The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly identified a bible verse quoted by President George W. Bush after the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster as originating in the King James Version. It came from the New International Version.
This year, the most influential book you may never have read is celebrating a major birthday. The King James Version of the Bible was published 400 years ago. It's no longer the top-selling Bible, but in those four centuries, it has woven itself deeply into our speech and culture.
Let's travel back to 1603: King James I, who had ruled Scotland, ascended to the throne of England. What he found was a country suspicious of the new king.
"He was regarded as a foreigner," says Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester in England. "He spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him."
At that time, England was in a Bible war between two English translations. The Bishops' Bible was read in churches: It was clunky, inelegant. The Geneva Bible was the choice of the Puritans and the people: It was bolder, more accessible.
"The problem with the Geneva Bible was it had marginal notes," says David Lyle Jeffrey, a historian of biblical interpretation at Baylor University. "And from the point of view of the royalists, and especially King James I, these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings."
Those notes referred to kings as tyrants, they challenged regal authority, and King James wanted them gone. So he hatched an idea: Bring the bishops and the Puritans together, ostensibly to work out their differences about church liturgy. His true goal was to maneuver them into proposing a new Bible. His plans fell into place after he refused every demand of the Puritans to simplify the liturgy, and they finally suggested a new translation. With that, James commissioned a new Bible without those seditious notes. Forty-seven scholars and theologians worked through the Bible line by line for seven years.
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