The 400-Year-Old Bestseller

On Sunday, the New York Times featured an interesting op-ed piece about the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible, which was first published in 1611.  It has been in print ever since (in public domain around most of the world, but the "Authorized Version" is still published by the Church of England and the British Crown still holds the copyright).  There were many versions of the Bible before 1611 (and mass-produced since the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1440) and many versions after, but the King James edition has remained popular and the version of choice for many, especially the Protestant evangelical faiths. 

Like the writings of William Shakespeare, it is full of moving passages.  If it is possible to put religion aside and judge it solely on its literary merits, the King James Bible is full of powerful stories, incredible characters, and thought-provoking morality tales.  But of course, one cannot put religion aside, and the King James edition played a pivotal role in the spread of the Christian faith.  People have used its words for much good, but also misinterpreted it or intentionally misused it to justify their own earthly ambitions and atrocities.  And despite some who vehemently claim that it should be read literally and that it is without error, some claim that the King James translation is full of errors and that its writers, who spent years writing it, made various embellishments based on political and artistic choices.

If someone has never read the Bible before, I don't know if I would necessarily recommend the King James version as the first one to read -- I would probably suggest they try the New Jerusalem Bible, which is still my favorite translation (but that could be the result of my long Jesuit education).  Nevertheless, I cannot help but admire the poetry of the King James version.  It is a shame that many cannot read it without the personal baggage we all bring to it.  Imagine reading it for the first time as something fresh and new.  My favorite sections are the Book of Genesis and the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Testament and the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles from the Christian Testament. 

I know some in this world think ill of the Bible, whichever edition, because of the evil that some have done throughout history in its name, but I hope they read it again (or for the first time) with an open mind, and enjoy some of its literary value and especially many of the positive moral stories throughout its pages.