Why the KJV is the only Bible with power to unite

(RNS) 1604. England. Rebellious Puritans, establishment Anglicans and
Roman Catholics are (literally) at each other's throats. A new king
fears his reign will combust in a powder keg of religious strife and
anti-monarchical fervor.

So King James I does what any sensible monarch would do: He orders
up a new translation of the Bible.

King James' Bible failed miserably as a peacekeeper -- civil war
broke out in 1642 -- but enjoyed smashing success as a book. Published
in 1611, the King James Version (KJV) reigned supreme over English
translations for nearly three centuries, becoming the best-selling tome
in history.

And there may never be another like it.

"The Bible was the cohesive framework for English and American
society, and the King James Version was what people meant when they
spoke of `the Bible,"' said Leland Ryken, a professor of English at
Wheaton College in Illinois.

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

Chief among them is David Lyle Jeffrey, a professor of literature
and humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and an expert on the

"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.

Most of the Bible translations crowding American bookstores lack the
KJV's gravitas and spiritual substance, Jeffrey said, and their sheer
variety fractures Christian unity.

The need for the KJV itself was prompted by a related situation,
Jeffrey argues in a forthcoming book, "The King James Bible and the
World It Made."

In King James' England, the Bishops' Bible, favored by Anglicans,
prevailed in churches, while the Puritan-preferred Geneva Bible was read
in homes. Dissonances between the two versions sowed theological doubts
and divisions. Hoping to paper over those divides (and supersede the
anti-monarchical Geneva Bible) King James seized on the idea of a new,
unifying Bible.

"One could be forgiven for thinking that a similar case for a common
Bible in English is far stronger now than it was then," Jeffrey writes.

Jeffrey and other scholars acknowledged, though, that such a task
would be difficult.

"Another translation could be created, but it would never have the
cultural uniqueness and authority that the KJV had," said Timothy
Larsen, a Wheaton scholar and author of a book about the KJV's influence
on the Victorian era. "Too many choices would have to be made."

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.

"The variety of ways in which the Bible allows for different
translations demonstrates that it is a living, amazingly enduring
document," said Kristin Swenson, a religious studies scholar at Virginia
Commonwealth University.

"It allows for people to engage with it in so many different ways,"
added Swenson, author of "Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked
About Book of All Time."

The KJV is hardly lost in the thicket of translations, according to
Robert Sanford, an executive at the Christian publishing giant Thomas
Nelson. It annually ranks near the top of the company's sales.

"The KJV is still very much used by Americans today," Sanford said.

Still, some scholars lament the lack of an up-to-date English
translation with the majesty and musicality of the KJV, said K.
Sara-Jane Murray, a colleague of Jeffrey's at Baylor University.

If there's anyone who could pull that proposal off, it is Jeffrey,
she said. "A lot of scholars and artists around the world are dying to
collaborate on a project like this, and David is someone who could
definitely pull those people together and help them take great joy in
it," said Murray.

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke writes for Religion News Service.

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