The KJV was created during the Elizabethan era (if, as some scholars do, you stretch the definition a bit), perhaps the greatest moment the English language has known. William Shakespeare was wrapping up his contributions to English and would live only four more years after the KJV was unveiled. (Some people – numerologists and their prey, primarily – believe that Shakespeare wrote or helped to write the KJV and slipped his name into one of the Psalms. History gives no credence to these assertions.)
The Authorized Version has reigned supreme ever since, although it has, in the past century, faced stiff competition from new translations using modern language as well as more complete Hebrew and Greek sources for greater accuracy. Another poll gets somewhat different results for the under-35 group.
The KJV is justly renowned for its poetry of language. One could say, “I’ve noticed that you win some, and you lose some, and life doesn’t play favorites,” or you could phrase it as the KJV does: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). (I’d drop the “u” from “favour” and the “-eth” suffix, but that’s nitpicking.)
The KJV does require some annotation for modern audiences. When it tells us that Mary “was great with child,” it doesn’t mean she was a good baby-sitter one on one; it means she was hugely pregnant. We are told that Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” This was not selective amnesia; Joseph did not have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born. (This is the famous “know her in the biblical sense.”) And the Lord is a little opaque to 21st-century ears when he tells Saul, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” That was a common metaphor in ancient days, but no longer.
Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins is celebrating the KJV’s quatercentennial (video starts playing immediately). He said, “We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture and not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian.” Dawkins is undoubtedly using barbarian here as a synonym for uncultured and boorish. He went on to say, “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.” Ours is a more secular era than that of the writing of the KJV, but this will still require a certain legerdemain considering that this cultural resource is first and foremost a religious resource.
Still, Dawkins is right about those who ignore the King James Version. It is foundational to both our daily speech and the shape of modern Western civilization. As Kate Shellnut at the Houston Chronicle notes:
“During the past four centuries, the KJV has been known for its use of language, popularizing phrases now found in speeches, song lyrics, literature and everyday conversations. It’s the version that influenced Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner, Martin Luther King Jr., the Byrds and plenty of other cultural icons.”
Any book with this sort of power, especially one written by a committee, deserves to be celebrated.