To every thing there is a season, and Religion News Service this week chose to publish an excellent package of stories and sidebars — eight items in all — on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. (Here and here, Sarah earlier highlighted some of the coverage of the KJV milestone.)
The RNS package includes a piece on books tied to the anniversary, a Q&A on how the KVJ came to be and survey data on how many Americans own KJV Bibles. Short sidebars explore humorous KJV printing errors in the days before spell check and list 12 popular phrases believed to have originated with the KJV.
But the meatiest elements of the package — in my humble opinion — are three stories that tackle neat yet newsworthy angles that I have not seen in other coverage. And yes, I understand — and embrace — the irony of using an adjective such as “neat” in a post related to The King’s English.
• In the first story, Daniel Burke examines “why the KJV is the only Bible with the power to unite”:
Twentieth century advances in technology, language, biblical scholarship and niche marketing gradually dethroned the KJV, leading to a more democratic variety of competing translations.
But as the KJV marks its 400th birthday this year, some Christian scholars are hoping to spark interest in a new Bible translation capable of attaining the KJV’s cultural authority, poetic power and theological depth.
Chief among them is David Lyle Jeffrey, a professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and an expert on the KJV.
“The celebration of the KJV has made us realize that there is a job to be done to create something of similar anchoring value for readers of the Bible in English,” he said.
Scholars in the RNS report lament “the lack of an up-to-date English translation with the majesty and musicality of the KJV.” It’s a compelling angle, filled with superb background and history.
I do wish that a few more details had been included concerning sales figures and rankings of modern-day translations. This section of the story, for example, begs for elaboration:
Bible translation is inherently theological, Larsen said, and getting contemporary Christian camps on the same page, so to speak, would be next to impossible.
As a result, Bible use is more democratic today, with no one translation wearing the crown, which some experts say is a good thing.
My understanding is that the New International Version has, at least in some circles, become the king of modern translations. According to one sales chart, it’s the only translation with higher sales than the KJV.
• In the second story, Adelle M. Banks writes about the enduring popularity of the KJV in black churches:
(RNS) On Sundays, C. Elizabeth Floyd, shows up for worship at Trinity Baptist Church of Metro Atlanta, with her Bible in hand.
But the large, black leather Bible with dog-eared pages and hand-written notes in the margins isn’t just any Bible: It’s the King James Version.
And Floyd, like many African-Americans, wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s more than mere tradition. A civil rights veteran called the KJV’s thees and thous “romantic,” and a scholar spoke of black churches’ “love affair” with the king’s English.
I knew that the KJV was preferred among black congregations of my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — but Banks’ story explains the trend on a larger scale, with excellent analysis.
I would appreciate more concrete details on what number and percentage of black churches use the KJV, but this is as close as the RNS story comes:
More than other Americans, African-Americans have clung to the KJV’s 400-year-old elevated prose. According to a recent study by LifeWay Research, only 14 percent of African-Americans have never read the KJV, compared to 27 percent of U.S. adults overall.
I suspect that more precise stats are just not available, but I’d love to see them if they are.
• In the third story, Peggy Fletcher Stack offers a great primer on why Mormons use the KJV along with the “Book of Mormon”:
(RNS) Though many early Mormon texts and speeches mirror the English prose of the King James Bible, it was not always the Mormons’ only authorized version of Holy Writ.
In fact, Mormon founder Joseph Smith had so many reservations about its language that he stated his new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believed the Bible to be the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly.”
It took more than a century and a half after the church’s 1830 founding for the Utah-based LDS Church to make exclusive use of the King James Version “official.”
The KJV’s move from “commonly used” to “official” began in the 1950s with the leadership of J. Reuben Clark, then a member of the LDS Church’s governing First Presidency, explains Philip Barlow in his book, “Mormons and the Bible,” and in an essay in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
I do wonder if there is any dissension in the Mormon ranks as far as using the KJV or other translations.
But overall, it’s a terrific story.
Kudos to RNS for a wonderful example of enterprise reporting by a team of Godbeat pros.
Image: Title page of the first edition of the King James Bible, housed in the British Museum.