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KJV Conference

June 21, 2011

In April, Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) hosted an international conference -- one of the largest anywhere -- to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the completion of the King James translation of the Bible. Baylor Magazine asked Dr. Thomas Kidd, associate professor of history in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences and a senior fellow at ISR, to share some of what conference attendees learned from a lineup of speakers that reads like a who's who of experts in the field.

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By Dr. Thomas Kidd

For many believers, translating the Bible may be like the proverbial making of sausage - we like the results, but don't want to know about the process. But at Baylor's conference "The King James Bible and the World It Made, 1611-2011," convened by the Institute for Studies of Religion, participants gained new appreciation for the way that the Bible has maintained its inspired character in the midst of the earthly work of translation.

Yale University scholar Dr. Lamin Sanneh, who gave the opening plenary address of the conference, showed that translation is at the heart not just of the Bible, but of the Christian faith itself. Via the incarnation, Jesus the Son of God was translated into human form, right in the middle of our messy world. Sanneh, a scholar of both Islam and Christianity, contrasted the translated nature of Christianity with the fixed quality of Islam. In particular, Muslims believe that the Quran is no longer the Quran once it is translated from Arabic. But the Bible remains the Bible despite its translation from Hebrew and Greek, and so the Christian God speaks to believers in their native tongue.

No Bible translation has had the resonance of the King James Version (KJV), first published 400 years ago in England. For centuries, the KJV remained the standard Bible for the English-speaking world. As Penn State professor Dr. Laura Knoppers demonstrated, the KJV was born out of its own political context, as King James I of England sought to solidify his own reputation as a pious, benevolent king by commissioning the translation. The KJV routinely translated Hebrew words that suggested glory or power into the particular language of monarchy. The translators especially liked the word "majesty," a term which appears in disproportionate numbers in King James's text.

On the other hand, as literary scholar Dr. Robert Alter showed in the conference's closing address, the KJV translators did a remarkably good job - although not a perfect one - of rendering into English the eloquence of the Hebrew text, given their relatively limited scholarly resources as compared to modern translators. The literary beauty of the KJV has added to its enduring influence.

As historians Dr. David Bebbington (University of Stirling) and Dr. Mark Noll (Notre Dame) showed in their conference presentations, by its 300th birthday in 1911, the KJV had become a pillar of both British and American culture. This fact was made more significant globally because Britain was at the height of its imperial power in 1911, and America was just beginning to emerge as a great world leader. But as the KJV became more closely associated with the national ambitions of Britain and America, readers may have forgotten some of the text's prophetic power. By 1911 one could have gotten the impression that the ancient Jewish authors of the Bible were writing to enhance British or American national grandeur. A hundred years ago, the Bible had never seemed so British, or American, depending on your location.

But a funny thing happened over the past century. The center of growth in the Christian world has shifted dramatically to the global South, especially Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia. And as Dr. Philip Jenkins (Penn State and Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion) demonstrated in his conference address, global South believers have often used the Bible in ways that might have shocked the 1611 translators of the KJV, or the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Take any book of the Bible that the great German reformer Martin Luther did not like, Jenkins suggested, and you can be sure that Africans today love it. Books such as James and Hebrews are filled with themes like blood sacrifice and the challenges of persecution and poverty. These are themes that fit easily within the highly traditional, recently Christianized, impoverished and often violent African societies. The Bible not only speaks into particular languages, then, but individual books of the Bible resonate in certain cultures more than others.

"The King James Bible and the World It Made, 1611-2011" showcased Baylor's role as one of the world's leading universities for the scholarly study of religion, and participants left with greater insight into the historic significance of Bible translation and the transformative legacy of the KJV.

For more about the conference and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, visit isreligion.org.

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