We know that the Bible is both the most controversial and most popular book of all time. It was the first to be printed on Guetenburg’s printing press. Its sales have far surpassed any other book. It’s also the one that people choose to burn, to put down, and to cast doubt upon.
At one point in America’s history, it could be said that the Bible– particularly the King James Version– permeated the culture to the point that you were uneducated if you did not know portions of it:
Americans at the time mostly agreed with these sentiments, because the impact of the KJV was everywhere so obvious. It was obvious for business, with major firms like Harper & Brothers having risen to prominence on the back of its Bible publishing. It was obvious in the physical landscape and in many households because of the widespread use of Bible names for American places (95 variations on Salem) and the nation’s children (John, James, Sarah, Rebecca). It was obvious in literature, as with the memorable opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” And it was obvious in politics, with no occasion more memorable than March 4, 1865, when four quotations from the KJV framed Abraham Lincoln’s incomparable Second Inaugural Address: Genesis 3:19 (“wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”); Matthew 18:7 (“woe unto the world because of offences!”); Matthew 7:1 (“judge not that we be not judged”); and Psalm 19:9 (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”).
Because the KJV was so widely read for religious purposes, it had also become a source of public ideals. Because it was so central in the churches, and because the churches were so central to the culture, the KJV functioned also as a common reservoir for the language. Hundreds of phrases (clear as crystal, powers that be, root of the matter, a perfect Babel, two-edged sword) and thousands of words (arguments, city, conflict, humanity, legacy, network, voiceless, zeal) were in the common speech because they had first been in this translation. Or to be more precise, because they had been in the KJV or in the earlier translations, like those of John Wycliffe’s followers (1390s) and William Tyndale (1520s), that King James’ translators mined for their own version.
But things have changed from those days. For one thing, the Bible is no longer considered a guiding influence to our culture. In this day of multiculturalism and tolerance (to the point of exalting other religions I would suggest) we have removed it from public discussion. It’s fine for “God” (whoever that may be) to bless America, and for generic prayers to be made to “Him” (or maybe “Her”?), but it is we the people that know what’s best for America, and let’s keep God where He belongs– in the churches and houses.
Another thing has changed, and I’m just now mulling its influence. We now have more versions of the Bible than at any time in history. We have multiple versions in English– from KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, NIrV, and the list goes on. We have versions in Klingon and other forms of created languages. In creating all of these translations we have lost something. Not meaning– for I believe that there are some good translations that help us understand what the original text meant better than trying to remember that the KJV word “conversation” means “manner of life” in today’s language.
What has happened is that we no longer have a base text– something that everyone refers too. In one of the most popular verses in the New Testament, John 3:16, some people know it as saying that God sent His only begotten Son, and others now have read it for the first time as saying His one and only Son. Phrases in their grand and glorious King James English wording have now been supplanted as new generations pick and choose a translation that best suits them.
I’m not even suggesting that we all go back to using the KJV only. I’m definitely not of that stripe. What I am suggesting is that we are now realizing the effect of multiple translations in a world that used to have one and wondering about the long term effects.