The Lasting Impact Of The King James Bible, 400 Years Later

The most widely published text in the English language, the King James Bible, was first released 400 years ago, this year. This version of the bible has had a lasting impact, not only on the Christian faith, but on the way English is spoken and written today. In Tell Me More's weekly "Faith Matters" segment, host Michel Martin speaks with renown religious scholar, Phillip Jenkins, about its legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you talk back to us. It's our weekly look at the letters and comments and the stories of the week, plus updates on stories we've covered. That's just ahead in our Backtalk segment.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, a close look at the most widely published text in the English language. And, no, we're not talking about tweets, text messages or Facebook updates. We're talking about the Bible, a revolutionary version of the Bible that was first published 400 years ago this year.

The King James Bible has had a lasting impact, not only on the way Christians understand their faith, but also on the way we all speak and write English. We wanted to know more about this historic text and its legacy, so we've called upon religious scholar Philip Jenkins. He serves as professor of religious studies at Penn State University. He is also an organizer of the upcoming April conference headlined The King James Bible and the World It Made that will be hosted at Baylor University.

Professor Jenkins, thank you so much for joining us.

PHILIP JENKINS: Thank you, good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us briefly how the King James Version of the Bible came about?

JENKINS: Well, in the 16th century there were a lot of different translations of the Bible competing and they were of very different quality. Some of them had terrible mistakes. The one I always liked is the one that included the line, Thou shalt commit adultery.

When the new King James came to power in 1603, he set up a translation committee. And in 1611, they produced this version that became known as the King James Bible. And gradually it became the English Bible. And it's the way that English Protestants, certainly, and Protestants around the world who use English, have thought of the Bible for hundreds of years thereafter.

MARTIN: Why did King James set up this commission? Did he have the soul of a copy editor?

JENKINS: I think he was generally scandalized that there were all these different bibles going around. And when somebody said, you know, I refer to the Bible, the first response was, well, which bible? My Bible says this, your Bible says this. So he was trying to create a standard version that everyone could agree on.

MARTIN: Why was that important to him? I mean, forgive me, we still do have a bit of that today, don't we, with people having different interpretations of the same text? What was his personal motivation for seeking to standardize these interpretations?

JENKINS: You know, you've got to think of a very different kind of society, very different way of thinking about religion. The idea that we have today of, you know, we choose our own way to God, there are different denominations and different groups. What sounds to us, you know, sensible easygoing tolerance would have to him been just the rankest kind of heresy. As far as he was concerned, he was the king of a country. And if it was to be one country, one church, and it was based on the Bible, then there had to be one Bible.

MARTIN: Were there fights about translations? Because doctrinal differences do have implications down the line, as you were saying, even though, you know, humorously, thou shalt commit adultery. I mean, there really are different consequences to different interpretations. Were there some significant fights?

JENKINS: Absolutely. For example, there is a word that shows up in the New Testament, and one of the translations is bishop. So if you translated that word as a bishop, then you were saying that this very kind of hierarchical, structural view of the church was right there in the Bible and nobody could argue with it.

Other people who didn't like the idea of bishops and archbishops, said no, no, no, you can't do that. You just call it overseers, supervisors, something like that. And also, words about kingship, kingdom, royal authority, this was to be a book about how God was over his church and the king was over his country.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, where there were differences of opinion, how were they resolved? I can imagine King James being very interested in interpretations of how authority should be treated.

JENKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, how were these differences of opinion resolved? Was it based on scholarship or was he the final committee of one? Or how did that work?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JENKINS: There was a famous description of him as the wisest fool in Christendom. He was a very kind of, you know, interventionist guy, exactly as you're saying. In most cases, they went for the high view. So you get words like bishop in the text. But they didn't go crazy. So you don't have what you might call some of the more extreme interpretations. They were strictly bound by scholarship.

And if King James said, well, you know, we absolutely have to have this word here, I think they would glare at him and say, we really don't think that's right and we're not going to make fools of ourselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with religious scholar Philip Jenkins. We're talking about the King James Bible. It is 400 years old this year. And as you might imagine, it had a great influence on the English-speaking Christian world. And we're talking about how it came about and what that influence has been.

