The King James version of the Bible now 400 years old

The King James version of the Bible had been released in 1611, 319 years prior to my birth, and I have read, studied, and memorized it all my life. Before 2011 closes, I must comment on its 400th anniversary because this has been not only a commemoration but, for me, something of a rebirth. KJV is old, but it is still alive and active.

Because the KJV was the text of the responsive reading in our church, our pastor preached from it, and our Sunday school lessons were based upon it, I took it for granted. When I became aware of “modern language versions” of the Bible, I became intrigued. College and graduate study of the original languages of Hebrew and Greek helped me interpret the Bible better, but it also led me to minimize the persistent value of KJV.

Then there occurred a proliferation of modern language versions of the Bible. These became convenient for a preacher, author, and Bible professor, because (at least for me) constant translating the original languages was laborious and slow and I needed to translate further for those to whom I preached and taught. In preaching I continued to use KJV for many years until these other versions began to show up in the pews. My primary English version went from the American Standard version to the Revised Standard version to the New International version and now to the English Standard version.

All this time I was actually thinking-KJV to an extent I failed to recognize — and probably would not have admitted if I had. Eventually, I realized I was thinking in KJV language and translating into modern English as I quoted. Having been reared on and inbred by KJV, I never fully escaped it.

Then there arose what is called a KJV-only stance, i.e., that KJV is the only form of inspired scripture in the English language. For a host of reasons and on the basis of solid evidence, this must be ignored as utterly illogical and really quite silly. But I reacted against both its evangelists and its slaves. I recognized religious tyranny in this attitude and, perhaps, used KJV publicly less than I would have if I were not reacting.

During this 400th anniversary year, I returned to looking at the King James version more critically than ever previously. In preparation for participation in a major conference in September, I read every secondary book published on it. These reminded me, sometimes by empirical statistics, of the tremendous influence of KJV on English language and literature that is at least as strong as its influence on Western religion and theology.

I really knew this right along, but I failed to make the connection. Almost fifty years ago I did research while in graduate studies at Princeton, which was published by the American Bible Society as Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High Schools: The Authority and Mandate. And this is precisely what I wrote. However, only this year did it dawn on me that while I researched use of the Bible in general, specifically it is the King James version that made this impact.

The most serious limitation in reading and using the KJV is simply its 17th century Elizabethan language (1611), which seemed unreasonably difficult for people today with limited English reading ability — but not impossible, and I am now thinking not unreasonably. After all, I learned the language of KJV along with twentieth-century American English (which effectively prepared me for Shakespeare in high school).

At the conference I mentioned, I heard from several presenters that if knowing KJV were not valuable for other reasons, it remains critical for understanding the corpus of Western literature of all ages for vocabulary, idioms, and allusions. Is it not striking that to be well versed in British and American language and literature one must acquire a working knowledge of the Bible — and the King James version specifically? I also heard repeatedly that those with another native language, especially in Africa, find it at least as easy to understand KJV language as modern English.

I leave this 400th anniversary year reading the King James version of the Bible more than ever. I commend it to your reading. One more thing: read it aloud, for it was consciously created so to be read.

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