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Mark Noll

Long Live the King

The 400th anniversary of the KJV.

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The 400th anniversary of the King James or Authorized version of the Bible (KJB) has produced a magnificent harvest of exhibitions, conferences, and scholarship. A comparison with what happened in 1911 at the 300th anniversary is instructive. One hundred years ago, the most visible public figures in the English-speaking world led the celebration, including formal messages from President William Howard Taft and the newly crowned King George V, and, within a matter of weeks in the spring of that year, major speeches on the significance of the Bible from ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, presidential aspirant Woodrow Wilson, and three-time Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan. The Royal Albert Hall in London (March 29) and Carnegie Hall in New York (April 25) supplied the venues for grand celebrations featuring the British prime minister, the American secretary of state, and the ambassadors from Britain to the U.S. and the U.S. to Britain.

Much of the content of those 1911 commemorations was, however, neither historically informative nor religiously insightful. Rather, speakers and writers leaned on stereotypes and truisms. They rang the changes in praising the KJB as "the noblest monument of the English language in the time of its greatest perfection and vigor." They also stressed how this translation provided "the foundation of our civilisation and our religion"; and how it had functioned (in phrases from Thomas Huxley that were quoted repeatedly in 1911) as "the Magna Charta of the poor and the oppressed … the most democratic book in the world."

This time around things have been at least somewhat different. Queen Elizabeth did talk about the importance of the KJB in her Christmas address last December, and Bible exhibits have been mounted in centers of actual or remembered power like Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Palace. But in 2011 most commemorations have resulted from local initiatives under local sponsorship. Thus, along with many events in London, Cambridge, and Oxford, where the KJB's three companies of translators did their work, exhibitions have taken place in English cities like Bradford, Hereford, Manchester, and Peterborough; in Columbus, Ohio, Cumberland, Maryland, Columbia, South Carolina, and many other American sites; in Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Pertshire; in Alberta and Adelaide; in Copenhagen, Antwerp, and Leuven; and at far-flung establishments like the Good Book Shop on Donegall Street in Belfast, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, and the Dunedin Public Library in Otago, New Zealand. In South Africa, a motorcycle tour was organized to commemorate the KJB and promote Bible-reading today, taking participants through the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, the Free State, and Guateng. Further, as an indication of the ecumenical spirit that is more common now than in 1911, Brigham Young University sponsored an exhibit in Provo, Utah, and the splendid Green Family Bible Collection, in which several early KJBs occupy a prominent place, was displayed at the Vatican in Rome.

The extraordinary geographic spread of these local celebrations testifies eloquently to the worldwide impact of the KJB. Almost as impressive is the unusual depth of scholarship that in this anniversary year has documented the translation's profound importance for language, literature, culture, empire, theology, Christian life, and the church. While the six books and one video referenced in this essay are among the best of the crop, there have been many other worthy publications. And of course, the scholarship of 2011 on 1611 does not stand alone. Along with much fluff in 1911, several books were then published that still aid researchers today.[1] Moreover, the harvest of learning in this anniversary year has been preceded for more than a decade by a sturdy crop of worthy studies, several of them by authors who also brought out commemorative volumes for the 400th.[2]

Comprehensive consideration of the KJB must move in many directions, but the fine books published this year have asked and at least partially answered several of the most important questions about the origins of the KJB, its significance for language and culture, and its role in the advancement of Christianity itself. This essay takes up only four such questions, while setting aside the central issue of literary influence that Leland Ryken's Legacy surveys effectively, the crucial matters of translating accuracy and translation style that Robert Alter once again treats superbly in his contribution to the Hamlin and Jones volume ("The Glories and Glitches of the King James Bible: Ecclesiastes as test-case"), or the precise nature of the KJB's influence on English vocabulary (David Crystal's precise accounting discovers 257 "biblical" idioms in common use, with only 18 coming from the KJB alone, but 210 found in the KJB and at least one earlier translation).

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