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A book that brought God closer

As The King James translation of the Bible marks its 400th anniversary, its deep influence and prominence are slipping.

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Some versions, often called "dynamic equivalencies," don't attempt a literal, word-for-word translation, instead conveying what the translator sees as the sense of the text in everyday English. Even looser translations, called "paraphrases," take more liberties as they try to capture the spirit of the passage using modern idioms (compare three translations of Psalm 1 on the facing page).

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"We are now in an era in which there is no common translation" of the Bible, says Mr. Radner. The KJV has become "a literary relic," he says, used principally by only a few denominations. "The mainline churches don't use it at all," he says. "In fact, it's considered a little bit of an oddity."

"It's a fait accompli. The King James has lost its dominance in the life of the church," adds Thomas Kidd, senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "We can never go back to the one translation."

Scholars have welcomed many newer translations, which are able to draw on new biblical research and better source materials – manuscripts unknown four centuries ago, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But what's lost, Dr. Kidd adds, is the sense of one common text whose words help form a common vocabulary for Christians and the culture in general. In many churches, "When there's a Bible reading from the pulpit or in Sunday school many of the people who are following along [in their own Bibles] are not reading from the same translation anymore," he says. "It didn't used to be like that at all."

The KJV's 400th anniversary is a bit like the birthday celebration of a beloved elderly relative, says Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and author of "The Rise and the Fall of the Bible." "There's this little poignancy in the celebration that maybe this isn't going to go on forever."

The KJV represents "the flagship" of "book culture, the print culture, and our modern idea of the book," Professor Beal says. "And that culture is in its twilight."

While the KJV is readily available online in digital form, "When we think of the King James Bible I don't think it's the image of an iPhone. It's that black, leather-bound book," he says. "We have this idea of it being intact and whole and going from Genesis to Revelation. In the digital world ... that's not the way we read texts."


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