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Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns

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Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns

Arts & Life

Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

This year, one of the most influential books in world history is celebrating a major birthday. The King James Version of the Bible was published 400 years ago. It's no longer the top-selling Bible, but as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, in those four centuries, it's woven itself deeply into our speech and our culture.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Let's travel back to 1603: King James I, who had ruled Scotland, ascended to the throne of England. What he found, says Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester in England, was a country suspicious of the new king.

Mr. GORDON CAMPBELL (Historian, University of Leicester): He was regarded as a foreigner in the first instance. He spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him.

HAGERTY: At that time, England was in a Bible war between two English translations: The Bishops' Bible was read in churches. It was clunky, inelegant. The Geneva Bible was the choice of the Puritans and the people. It was bolder, more accessible.

Mr. DAVID LYLE JEFFREY (Historian, Baylor University): The problem with the Geneva Bible was that it had marginal notes.

HAGERTY: David Lyle Jeffrey is a historian of biblical interpretation at Baylor University.

Mr. JEFFREY: And from the point of view of the royalists, and especially King James I, these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings.

HAGERTY: Those notes referred to kings as tyrants, they challenged regal authority, and King James wanted them gone. So he hatched an idea: Bring the bishops and the Puritans together, ostensibly to work out their differences about church liturgy. But as dramatized in a new documentary, "The King James Bible: The Book That Changed the World," his true goal was to maneuver them into proposing a new Bible, one more to his liking.

(Soundbite of film, "The King James Bible: The Book That Changed the World")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: You are suggesting a completely new translation of God's holy word, agreeable to everyone.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. With all things considered, I...

Unidentified Man #1: Gentlemen, you have spoken excellent good sense for the first time.

HAGERTY: With that, James commissioned a Bible without those seditious notes. Gordon Campbell, who has written a book about the King James Bible, says 47 translators worked line by line for seven years.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It is, I think, the most scrupulous process of Bible translation that has ever been.

HAGERTY: What astonishes David Jeffrey is that a committee could produce such beauty.

Mr. JEFFREY: The quality of the poetry is extraordinarily high. It's memorable, it's beautiful, and in the KJV, it's distinctively the voice of God.

HAGERTY: He says, consider Isaiah 40.

Mr. JEFFREY: Comfort ye, comfort ye by people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

Now, see, that's not street discourse. We don't talk like that to each other, do we?

HAGERTY: Four hundred years later, newer, colloquial translations have pushed the King James aside. It's mainly used in African-American, Mormon and a few Protestant churches. But in moments of tragedy or turmoil or change, leaders have often turned to the King James, as did President Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President BILL CLINTON: Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind.

HAGERTY: Or President Bush after the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This quote actually comes from the New International Version.]

HAGERTY: And when Martin Luther King dreamed, only the King James would suffice.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (Reverend; Civil Rights Leader): I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing)

HAGERTY: The King James is the poetry that inspired Handel's "Messiah," but the words also captivated modern musicians. The Byrds sang from Ecclesiastes.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn, Turn, Turn")

THE BYRDS (Music Group): (Singing) A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep.

HAGERTY: Simon and Garfunkel echoed the Gospels.

(Soundbite of song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water")

SIMON & GARFUNKEL (Music Group): (Singing) Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

HAGERTY: And when Kansas voiced its existential angst, it turned to the Psalms.

(Soundbite of song, "Dust in the Wind")

KANSAS (Music Group): (Singing): All we are is dust in the wind, dust in the wind. Everything is dust in the wind.

HAGERTY: And then there's great literature. Gordon Campbell says even the secular novel is drenched in the prose and poetry of the King James.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Just think about titles: "This Side of Paradise," Fitzgerald, "The Beautiful and the Damned"; John Steinbeck, "East of Eden," "Grapes of Wrath"; Faulkner, "Go Down Moses," "Absalom Absalom." There are loads of them.

HAGERTY: The King James is woven into our lives. It was read in churches and family devotionals for centuries, and today its language is buried in hundreds of everyday phrases.

Unidentified Man #3: Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket.

Unidentified Woman #1: Apple of his eye.

Unidentified Man #4: Can a leopard change its spots?

Unidentified Woman #2: Put your house in order.

Unidentified Man #5: Put words in her mouth.

Unidentified Man #6: The root of the matter.

Unidentified Man #7: By the skin of your teeth.

Unidentified Woman #3: By the sweat of your brow.

Unidentified Woman #4: The straight and narrow.

Unidentified Man #8: The writing is on the wall.

Unidentified Man #9: No rest for the wicked.

Unidentified Woman #5: The blind leading the blind.

Unidentified Woman #6: Fall by the wayside.

Unidentified Man #10: Fall from grace.

Unidentified Man #11: How the mighty have fallen.

Mr. JEFFREY: These phrases have become part and parcel, then, of the general usage in the English language.

HAGERTY: Again, David Jeffrey.

Mr. JEFFREY: We do not recognize them any longer, perhaps, as biblical unless we have a pretty good memory for the KJV.

HAGERTY: Gordon Campbell says this Bible is a foundation of the English language.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It's in the texture of our society rather than on the surface of it, I think. But if you trace back who we are, how we speak, how we think, many of those things have their origins in the King James Bible.

HAGERTY: He and others say that new translations will come and go as our language changes with each generation. But as long we can understand the King James Bible, this four-century-old book will be seen as the voice of God and the highest poetry of man.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn, Turn, Turn")

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