CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four hundred years after the commission of the still-popular King James Bible, scholars and theologians say it continues to have a profound impact on Christianity, literacy and writing.
The King James Version of the Bible has directly influenced Pulitzer Prize-winning poets and writers, and impacted modern language with common phrases such as "woe is me" and "holier than thou" that first appeared in its pages.
Early in the 17th century, King James I of England wanted one Bible to unite British society and its Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, said Tyler Sergent, a visiting professor who teaches history and religion at Berea College in Kentucky.
"He sort of had a vision of unified Christianity in England," he said.
But the king took issue with some commentary found in one prominent Bible of the time.
The Geneva Bible, an immensely popular text that preceded the King James, featured political commentary (by way of marginal comments) that was both anti-Catholic and anti-monarchy, Sergent said.
King James commissioned 47 of the greatest scholars in Hebrew and Greek to translate earlier texts of the Old and New Testaments, said David Lyle Jeffrey, a distinguished professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University.
The scholars 400 years ago were so skilled that Jeffrey and other living translators have realized that today, they could not assemble 47 scholars of the same caliber in Hebrew and Greek -- a sobering thought, said Jeffrey, also director of Manuscript Research in Scripture and Tradition at Baylor University's Institute for Studies in Religion.
In the early 1600s, a moderately educated person in England could translate Hebrew and Greek. "It's just an astonishing level of linguistic competence in that period," Jeffrey said.
To help guide them, the King James translators also relied on earlier versions of the Bible, such as the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva and the Tyndale.
Still, one religious studies professor at West Virginia University said it's difficult to grasp all the passages' original intent when the original texts are not in English.
Shelly Barrick Parsons, who also is the Presbyterian campus minister at WVU's Campus Ministry Center, said those who drafted the original King James Bible didn't use the best source texts available. Therefore, some of the words and meanings were changed, she said.
Five years after the King James was created, the Geneva Bible was banned in England and the King James "became dominant," Sergent said.
When the Mayflower arrived in America in 1620, the Pilgrims brought with them the Geneva Bible. By 1675, however, the King James became the Bible of choice in America, according to Jeffrey.
"It's an understatement to say that it was very important because it was translated into English," Parsons said.