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The King James Bible is still many believers' translation of choice

It was not the first Bible printed in English.

It was not the first Bible authorized by English royalty.

But the King James Bible stands alone in its impact over four centuries on believers and nonbelievers all over the world.

Gordon Campbell, author of "The Story of the King James Bible, 1611-2011," wrote that for nonbelievers, "it is a repository of cultural values, a great work of literature, a realization of the power and beauty of the English language.

"For believers, it is much more, because it renders into English content that inspires."

The King James Bible turns 400 years old this year, and the milestone has been marked by celebrations focusing on its literary, historical and cultural influence.

The celebrations also have sparked religious conversation about whether the King James Bible is the inspired word of God, given to the translators who labored for seven years before finishing their work.

Dr. Joel Hoffman, a former college professor and author, compares the King James version to an ancient map.

"Those that navigate the Bible solely with the 400-year-old translation journey in peril," he said.

English has changed over the years, Hoffman said, and modern translators are better able to understand and convey the ancient language of the Bible.

Local pastors Ron Roddy of Cornerstone Baptist Church and Wayne Smith, formerly of Blessed Hope Baptist Church, disagree.

The King James Bible is God's word, they say.

"The King James version has the word of God the father," Smith said. "It is not something in the wind. It is real."

Roddy said some might read the King James Bible out of preference, but he and others read it out of conviction.

"This is the final authority and we are not changing it," Roddy said. "We read with conviction, and conviction is something you die for."

'For the common people'

Roddy and Smith share a similar path. Both grew up in non-spiritual households - Roddy in Lancaster, Smith near Clover. They both became Christians in their early 20s.

Roddy listened to the preaching of the Rev. Hubert Faulkenberry of Eastside Baptist Church. At home, he tried to look up the passages Faulkenberry quoted, but could not find them in his wife's Bible, a Revised Standard Version.

"Get me the Bible my pastor has," Roddy said. Ever since, the King James is the Bible Roddy has used.

As he grew spiritually, Roddy said, "I wanted to know the history of the King James Bible." He learned "it was written for the common people, and the translators were Godly men."

The 54 translators represented the cream of England's religious community. They did not set out to create a new translation.

According to the preface of the 1611 edition, the translators "never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against."

Bible translation, scholars suggest, got its start in the 5th or 4th century before Christ, when Old Testament writings such as Nehemiah were translated from Hebrew into the more widely-spoken Aramaic.

By the time of the King James, there had been at least eight major translations of the Bible.

For Roddy, Smith and others, the translation process used for the King James was in God's hands.

"God inspired every word of the book," Roddy said.

"I feel I have God's book in my hands," Smith said.

Other translations, they said, rely on people, their thoughts, their words into the Bible.

'Ark' or 'box'?

Manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have been unearthed since the publication of the King James Bible.

But the King James translators' text is reliable when compared to later manuscripts, Winthrop University religion professor Peter Judge said.

Some of the manuscripts consulted by the King James translators were "fragments, no bigger than a thumbnail," he said. "There were so many variations. It is a reliable text in spite of its manuscripts."

Since the publication of the King James version, there have been numerous other translations, among them the American Standard in 1901 and the Revised Standard in 1952.

Even since the 1970s there have been many translations - some more contemporary than others.

The number of translations also caused confusion for new Christians, Roddy said.

"There are more than 100 different translations," he said. "Which one is it?"

Contemporary translations such as the Good News, publish in 1976, tout it as "the Bible in today's English."

In "today's English" the "ark of the covenant" becomes "The Lord's Covenant Box."

This explains why contemporary translations often fail, Judge said. They are too simplistic.

Newer translations fail because they are done because publishers need book sales, Roddy said.

"The King James version outsells them all," Roddy said. "God has blessed the King James version. It is the monarch of books.

"The proof of its inspiration lies in its preservation."

'Very high plane'

Some dismiss the King James Bible because it was written in a style of language that was already on the way out in 1611. No ones uses "thee" and "thou" - some of the simple constructions prevalent in the King James Bible - they say.

But it is the language, which some compare to poetry, that makes the King James Bible endure, Judge said.

"It is not just what is said," Judge said, "but how it is said, the brevity of how it is said."

The language has a majesty that pulls you in, he said.

Roddy never had a problem with the language. If he encountered an unfamiliar word, he looked it up in the dictionary. Its poetic style, he said, made it easy to memorize.

The style of the King James Bible befits God's status, Roddy said.

"When I hear him speak, I hear the King speaking," Roddy said. "You can't take his works and make him sound like a pauper. I am reading the preserved word of God. I'm quoting royalty."

The style, substance and in some instances word-for-word recitation of the King James Bible has been used by authors, politicians, statesmen and spacemen.

President Abraham Lincoln sought the tone of the King James Bible when he wrote the Gettysburg Address.

"The idea is that the English of the King James represents this very high plane that speakers try to aspire to," Philip Jenkins, religious studies professor at The Pennsylvania State University, told National Public Radio.

Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased the book of Isaiah from the King James Bible when he delivered what came to be known as his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

When man first saw Earth as he came around the dark side of the moon, he turned to the King James Bible.

On Dec. 24, 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were the first humans to get a first-hand view of how the Earth looked from space.

To convey their thoughts, the trio recited the story of Creation from the book of Genesis from the King James Bible.

'Bible of the heart'

As the major Protestant translation for at least three centuries, the King James Bible's spiritual impact is considerable.

Initially, the King James was produced as a church Bible, chained to the pulpits throughout England.

It evolved into a personal Bible, helping to spread the word of the Protestant Reformation, which expounded that people could have a personal relationship with God without the intercession of a church official.

Having a personal Bible also played a key role in increasing the literacy rate worldwide.

And as a personal Bible, it is one that empowers.

Over four decades of preaching, Wayne Smith said the King James Bible meets the hunger of those seeking God. The power of its scriptures is a reason some shy from it, he said.

"God's book will tell you what's wrong. People don't want to hear that."

The King James Bible has always been a source of comfort, Smith said. He has relied on its words to help with the funerals of his parents, one of his wife's parents, his brother and a daughter.

He often turns to the passages of the book of Revelation in which John, the author, describes heaven to assist him.

"God gives strength," Smith said.

The impact of the King James Bible endures, said Judge, the Winthrop professor, because it is a tradition of the people. Most often it is the Bible families use to record momentous events such as births, deaths and weddings.

It also endures because of its language, he said.

"It is magical, mysterious," Judge said. "Its mystery is uplifting. The language is out of the ordinary. Linguistically, it pulls us out of the everyday."

Author Gordon Campbell said the King James Bible endures because of its "long history at the center of the religious culture of the English-speaking world. It is valued by everyone who is a Christian by conviction or background - even by those who for one reason or another use another translation.

"Other translations may engage the mind, but the King James version is the Bible of the heart."

The bible on display

The University of South Carolina is displaying its collection of historic Bibles at the Hollings Special Collection Library through August.

"Four Hundred Years of the Kings James Bible" includes a folio printing of the King James dated 1611 (photo inset); pages from the Coverdale Bible dated 1533, the first complete Bible in English; a 1685 edition of John Eliot's Indian Bible, the first Bible printed in America; and a copy of the first King James Bible printed in America in 1782.

The exhibit also traces the influence of the King James Bible on literature, politics and culture.

The library is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information, call 803-777-3847.

Don Worthington 803-329-4066