The Everlasting Bible from King James to "Light Speed"

By Gutjahr, Paul | Humanities, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Everlasting Bible from King James to "Light Speed"


Gutjahr, Paul, Humanities


THE ENGLISH MONARCH MARY TUDOR, in her drive to restore Catholicism to Great Britain, had a penchant for persecuting Protestants. She had some 280 burned at the stake, earning her the sobriquet "Bloody Mary/' and her actions forced countless other Protestants to flee England and relocate in Switzerland. Among these exiles were two scholars, Anthony Gilby and William Whittingham, who conceived the idea of a Bible translation targeted for a common lay audience. In 1560, Gilby and Whittingham brought forth the Geneva Bible, a version that quickly became the accepted popular standard among English-speaking Protestants. Everything about the Geneva Bible was designed to make it accessible to the lay reader, from its stress on understandable and common language to its extensive marginal commentary running to more than a quarter of a million words. The translation itself showed its antimonarchical roots in the purges of Mary Tudor as it liberally used the word "tyrant" over four hundred times to describe a number of rulers throughout the biblical text.

For the next half century, the Geneva translation held sway as the most widely used Bible by those outside the clerical ranks who were serious about their religion. Its popularity would only wane in the wake of the appearance of a new translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I in 1604. James empaneled forty-seven scholars to work on a new translation of the Holy Scriptures, a commission which took seven years to complete. James's new translation came to be known throughout England as the 'Authorized Version" because it was the only translation he permitted to be used in his country's church services. In America, the translation came to be known by the name of its sponsoring monarch, the King James Bible (KJB).

Following in the footsteps of Gilby and Whittingham, James desired to give his subjects a vernacular Bible - a translation that could speak to the ordinary man and woman, an audience his translators called "the very vulgar." As the use of the K[B spread throughout England, it also became the favorite English translation of the Bible in America by the mid seventeenth century. American Puritans readily adopted it because it was largely free from the extensive - often intrusive - notes found throughout previous English translations of the text.

The KJB's place as the most popular English biblical translation in the United States remained for a stunning three and a half centuries. The story of the KJB is explored in "Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible/' an NEH-funded exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Only in the mid 1980s did other Bible versions begin to outsell the venerable KfB. The end of such a long and distinguished reign begs the question: What finally brought down the KJB as America's most popular Bible translation? The answer is complex, but it is partly found in the KJB's vernacular roots. The KJB had been designed to offer God's words in the common people's idiom. The Bible translations that ultimately replaced it also fell into this vernacular tradition, aiming to make God's words accessible to the most ordinary reader. Just how far Bible producers have gone in their attempts to reach a popular audience is but one fascinating aspect of the decline of the KJB in America's biblical culture.

New English translations of the Bible began to appear in the United States in the early nineteenth century, but none of them mounted a serious challenge to the KfB until 1881, when the Revised Version (RV) was released as a modern update to James's much loved Bible. Although initially well received, the RV never gained a lasting popularity. English translations began to multiply in the years following the RVs appearance; some of the most famous included the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1946), and Today's English Version (1966). Although each new English translation chipped away at the KJB's popularity, it was not until 1986 that another version unseated the King James Bible as the best-selling Bible translation in America. …

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