Thou shalt read these stories

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.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Will

    Did you really HAVE to engage in that travesty of grammar because some people think it gives “Ye Olde Flavor”? “Thou shalt readeth”, forsooth!

    Baron Alfgar the Sententious

  • Jon in the Nati

    Regarding the LDS Church, many members use other translations than the KJV for personal research and study, and the church (so far as I know) does not forbid them from doing so. But the KJV remains the only version officially endorsed and published by the church and the only one read in meetings.

    One thing that I do like about this series of articles is that it does not paint users of the KJV/AV as rabid fundamentalists, although in practice insistence on the KJV is a pretty good indicator of a certain brand of fundamentalist Protestantism. Still, the ‘KJV-only movement’ is far from monolithic, and contains churches and individuals who take positions ranging from simply liking it best or because it is what they’ve always used, to those who believe that the KJV/AV is a divinely-inspired translation, to the exclusion of all others. That most conservative form of ‘KJV-onlyism’ is a pretty small subset of all Protestants, even within the conservative-evangelical community.

  • Bobby

    Well, OK, I have attempted to correct my King’s English …

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “My understanding is that the New International Version has, at least in some circles, become the king of modern translations.”

    Yup. I’m 34. The NIV Bible was completed when I was about a year old. Every church I’ve ever attended has used it as their standard translation. NASB is a distant second with some kids going for the Message or NLT because it’s more readable and understandable.

    Generally when I find people advocating for the KJV they’re either the KJV-only crowd (which I ignore) or just really like the language. The latter have a real point when it comes to ease of scripture memorization. I know people that just can’t wrap their heads around the NIV or NASB for memorization.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    FTR, some Anglicans like the KJV as well; I’ve heard it read in an Anglo-Catholic parish before.

    I’m not a fan of the NIV, and I generally read either the NRSV or the King James (I like the current Roman Catholic version, I guess NAB, pretty well too). Overall I’d say I prefer the King James above all others, both because of the elevated language, and because they include passages that many modern versions leave out (Jesus sweating blood at Gethsemane, the angel descending into the pool at Bethesda, the explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John, etc.). I’m aware of the reasons for leaving these passages out, but I find them unconvincing.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I’m also curious: what translation do English-speaking Eastern Orthodox tend to prefer, or do they have their own version?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I’m also curious: what translation do English-speaking Eastern Orthodox tend to prefer, or do they have their own version?

    Naturally, the OT is the Koine Greek Septuagint, translated into English. In places where the liturgical language is Greek, it is read untranslated.

    The NT varies. The Orthodox Study Bible has the NKJV; the parish I used to visit regularly had the RSV in the pews, and I believe that is what was read liturgically. I am told some do use the KJV/AV liturgically as well.

  • Matt

    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.

    Those numbers need to be divided by the number of people in each group that have read the Bible at all. Otherwise it may just reflect greater Biblical literacy in general among African-Americans.

  • Cathy G.

    The NIV may have been king for awhile, but the ESV (2007) seems to be gaining ground – many evangelical churches are picking it instead because they don’t like the gender-inclusive changes in this year’s new NIV (or the no-longer-with-us TNIV).

  • Marie

    I do wonder if there is any dissension in the Mormon ranks as far as using the KJV or other translations.

    On the whole, I would say no. Though I am sure they are out there, I have not met a single Mormon who uses a different translation in their personal study. I don’t think the number of members who use alternate translations would be statistically significant amongst English speaking Mormons. Why do Mormons stick to the KJV in their personal study?
    1. KJV wording is familiar to Mormons. They are in the camp of people that find the wording beautiful. They are probably more likely to be disappointed or even cringe when hearing the Christmas story or other traditional readings in a different translation.
    2. The KJV is printed by the Church. Not only do English speaking Mormons overwhelmingly stick to the KJV; they overwhelmingly use a copy printed by the church. Why? It has extensive cross referencing in the footnotes, the Topical Guide, and the Bible Dictionary. While other translations and indeed other printings of the KJV also have guides such as these, the LDS printing incorporates all LDS scriptures in its reference sections and not just the Old and New Testaments.

    It should also be noted that while Mormons use the KJV as their official version they still hold to the “as far as it is translated correctly” stand of Joseph Smith. The Church acknowledges that translation and transcription errors (both accidental and intentional) have existed in since first century Christianity. They do not hold the Bible as inerrant as most of the rest of Christianity does.

  • Bobby

    Great feedback and insight. Appreciate it.

  • Thaddeus

    I suspect at least part of the reason for the LDS Church’s resistance to “modernizing” the Biblical language is because the KJV language best matches the language in the other books of scripture (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price).

    In The Book of Mormon, you have Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, and Jesus quoting Isaiah (in KJV language) quite a lot. Would a change from KJV to NIV necessitate a change in these quotations, too?

  • Thaddeus

    Also, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST, also known as the Inspired Version – the unofficial, but uniquely Mormon English Bible translation) was based on the KJV. The changes that were introduced might not fold well into the NIV.

  • Eric

    To add to what other knowledgeable LDS have said already, I am one of those rare Mormons who uses other translations in my personal study, and I know I’m far from the only one (you’ll see references to non-KJV translations in a number of LDS-oriented blogs, although LDS bloggers aren’t always representative of the church as a whole). But I’d never consider using the KJV in any church-related capacity, such as giving a talk (that’s what we call our sermons) or teaching Sunday school. The KJV is firmly entrenched in LDS culture as well as formal policy.

    That said, church publications (and even some church leaders in our twice-yearly conferences) have occasionally used modern translations (usually the NIV) to clarify short Biblical excerpts where the KJV is obscure. Modern translations are also used in some religion classes at Brigham Young University.

    I thought Ms. Stack did a good job with her article. Although this is one of those issues I have much interest in, I learned plenty from the article I hadn’t known before.

  • Christian politics

    Is this because someone thinks the KJV is written in real English? As if the language is only 400 yrs old? Odd