Four centuries ago a literary landmark was published. Today marks the birthday of the King James Version of the Bible, arguably the most influential book ever published in the English language. Those active in scholarly circles at bibliocentric institutions are popping the cork on their sparkling grape juice today, since for many the King James Bible represents the real liberation of God’s message. In some sense, the KJV also represents the origins of Protestant movement. Liberating the Bible from the clutches of scholarly Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the King James Bible made the book accessible to the English-speaking world. As direct access to the Bible grew, the pontifical power of Rome (with apologies to besainted John Paul II) came increasingly under question. Inquiring minds wanted to know what God himself said. Of course, the Bible soon enough would evolve into a lash in the able hands of power-hungry theocrats.
Today the New International Version outsells the venerated King James. Some very conservative groups still hold to the King James Version as an “inspired translation” that no others can touch. The New International Version was hailed by evangelicals as a more up-to-date, safe translation of the Bible when it first appeared. The fact remains, however, that translations can never fully replicate the original. This is a major problem of bibliolatry. Languages are systems of thought and direct translation never fully captures the “meaning” of the original. Few who adore the Bible have the time to truly learn Hebrew and Greek, so guardianship of the truth must be passed to a reliable translation. The King James, in turn, also became the basis for some shaky theological ideas that are challenged by more accurate translations.
As the Internet rings with stories of the death of Osama bin Laden, the dangers of absolute religious adherence to any book of faith should become clear. Bibles, Qurans, Talmuds – these may be guideposts along the way, but they are often mistaken for the end of the journey. Written texts are subject to interpretation and even the KJV is read different ways by different believers. Instead of worshipping books, we would be better advised to read them. And if from that reading we learn to think then the time of the original composers of sacred writ will not have been wasted. That would be cause for celebration indeed.