LONDON — Every Sunday, the majestic cadences of the King James Bible resound in Her Majesty's Chapel Royal in London, in scattered parish churches in Britain and in countless chapels, halls and congregations around the world.
You may also hear it in a pub or on a street —"the skin of my teeth," ''the root of the matter," and "turned the world upside down" — or listening to the lyrics of Handel's "Messiah."
Still a best-seller, the King James Bible is being celebrated on its 400th anniversary as a religious and literary landmark and formative linguistic and cultural influence on the English-speaking world.
You don't have to be a believer to appreciate it. When Britain's most famous atheist, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, read a chapter from the Book of Ruth for a YouTube Bible project, he said "It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource."
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The celebrations may be tempered by a sense of loss — the decline of churches, a lack of awareness of the King James Bible's legacy — yet that legacy has more than fulfilled the goal set by its team of translators.
"Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one," the translators said in a preface to the first edition.
Says British academic Gordon Campbell: "Other translations may engage the mind, but the King James Version is the Bible of the heart."
What did King James have to do with it?
James VI of Scotland, who also became King James I of England in 1603, took a keen interest in religion. James, in the estimation of historian Christopher Hill, was "a learned man, shrewd and pedantic rather than original."
James summoned a conference at Hampton Court Palace near London in 1604, hoping to thrash out differences between Church of England bishops and Puritans.
Failing to make progress on other issues, Puritan leader John Reynolds proposed a new translation and, as a contemporary account says, "hereupon did his Majestie begin to bethink himself of the good that might ensue."
The great work began.
The translation — the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek — was assembled by 47 translators in six committees working in London, Oxford and Cambridge, and it emerged seven years later at a propitious moment.
"English was in a particularly fluid state. Both the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible appeared around this formative time and stamped their imprint on the newer forms of the language," says Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education at King's College, London.
The date in 1611 when the first edition emerged from the press is uncertain — many celebrate the anniversary on May 2 — but it was a turning point. The King's Printers had a monopoly on printing Bibles, and by 1650 the King James Version had driven the rival Geneva Bible out of the market.
Jonathan Swift, writing in 1712, believed the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, "being perpetually read in churches, have proved a kind of standard for language, especially to the common people."
"I am persuaded that the translators of the Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work, than any we see in our present writings," said the author of "Gulliver's Travels" and dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.
The King James Version was more of a popularizer than an innovator in forming the English language.
"No other translation reached so many people over so long a period as King James. And this probably explains why so many of its usages entered public consciousness," David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, wrote in his book, "Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language."
Crystal traced 257 expressions in modern English which are in the King James Version, but only 18 were newly minted. The rest originated in earlier versions.
Among the KJV's unique contributions are "east of Eden," ''how are the mighty fallen," ''beat their swords into plowshares," ''get thee behind me," and "a thorn in the flesh."
Bishops vs. Puritans
Siding with the bishops against the Puritans, the translators were instructed not to translate "church" as "congregation." They were told to preserve as much as possible the text of the so-called Bishops Bible of 1568, then the official English Bible, but they were permitted to consult William Tyndale's partial translation, Geneva and some other versions "when they better agree with the text" in Greek or Hebrew.
Tyndale, who defied the law to publish an English New Testament in 1526, stands out as the genius; anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of his work was incorporated into the King James Bible.
Tyndale rendered Scripture in the common language of his time, aiming to make it accessible even to a humble plowboy. His version was based not on the Vulgate, the Latin translation which had been the standard for Roman Catholics, but on Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
In doing so, he defied an English law of 1401 which forbade the publication of any religious book without church permission.
Tyndale went abroad, while church authorities built bonfires outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London with copies of his New Testament translation. He was arrested and convicted of heresy in the Netherlands, and was strangled and his body was burned in October 1536.
Only a year later, King Henry VIII granted a license to a complete Bible that included Tyndale's work, and his government urged every church to have an English Bible.
The spread of Bibles in English had a profound influence on Protestant English-speaking culture, says David Norton, professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand.
"It was not just that the Bible was read, heard and known: the Bible in English made the individualistic act of reading and understanding primary, creating a culture wedded to the belief that understood words were of the highest importance," Norton wrote in his recent book, "The King James Bible."
Still the word for many
Though many translations are now permitted in the Church of England, some parishes cling to the King James Bible.
The Scriptures may be available in dozens of languages at the click of a mouse, but legions of today's readers, believer and nonbeliever alike, find more solemnity in "For dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return" than in the Good News Bible's "you were made of soil, and you will become soil again."
At its best, the prose is timeless and transparent: Folk singer Pete Seeger took nearly all the words of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" from the King James Version's Ecclesiastes ("A time to be born, and a time to die....")
The language "makes you sit up and take notice," says the Rev. Karl Przywala, who serves six Nottinghamshire churches.
But it can be a stumbling block today, as the Rev. John Wright found in using the King James Bible at a service at St. Cuthman's Church, Brighton.
"The readers were the mayor and the (member of Parliament), both of whom we would have thought to be well educated men, but they both complained that the readings were obscure and difficult to understand," Wright said.
The Rev. Stephen Kerr, who serves eight churches in Worcestershire, prefers modern versions, but doesn't argue with those devoted to King James. "If that is the way God is speaking to them, I don't want to interfere," he said.
Does the King James Bible speak to a new generation? Some educators in Britain complain that their students couldn't tell Adam from Eve. Thus they miss the influence of the English Bible, and specifically the King James, when they read John Milton or Herman Melville, or the "I have a dream" speech in which Martin Luther King Jr. quoted, almost exactly, from the King James Version of Isaiah: "Every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low."