The old joke, said Marshall St. John, pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church, is that if the King James Bible was good enough for the apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.
The English translation was published in 1611, 400 years ago this year and 16 centuries after the life of the apostle of Christ.
Nevertheless, the most beloved edition of the Bible, though considered archaic by many contemporary readers, has greatly shaped the English-speaking world, according to experts.
“It’s influence on English literature, culture, politics, theology and church life is greater than any other English book,” said Dr. Phil Towner, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society. “And it continues to be a Bible that is treasured, even by those churches or churchgoers who might want to use a more modern translation.”
Richard Barr, pastor of Mountain View Christian Church, which will honor the KJV’s anniversary this Sunday, said he grew up with the King James.
“I recommend it as far as being an excellent translation,” he said, adding that his members are free to use any translation they’d like.
Steve Roberson, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, an independent Baptist church in Red Bank, said he was asked by the pulpit committee when he interviewed for his position more than a decade ago for assurance that he used the King James Version.
Since then, he said, he has continued to use it in the pulpit and in teaching. However, he said, people shouldn’t think they’re better Christians if they use the KJV.
“There would be a whole lot of confusion if I changed,” Roberson said. “But there are a whole lot of good Christians [and] good preachers that use other versions. We’re all preaching the same truth, so it’s not taking away from the same truth.”
The Rev. Archie David Poole, 61, pastor of independent Coulterville Baptist Church near Sale Creek, uses the King James Version exclusively and said he believes it to be closest to the original Greek and Hebrew texts.
“If you take a word out here and add a word or two here, you’ve totally changed the meaning,” he said. “If you lose the interpretation of anything, you’ve lost the whole [importance] of that particular book.”
Newer Christian denominations, nondenominational churches and church plants generally prefer the New International Version, Barr said.
“It’s taken over in the younger set of churches,” he said.
Wayside Presbyterian’s St. John said the King James was the most popular Bible in the Presbyterian Church of America until about 20 years ago. Today, he said, most PCA churches use the English Standard Version.
“Nowadays,” he said, “most people are getting away from [the KJV].”
The King James survived and thrived, according to Barr, initially because it was King James I of England’s desire that churches use one single translation, one over which he could have sway.
To complete the publication, he said, the king assembled the best translators, linguists, historians and scholars that were available. It remained the leading translation in the British Empire, he said, because the king controlled the printing presses and the churches.
Still, Barr said: “It was well done. It helped develop the English language as a language in transition. It was instrumental in developing English grammar and language. If you do not have an understanding of the King James Version, you do not have understanding of many other things in literature.”
Within 50 years of its completion, said Towner, it began to shape English writers and has continued through authors such as John Milton, John Bunyan, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and, in the 21st century, the likes of Cormac McCarthy.
“It’s still a part of the literary canon,” he said, “and will be so.”
St. John, 63, said he grew up with the King James, memorized verses from it and still feels comfortable with it for personal use.
“Elizabethan English is no problem for me,” he said, “but for the younger generation, they’ve moved beyond Elizabethan English.”
Roberson, 61, said probably 99 percent of independent Baptist pastors still use the KJV. But while he chooses to stay out of the battle of the value of one translation over another, he said newer translations haven’t increased general interest in the Bible in the United States.
“There was a certain awe and reverence and respect [to it 30 or more years ago],” he said. “In my opinion, it has lost the authority it had in America.”
However, said Barr, serious Bible students who prefer another translation should still keep a King James Version alongside their favorite version.
“It can keep you from going astray,” he said. “It’s an excellent translation.”
Towner said celebrations marking the KJV’s 400th anniversary are not necessarily attempts to drive people back toward the translation. Instead, he said, they’re opportunities “for the church worldwide to gather around ... and celebrate the Bible [translation in order to understand] and maintain its place in culture.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...