When I was a boy, growing up in the 1950s, everyone I knew at all the churches we attended had the same Bible. It was the King James Version, but no one called it that; it was simply "the Bible." There was very little talk of "versions" at all. (I knew that Roman Catholics had a Bible of their own, with some extra books that didn't belong there, but most Catholics-I knew this, too-didn't read the Bible in any case, because the priests didn't want them to start asking hard questions.)
How things have changed. Close at hand as I write this is the NIV Study Bible that I take to church each Sunday. Nearby is an NRSV study Bible, an NKJV study Bible, and-closest to my heart-a battered KJV that my mother gave me in 1967. On my wife's side of the bed is Eugene Peterson's The Message (the New Testament and Psalms), which is her favorite for devotional reading. Elsewhere in the room are several other partial translations: Everett Fox's rendering of The Five Books of Moses, for instance, and Tyndale's New Testament, and the recently published Three Gospels as translated by novelist Reynolds Price. There are other Bibles in the house, including a version for children and the NIV Student Bible. Among our friends and fellow church members we see a similar variety of versions—though sales figures say that the NIV is number one.
What brought about this transformation in the span of a single generation—from the nearly unrivaled dominance of the KJV to the profusion of contemporary translations? In part, at least, the answer is simple: the language of the KJV, freshly minted in 1611, resisted full comprehension by readers three-and-a-half centuries later. Now, the KJV did ...1