EUGENE, Ore. -- Over the past four centuries the King James Bible has influenced everyone from Shakespeare to Charles Schulz, has found its way into symphonies and rock and roll, and has circled both the Earth and the moon.
Now, Northwest Christian University is marking the 400th anniversary of what is often called the most influential book ever printed in the English language with a special, monthlong display. The traveling exhibit chronicles the history of the Bible from the first English translations to the creation of the King James version to its huge influence on art, culture, language, music and literature.
"Many people today are just not aware of the tremendous influence it has had," said Steve Silver, director of NCU's Kellenberger Library, where the exhibit is housed. "Whether a person is religious or not, its impact on our society, its culture, its literature, its language, can't be overstated."
The quadricentennial comes at the same time as the 100th anniversary of NCU's own 250-volume Bushnell Rare Bible Collection, one of the largest west of the Mississippi River but rarely seen by the public. The school is combining the two milestones with a display of its own volumes, including an early 1613 edition of the King James Bible, along with the traveling exhibit.
Silver said the exhibit is a chance not only to tell the story of the King James version, but a way to counter some of the myths that survive about its writing. For example, the translation did not, as many believe, contain a single word written by either James I, the English monarch who sanctioned the effort, or William Shakespeare, who at the time was writing some of his most enduring plays.
Also, the King James version was not the first English translation. In fact, Silver said some believe that as much as 80 percent of the King James Bible was taken more or less directly from the partial translation written by William Tyndale almost 80 years earlier.
Tyndale had paid for the work with his life. At that time, the 1520s, the church forbade such translations and went after Tyndale, who was in hiding in Europe. He was arrested and returned to England, where he later was executed by strangulation and his body burned.
Much of that history is told in the 14 panels that make up the traveling exhibit, which is organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and the American Library Association. It will be seen in 40 cities across the country as part of the yearlong commemoration of the anniversary.
Work on the King James translation began in 1604 with a team of some 50 scholars in three English cities. After more than six years of debate and research they jointly produced what came to be known as the King James version in 1611, and that became one of the most widely read books in the world.
Silver said that what is perhaps most impressive about the product of that conference is that such a lengthy effort involving so many people nevertheless resulted in a book almost lyrical in its prose and one that has endured as a great work of literature as well a great work of religion.
"It has a cadence, a rhythm, that probably has not been equaled ever since," he said.
On the website for the international program marking the anniversary, Helen Moore, university lecturer in English and fellow at the University of Oxford's Corpus Christi College, said the King James translation has "sometimes sniffily been referred to as the first time a work of genius has been created by a committee." The Bodleian Library at Oxford is part of the group staging the primary exhibitions on the work.
Silver said it's hard to overestimate the influence the King James Bible has had on history and culture, from Handel's "Messiah" to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., designed by Maya Lin. It provided the lyrics to the Byrds 1965 hit "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (written earlier by Pete Seeger), the verses read by Linus in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that same year and the Genesis verses read by the crew of Apollo 8 when they became the first humans to orbit the moon in 1968.
Many common English phrases were coined by the King James translators, Silver said, including "the skin of your teeth," "at wit's end" and "old wives tale."
The traveling exhibit will be on display at NCU through Oct. 28, but the Bibles from the university's own collection will remain on show through the end of the fall semester in December. The Bushnell Collection not only includes 15 early versions of the King James Bible, it has originals or facsimiles of every English-language Bible that preceded it.
Silver said more recent years have seen many new translations of the Bible, but the King James still stands out.
"For many people today it is still their Bible of choice," he said.