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Mark Noll

Englishing the Book

The rise and fall of the King James Bible.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, by Alister McGrath, Doubleday, 328 pp.; $24.95

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick, Simon & Schuster, 366 pp.; $26

The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words, by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, Broadman & Holman, 377 pp.; $19.99, paper

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is now only one among many Scripture translations widely available to readers of English. Although sales of the KJV in the United States are topped only by sales of the New International Version (NIV), the status of the KJV as the overwhelmingly dominant translation has been fading for at least a century, heralding the end of a well-defined historical epoch that lasted from about the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century.

It was an era decisively marked by the assumption, often unspoken, that the Bible in English was simply the version first published in 1611 by order of King James I. This assumption meant that when readers or hearers of Scripture came to the end of the 23rd Psalm, they expected to find, "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." It was immaterial that at least one alternative rendering had remained more popular in England and America for at least a generation after 1611 (the Geneva Bible's "Doubtless kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall remain a long season in the house of the Lord"). Nor did it register that several translations produced at about the same time were favored by significant groups of English speakers. Regardless, most English readers would have heard something amiss in any alternative, like the Douai-Rheims version of 1582 ("And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of ...

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