You know, the King James Bible certainly has a role in American political history when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the U.S.'s 16th president. He laid his hand on a King James Bible, as did Barack Obama, almost 150 years later.

You were telling us earlier that the King James Bible has had a lot of influence on our understanding of what beautiful language is. And I want to play a clip that will, I think, be very familiar to many people around the world, certainly many Americans, and here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.

Unidentified Group: Yes.

LUTHER KING JR: Every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

MARTIN: Of course that is the reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech which was delivered in 1963. He's quoting from the Book of Isaiah. But tell us, where is the King James in that?

JENKINS: What he's doing is he's taking the King James Version as he is remembering it. He knows the text very well but, you know, like, the odd word here and there, which is a little bit different. But all the way through English language, when people want to use, if you like an exalted tone, they resort to this kind of English.

You mentioned Abraham Lincoln, you know, the Gettysburg Address begins with that line about four score and seven years ago. He's trying to put things in a King James tone. You know, he didn't say, eighty-seven years ago. The idea is that the English of the King James represents this very high plane that speakers try to aspire to.

MARTIN: Why is it that the King James Version is no longer used today? I would venture to say that most churches in the United States don't use the King James Version. They probably have copies here and there and you may hear the language in hymns, traditional hymns traditionally sung, but most churches don't use it. Why do you think that is?

JENKINS: Well, for one thing, there are a lot of places where the language has become really difficult for ordinary readers. So, I mean, in the 19th century, people had access to different kinds of manuscripts. They could see some of the verbal problems and they tried to bring the language up to date.

And I think it's fair to say, a lot of the reason bibles are probably far more accurate, they're far more scholarly, but certainly in English there's never been one which has vaguely come close to the King James in its literary verbal quality.

Whenever you think about the year 1611, you think about the other people who were around writing at that time and it begins with Shakespeare. This was probably the greatest ever time of English writings. It's not surprising that a bible from that age is so good.

So, it's very good that people have gone to more accurate, a more approachable, understandable versions of the Bible, but it would be a tragedy if they lost those roots in that particular translation.

MARTIN: But why do you think it is that the King James Version became, really, the standard for beautiful language? Is it just that beautifully written? You know, I'm thinking of all the traditional hymns that I grew up with, particularly in the African-American tradition and they draw upon the King James Version of the Bible.

JENKINS: Sure.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is? Is that at least as much political as it is the quality of the language? Why do you think it is that the King James Version became the standard for so long?

JENKINS: Partly I think it's the translators were brilliant at using the language of the day. You know, when Moses goes to Pharaoh, he doesn't say, you know, please let the tribes of Israel depart. It's let my people go. They had this great sense of resonance, of poetry, even in a declaration like that. They're not afraid to use simple, straightforward, declarative English. They're under no obligation to throw in, you know, six syllable words.

And it's not so much political, but think about it. For 300 years, basically, if you went to school anywhere in the English-speaking world, you learned through the Bible and through other works that were very dependent on the Bible. And over time, that language became the language that we live and think.

You know, there's a phrase that people use, which is, language speaks us. In other words, language, shapes the way we speak. Through the King James, it was scripture speaks us. And anywhere you go in the English language, there are all these, I mean, literally hundreds of phrases that we use that are directly from the King James...

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us. And anywhere you go in the English language, there are all these, I mean, literally hundreds of phrases that we use that are directly from the King James Bible and most of us have forgotten that that's where they're from.

MARTIN: Could you finally, before we let you go, is there a favorite passage or phrase from the King James Bible that resonates with you that you think of daily? If I were to - the one, the part that you have posted above your computer, for example. You know, we all have something on a Post-it note. What would yours be?

JENKINS: There's one from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is: Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is the weariness of the flesh. And I'm fond of that, which is there are too many books, so, what are doing?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JENKINS: And listen to this for, oh, I suppose, literally: Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What prophet hath in mind of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, another generation cometh. But the earth abideth forever.

MARTIN: Amen. Philip Jenkins is professor of religious studies at Penn State University. He is organizing a conference in April called the King James Bible and the world it made. It commemorates the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible and it's being hosted by Baylor University. But Professor Jenkins joined us from WPSU in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Professor Jenkins, thank you so much for joining us, and Happy New Year.

JENKINS: Thank you, and same to you.

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