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REVIEW: In 400 years, what hath the KJV wrought?


The 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible brings with it a surge of new books celebrating its history and influence.
Several volumes offer fascinating insights into the history of the KJV. In “Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011,” Gordon Campbell reminds us that the KJV arose during the era of Renaissance literature — including works of William Shakespeare and other English poets that perplexed me back in high school.
Campbell, a scholar with expertise in Renaissance literature, presents a clearly written study of the KJV’s influence. If you want to study the historical development of the KJV, this book is an excellent choice.
Campbell leads the reader from the beginnings of the Bible in English through the first commissioning of the KJV. He covers its development in the 17th through 19th centuries and also details its stunning influence that lingers still in the modern world.
For those fascinated by anecdotal information about the KJV, the book is packed with such nuggets. One example: The first edition of the KJV contained more than 70 pages of introductory material — including a liturgical calendar, an almanac, a royal coat of arms and a map of Canaan.
History buffs will love the fact that Campbell’s lengthy appendix contains all the names and backgrounds of those involved in translating the KJV, what section they worked on and interesting personal information about the individuals.
Leland Ryken covers similar ground in “The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation.”
However, Ryken pursues in more detail the great literary influence the KJV exerted on Western culture in the past four centuries. The author develops chapters dealing with the KJV’s influence on Bible translation, on the English language itself and — more pointedly — on both prose and poetic style over time.
Ryken’s love for the KJV is evident throughout, in clear statement and in more nuanced argument.
We should not regard the KJV simply as an ancient museum piece — something of a bygone age with no abiding relevance, Ryken writes.
Instead, we still profit by reading it. We can appreciate the basic sound translation philosophy that created it. We can be thankful that our modern culture is so profoundly influenced by it.
For an even closer look — in the greatest detail — of how the KJV has influenced American prose, consider “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” by Robert Alter, a renowned Old Testament literature scholar from the University of California at Berkeley.
Alter, perhaps better known for his outstanding translations of the Pentateuch and studies of Old Testament Hebrew literary style, here demonstrates his skills as an English literary critic.
“Pen of Iron” traces the pervasive influence of KJV’s language through six great works of American literature, including Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
For a history of the Bible not so much focused on the KJV, consider “The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of its Writing, Translation and Effect on Civilization” by Larry Stone.
Lavishly illustrated, the volume includes 23 poster-size pull-out pages from the world’s most important Bibles. Included are reproductions of famous manuscripts including Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, with accompanying descriptions on the back. You also will find reproductions from The Book of Kells, Wycliffe’s Bible, the Gutenberg Bible, Luther’s German New Testament, Tyndale’s New Testament, the Geneva Bible, and of course, the 1611 King James Bible.
This feature alone makes the modest price more than worthwhile. I purchased an extra copy so I could remove these beautiful pieces from one of them to frame and display in my study areas.
I would encourage you — whether a regular user of the KJV or not — to learn from these volumes. Each helps us to come to a greater appreciation of the incredible, long-lasting influence of this version of the Bible on our world.
These books also remind us to thank appropriately the ultimate source of biblical inspiration — God, the giver of “every good gift.”
That’s from James 1:17 — King James Version, of course.

MARK MASON preaches for the 36th Street Church of Christ in Vienna, W.Va., and teaches Bible for Ohio Valley University .

Filed under: God's Story Staff Reports

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