Happy 400th, King James Bible

A look at the classic and its progeny

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The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource

The King James Bible was not a book of poetry or philosophy or music or mystery but something of all these, which is one reason its rhythms remain embedded in our language 400 years after its publication on May 2, 1611. We commit to a "labor of love"; we "fight the good fight"; we shall "eat, drink and be merry," all "in the twinkling of an eye." All the more surprising then that the majestic translation was the work of a committee, commissioned by a King and promoted more for political and economic reasons than for spiritual or aesthetic ones.

In 1604, England's King James convened a group of scholars to translate Scriptures from the Hebrew and Greek into English as a way to consolidate his power; the Archbishop of Canterbury banned a competing version to help protect the interests of British printers. The KJB proceeded to dominate for centuries; even today, KJB purists say the new translations can't compare. Case in point: Jesus says, "Suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me" in the KJB, but "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them" in the easier-to-read New International Version, which has overtaken the KJB as America's best-selling Bible. Still, the KJB remains a sacred and secular icon. President Obama was sworn in to office on Abraham Lincoln's personal copy. As for its continuing importance among English royals, the Commemorative Prince William and Kate Middleton Royal Wedding Bible is also--natch--a King James.