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King James Bible turns 400

By Davin White

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four hundred years after the commission of the still-popular King James Bible, scholars and theologians say it continues to have a profound impact on Christianity, literacy and writing.

The King James Version of the Bible has directly influenced Pulitzer Prize-winning poets and writers, and impacted modern language with common phrases such as "woe is me" and "holier than thou" that first appeared in its pages.

Early in the 17th century, King James I of England wanted one Bible to unite British society and its Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, said Tyler Sergent, a visiting professor who teaches history and religion at Berea College in Kentucky.

"He sort of had a vision of unified Christianity in England," he said.

But the king took issue with some commentary found in one prominent Bible of the time.

The Geneva Bible, an immensely popular text that preceded the King James, featured political commentary (by way of marginal comments) that was both anti-Catholic and anti-monarchy, Sergent said.

King James commissioned 47 of the greatest scholars in Hebrew and Greek to translate earlier texts of the Old and New Testaments, said David Lyle Jeffrey, a distinguished professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University.

The scholars 400 years ago were so skilled that Jeffrey and other living translators have realized that today, they could not assemble 47 scholars of the same caliber in Hebrew and Greek -- a sobering thought, said Jeffrey, also director of Manuscript Research in Scripture and Tradition at Baylor University's Institute for Studies in Religion.

In the early 1600s, a moderately educated person in England could translate Hebrew and Greek. "It's just an astonishing level of linguistic competence in that period," Jeffrey said.    

To help guide them, the King James translators also relied on earlier versions of the Bible, such as the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva and the Tyndale.

Still, one religious studies professor at West Virginia University said it's difficult to grasp all the passages' original intent when the original texts are not in English.

Shelly Barrick Parsons, who also is the Presbyterian campus minister at WVU's Campus Ministry Center, said those who drafted the original King James Bible didn't use the best source texts available. Therefore, some of the words and meanings were changed, she said.

Five years after the King James was created, the Geneva Bible was banned in England and the King James "became dominant," Sergent said.

When the Mayflower arrived in America in 1620, the Pilgrims brought with them the Geneva Bible. By 1675, however, the King James became the Bible of choice in America, according to Jeffrey.

"It's an understatement to say that it was very important because it was translated into English," Parsons said.

By the 18th century, American schoolchildren learned grammar and rhetoric by way of Brown's Grammar and McGuffey's Readers, which gave examples of "excellent use of the language from the King James," Jeffrey said.

"It's no wonder it went on to influence an overwhelming majority of our writers," he said.

Today, one-third of all the Bibles in use today are the King James Version, he said.

The King James used an old-fashioned, dignified style that wasn't a very conversational English, Sergent said. An example he gave is: "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

"It creates an almost kind of poetic rhythm about it, and that was done very intentionally," Sergent said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poets like Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht have referenced the King James in allusions in their poetry, Jeffrey said.

In a paper Jeffrey published, he noted how the King James provided Hecht "with titles and sometimes, by means of a captured, evocative phrase, both theme and allusion."

Nemerov wrote poetry "rich in biblical language generally and King James language specifically," and even quoted the King James verbatim, Jeffrey wrote in the paper "Habitual Music: The King James Bible and English Literature."     

Sergent cited a quantitative study by professor and author David Crystal, who found 257 phrases in the King James Bible that have become everyday idioms of the English language. Some of the phrases or words are "skin of my teeth," "scapegoat," "reap the whirlwind" and "be horribly afraid."

It also accounts for the rhetoric you hear from Martin Luther King Jr., and African-American churches in the U.S. use the King James almost exclusively, Jeffrey said.

All but 18 of the 257 phrases Crystal noted actually appear in earlier versions of the Bible -- like the Geneva or the Bishop's -- but really "all of these phrases are coming through the King James, he said. "That's the way they have permeated our language," Sergent said.

That's because unless you're a scholar or an early historian, you've probably never read the Bishop's or the Geneva Bible.

Library lecture schedule

The Kanawha County Public Library is hosting a series of talks by Tyler Sergent, visiting professor of history and religion at Berea College in Kentucky. Two have already been held, but lectures remain at 1 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Elk Valley Branch Library at noon on Nov. 5 at the Riverside Branch Library, and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the St. Albans Branch Library. 

Reach Davin White at davinwhite@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.


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