  Harlan, a Presbyterian, stated, "I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  Nothing it commands may be safely or properly disregarded and nothing it condemns may be justified.  No civilization is worth preserving that is not based on the doctrines of the Bible."  

 

The KJB is part of America's sub-conscious - part of the fabric of being an American.  Out of it have come common idioms like sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one's teeth; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; a house divided against itself cannot stand; and many others. 

 

But, in the last few decades, the KJB seems to be losing its dominant hold over Protestant Christendom in English-speaking countries.  It is estimated that 500 different English translations and paraphrases are available.  Many denominations favor and promote one translation over the other.

 

For example, LifeWay, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, translated and published through their Holman Publishing Company the Christian Standard Bible.  Teaching resources published by The United Methodist Publishing House use the New Revised Standard Version which is the translation endorsed by the General Board of Discipleship for curriculum.  American Roman Catholics use the New American Bible in their Lectionary for Mass.  

 

With the plethora of translations, Rev. Ephraim Radner, an Episcopalian and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, observes, "We are now in an era in which there is no common translation [of the Bible]."

 

Dr. Thomas Kidd, at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said, "What is lost in the multitude of translations today is the sense of one common text whose words help form a common vocabulary for Christians and the culture in general."

 

On the other hand, Phyllis Tickle, longtime religion editor at Publishers Weekly magazine, declares, "The sheer poetry of the King James Version, not to mention its almost half-millennium of absolute authority, militates against its slipping into obscurity any time soon."

 

Tickle's affirmation is backed up by the 11 percent increase in sales of the KJB last year as other translations decreased in sales for Thomas Nelson Publishers, the leading publisher of the KJB.  "There's still a huge following," spokesman Gary Davidson said.  "It's really near and dear to the heart of many people."

 

For example, at solemn occasions and memorial services, people want Psalm 23 read from the King James Bible.  "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever."

 

The KJB was intended to be read aloud.  The translators not only sought accuracy in translation, but they also wanted it to be pleasing to the ear when read aloud in worship services.  They read it to each other to test for beauty in regards to our auditory senses. 

 

The magnificence of the KJB has not been lost on religious critics like H.L. Mencken, prominent writer and thinker of the first part of the 20th century.  He praised the KJB. "It is the most beautiful of all the translations of the Bible; indeed, it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world."  This affirmation is even more significant considering the fact that Mencken rejected his mother's Lutheran faith and was one of the most vocal critics pertaining to faith in God and Christ. 

 

But for believers, the King James Bible is much more than a beautiful literary masterpiece.  It is the Word of God translated carefully four centuries ago by pious men who faithfully took all of the resources available in their day to convey God's word to the English-speaking people.  They believed that the original texts in Hebrew and Greek were "thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man; the indicter, the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets."

 

The translators wrote these earnest words in the preface of the first edition dated May 2, 1611.  "Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well.  Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night."

 

For millions in the English-speaking world throughout the last four hundred years, the King James Bible has "openeth the window, to let in the light."

 

The King James Bible was and still is "a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths" and "given by inspiration of God, for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness making thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (Psalm 119:105 and 2 Timothy 3:15-16 KJB).

 

From pastors comforting the bereaved  by reading Psalm 23 to little children who have taken to heart "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16), the King James Bible was and still is dear to our hearts and spiritual lives. 

 

Rev. Dan White is pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA.  Email: danwhite5868@yahoo.com

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