A World Without the King James Version
You are in church on Sunday morning, and it's time to say the Lord's Prayer. All goes smoothly through, "Give us this day our daily bread." But what comes next? The congregation hesitates. Should we ask forgiveness for "our debts" or for "our trespasses"? If you have ever been in this situation, you know something of what Protestant church life would be like in a world without the King James Version.
By contrast, we experience all the time what the world with the KJV has become, though we don't always realize it. The impact of the KJV on common English is tremendous, and it works on three levels. Many well-known words and phrases from the KJV still sound "biblical": "Alpha and Omega," "Ancient of Days," "graven image," "not live by bread alone," and "seventy times seven," to name a few.
A second level of vocabulary contains expressions that came into common usage because of the KJV, but whose biblical origin is now obscured: "apple of his eye," "city set on a hill," "a house divided," "propitiation," "the quick and the dead," "reap the whirlwind," "scapegoat," and "two-edged sword."
A third level includes words and phrases that most of us would be surprised to learn were fixed in our language because of the KJV—words as common as adoption, advertise, beautiful, feel, fishermen, glory, horror, housetop, mortgaged, mystery, nurse (as verb), scrape, and suburbs.
Almost all of these words and phrases were used in translations before the KJV. But because they appeared in that version, they were in the English language for keeps.
Hesitating during worship and perusing these vocabulary lists raise an intriguing question: What if there had never been a KJV? Or, consider a scenario that comes closer to reality: What would it have been like if the KJV had always been only one among several competing English-language versions of the Bible? What difference would it have made for Christians from 1611 onward? For local churches? For the influence of Christianity throughout the English-speaking world?
For one, corporate worship would have been more awkward. The example from the Lord's Prayer shows what would have been even more confusing. The inclination to say, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," follows the KJV, which borrowed the wording from Miles Coverdale's 1535 translation, the first complete Bible printed in English. But if you instinctively say, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who [or 'them that'] trespass against us," you are following William Tyndale's English translation from the 1520s. When Tyndale's rendering was modified by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, "trespasses" came into common use as well.
The liturgical uncertainty from having more than one English translation is even more obvious in our ecumenical age. The Douay-Rheims New Testament, published for Catholics in 1582, completely left out what the KJV would render, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever." Rheims omitted the phrase because it is not in the Latin Vulgate, the source for its translation. Yet this confusion points to an irony: Most scholars today agree that in omitting these words, the Rheims translation came closer to the best-attested Greek manuscripts than did the English wording from the not-so-reliable Greek manuscripts the KJV's translators used.