After 400 years, is technology rendering KJV redundant?
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams poses for photographers with the 400 year old King James Bible at Lambeth Palace Library's newest exhibition in London, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. Lambeth Palace Library's new exhibition 'Out of the Original Sacred Tongues', which is open until July 29, 2011, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Version.
Andy Johnson, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Friday, December 30, 2011 4:33PM EST
More than four centuries ago, the invention of the printing press revolutionized the written word and made it possible for the then-brand new King James Version of the Bible to become the most widely-distributed book on the planet and the definitive translation of the scriptures.
That book, complete with its thees and thous and strange idioms and expressions transplanted from another era, had a profound and unprecedented influence on the way English-speaking people thought, spoke and viewed the world.
Now, as English-speaking Christians mark the 400th anniversary of the KJV's birth in 1611, technology is once again dramatically changing the way the Bible is read and interacted with, changing the very way Christians interpret their faith.
"'Please tap to Matthew 1:1" may be what we hear from the pulpit some day,'" said Mark Stephenson, author of "Web-Empowered Ministry" and a consultant who helps churches adapt to the era of the Internet, social media, and devices such as tablets and smart phones.
"Technology is taking the Bible to new levels of convenient access and interactive understanding. Paper Bibles have physical limitations that limit where it can be, and when it can be read. The complete Bible text is now available online, on a computer, and on e-readers, tablets, phones," he said.
And though the King James Version may have been considered the definitive English translation for hundreds of years, there are now plenty of other widely accepted, accurate and modern translations that are readily available at the fingertips of anyone online.
Stephenson, who is based in Ohio, said he uses his Android smart phone to access the Bible in any number of different translations at any given time. It's always in his pocket.
"The Bible is literally always at my finger tips and only a few taps away," Stephenson told CTVNews.ca in an interview conducted, perhaps appropriately, over email.
"The Bible app I use has an audio option as well. All I need to do is click on 'play' and the scripture is read out loud and I can follow along reading the text."
Maps, concordances and a search tool are all there too, along with reading plans that help the user get through the Bible in a year, or functions that allow group discussion of passages and online Bible studies.
And in the very near future, Stephenson predicts, electronic Bibles will become even more interactive and integrated, with a focus on linking to interactive resources and creating social networks among believers, outside the walls of the church.
"This is the next big leap in delivery of the Word of God since the printing press," he said.
"The interactive and connected Bible of the near future will bring us the Word of God in the way that we can each understand it the best and will include options to explore deeper and to connect with others to study together and to learn together."
KJV a unifying, binding force?
Interestingly, the King James Version of the Bible accomplished many of those same goals 400 years ago.
Though previous English translations such as the Geneva Bible were already in existence, it was the official version authorized by King James himself that would quickly become widely available throughout the entire far-flung English-speaking world.
Within 100 years of the first versions coming off the printing press, copies had radiated out from England to Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the wilds of North America, India, the West Indies, parts of Asia and virtually anywhere else the English language was spoken.
"It became one of the few things that bound together the increasingly diverse and far-flung English speaking world," said Ian Henderson a religious studies professor and translation expert at McGill University.
The ubiquitous nature of the KJV allowed Christians in all those places to possess their own copy of the scriptures and to interpret it in whatever context they found themselves, from a lonely diplomatic posting in British-ruled India, to the Wild West of America. It also helped create a deep sense of community among believers who could come together to read, discuss and interpret the words that formed the foundation of their faith – regardless of whether they were anywhere near a church.
"It had a deep social value," Henderson said, explaining that for most of the last 400 years the KJV was used as a sort of reverse dictionary and was often the text with which people learned to read and comprehend the written word.
In many homes, he said, it was read aloud on a daily basis during family devotions.
As a result, the KJV deeply informed the way Westerners viewed the world.
"Regardless of which community you belonged to within the English-speaking world, regardless of your beliefs to a large extent, this text would be the text you would use to think and speak about all sorts of deep realities, certainly about God but also sports and whatever else came to mind," he said.
