Over the years, ovations for the KJV have piled up. "To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity," former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion enthused. Even skeptical, acerbic writer and literary critic H.L. Mencken, no friend of religion, praised the King James Bible as "probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world."
But, as the KJV itself might say, "how are the mighty fallen" (II Samuel 1:27). Today hundreds of new English translations abound, as modern readers seek writing devoid of "thees" and "thous" that they hope will be easier to understand. The KJV has been surpassed as a mainstay of Protestant congregations by 20th-century translations such as the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version. They're joined by many others, including "themed" Bibles aimed at children, teens, environmentalists, patriots, or just about any identity group.
Some versions, often called "dynamic equivalencies," don't attempt a literal, word-for-word translation, instead conveying what the translator sees as the sense of the text in everyday English. Even looser translations, called "paraphrases," take more liberties as they try to capture the spirit of the passage using modern idioms (compare three translations of Psalm 1 on the facing page).
"We are now in an era in which there is no common translation" of the Bible, says Mr. Radner. The KJV has become "a literary relic," he says, used principally by only a few denominations. "The mainline churches don't use it at all," he says. "In fact, it's considered a little bit of an oddity."