The Bible is not only the most widely read book in the English language, but the one most often translated from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. New translations of the "Good Book" reflect new scholarship and colloquial English.
None of them has surpassed in popularity the King James Version, which appeared 400 years ago. When Barack Obama took the oath of office as president in January 2009, he place his hand on the same King James Bible that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861 when he was sworn in.
If you consult your Encyclopedia Britannica, you'll find that the King James Version, which was commissioned by King James I of England and published on May 2, 1611, is still called the authorized version. A conference of churchmen in 1604 had proposed the new translation on the basis that existing translations "were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original."
That same year, the Protestant king approved a list of 54 prospective revisers, from which 47 translators were selected to work. They were divided into six committees, working separately at Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge. Committees are typically accused of compromising their products. In this case, the joint translation was superior to the work of any previous translator.
By the time the King James Version appeared, there were vernacular translations of the Bible circulating in Protestant and Catholic Europe. But in England, King Henry VIII, styling himself as head of the church, banned and burned copies of the Bible translated by William Tyndale, fearing that an accessible Bible would make England "a nation of priests," according to "Tyndale: A Biography" (Yale University Press), by David Daniell.
For his trouble, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Eventually Henry softened his objections, allowing one Bible in each of England's churches. Later, King James believed that an accessible Bible might reconcile citizens of different religious persuasions, so he authorized the translation that bears his name. Ironically, its translators incorporated Tyndale's scholarship.
The new translation appeared during the lifetime of William Shakespeare and John Donne, enhancing not only Christian revelation but English culture and expression. To this day its text is considered poetic. Familiar English expressions come from the King James Version, including "lamb to the slaughter," "skin of our teeth" and "chariots of fire."
As a boy, I was rapt listening to actor Charles Laughton reading Genesis from the King James Bible.
According to a special publication of The Economist, "The World in 2011," more than 70 events are scheduled in Britain this year to celebrate the Bible's anniversary. They include lectures, reading marathons, symposia, concerts, conferences and television documentaries.
Here in America, celebrations are already scheduled in Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana. A conference at Ohio State University will explore the influence of the King James Bible on writers such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
Assuming that Tyndale is observing us from his permanent perch in heaven, he can see what might have been in his honor.
David Yount's latest book is "Making a Success of Marriage" (Rowman and Littlefield). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.