"No matter what you believed you were able to think in words that came from St. Paul, no matter what you believed you thought the 'truth would set you free,' which is Jesus speaking in John's gospel."
That commonality of thought, language and belief throughout the English-speaking world no longer exists to the same degree, but the KJV's footprints are evident everywhere throughout Western art, culture and language.
Whenever someone walks on "streets paved with gold," dies of "a broken heart," realizes that "a leopard cannot change its spots" or admits that "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," they pay tribute to the KJV and the scholars who translated it.
In fact, those scholars took great pains to translate the original Greek and Hebrew scriptures as accurately and as literally as possible -- even when the words didn't necessarily make sense in the culture of the time.
Many expressions that sounded foreign and awkward 400 years ago ("by the skin of his teeth" comes to mind) have now been adopted into common English and are used daily by people who have no idea they are quoting the KJV.
Rather than simply remove the awkwardly-translated expressions and phrases and replace them with more modern and contextual language, as later translators did, the translators recruited by King James I sought to preserve the style and tone of the original writings, while at the same time ensuring the average reader could understand the message, Henderson said.
"There was a deep sense that much of this is poetry, God-given, and it isn't supposed to sound like you just wrote it yourself, it isn't supposed to sound too familiar and cozy and comfy."
Internet era a "stage" in the Bible's evolution
With a history of printing the KJV that is almost as old as the book itself, the University of Cambridge's story is deeply intertwined with the official translation authorized by King James I.
The first edition rolled off the Cambridge University Press in 1629, followed by a second edition in 1638 -- both of which are considered formative in the process of revising the original 1611 text.
The university has maintained its copyright to publish the KJV -- one of a select few publishers granted rights from the monarchy -- and is now the longest continuous publisher of the Bible.
For hundreds of years, that didn't change much, said Chris Wright, Bibles director at the Cambridge University Press.
He told CTVNews.ca that printing technology improved over the years, mistakes became less frequent and slight variations were made to the text to improve its readability. And Cambridge came up with hundreds of different editions, sizes and bindings to meet various market demands for the wildly popular book.
But for the most part, the KJV just kept rolling off the presses and people kept buying it.
Four hundreds of years, he said simply, "the Bible was the KJV."
"It was probably never even referred to as the King James Version because up until the end of the 19th century it was simply the only version, it was the only one people knew about in English."
Not surprisingly, old Cambridge catalogues show numerous versions of the KJV available for order, across a wide spectrum of sizes, styles and prices, he said.
But in the last 50 years or less, Cambridge has had to adapt its business strategy when it comes to printing the Bible, Wright said.
"It's no longer the case that the KJV is the Bible of choice," he said.
Cambridge now publishes as many as 10 different translations of the Bible, from the English Standard Version to the New International Version and the Revised English Bible. In fact, the KJV makes up just a tiny fraction of those Bibles, mostly in high-end, specialty editions for a niche market.
"We continue to publish the (King James Version of the) Bible for reasons of historical continuity more than anything else. We've been doing it quite a long time and we'll continue to keep doing it for a long time," Wright told CTVNews.ca from Cambridge, England.
The university has no plans to enter the digital age when it comes to the KJV. Others are already doing that and doing it well, and Wright said the university has decided to stay focused on its area of expertise -- the publication of fine printed products.
However, the KJV remains the "cornerstone" of Cambridge's Bibles division, he said, and the Cambridge University Press has produced three new editions in 2011 to reflect that, including a "flipback" style version -- the first of its kind in the U.K.
Perhaps surprisingly, given his role at Cambridge, Wright said he's not saddened by the KJV's diminished place on the world stage and the role technology is playing in shaping the future of the Bible.
It's simply the latest development, he said, in the evolution of the book many consider to be the most influential piece of literature ever written.
"The Achbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Rowan Williams) spoke about it last month and he reminded people that the translators of the King James Version were not themselves intending or expecting to produce a definitive edition of the Bible," Wright said.
"They wanted to make a good version even better. He made that point. It's a stage on the path, it's not fixed for all time but actually a developmental stage. The KJV is not the end of the process, but part of it."
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