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Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II began her annual Christmas message with a reference to how deeply divided was the Christian church when King James VI came to the throne of England more than 400 years ago.

“The king agreed to commission a new translation of the Bible that was acceptable to all parties,” she said. “This was to become the King James, or Authorized, Bible, which next year will be exactly four centuries old.”

In his New Year’s message on the BBC, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican Communion, also drew attention to the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, first released May 5, 1611.

Noting it was not the first Bible in English, Williams said that “for all sorts of reasons it got into the bloodstream of the people of this country” and “took hold of the imaginations of millions of people in the English-speaking world.”

Williams said the King James Version gave people “a big picture, a story in which their lives made sense.”

He lamented that today people “often don’t have the kind of big picture that simply tells us that we matter.”

“Whether you’re a Christian or belong to another religion or whether you have nothing you’d want to call a religion at all, some kind of big picture matters,” said Williams. “If we’re going to talk about a ‘big society,’ that’ll need a big picture, a picture of what human beings are really like and why they’re so unique and precious. This year’s anniversary is a chance to stop and think about the big picture – and to celebrate the astonishing contribution made by that book 400 years ago.”

The symbolic head of the Anglican Church underscored the theological relevance of the KJV, once known as the Authorized Version, which is being celebrated by the King James Bible Trust (KJBT) project.

The project examines the KJV’s “impact in history and on language, particularly in this country, but also throughout the English speaking world,” according to its website.

One of the world’s foremost atheists, Richard Dawkins, immediately accepted KJBT’s invitation to be part of the project. He agreed to read a chapter from the Song of Solomon.

“You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are to some extent at least steeped in the King James Bible,” said Dawkins. “There are phrases that come from it – people don’t realize they come from it – proverbial phrases, phrases that make echoes in people’s minds. They haunt our minds because we are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture and not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian.”

A video on the KJBT’s front page plays a list of the common phrases in the English language that came from the King James Version, including “salt of the earth,” “signs of the times,” “suffer fools gladly,” “nothing new under the sun,” “a man after his own heart” and “turn the other cheek.”

Writing in the Baptist Times, David Spriggs, a Baptist minister, asked, “Why should we bother … with such an old, black and dusty book when we have so many sparkling translations, special editions and can buy the Bible with attractive pink and blue leather bindings?”

Answering his own question, Spriggs, a KJBT trustee, said the KJV “contributed to the growth of the Christian faith in Britain, especially during the nineteenth century. It was the KJV that travelled with the Protestant missionary movement … and went to many parts of the world shaping the cultures and the churches there.”

Scottish composer James MacMillian, a Catholic, is the KJBT adjudicator of a competition among composers invited to submit songs based on KJV texts.

“KJV is such a treasury of beautiful poetry that many different kinds of composers over the centuries have been moved to produce works of numinous profundity,” wrote MacMillian.

Amid the British celebration of the majesty of the KJV, Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, recalled the political nature of the KJV and how it strengthened the establishment of royal power and religion in Britain.

“The Greek ekklesia was … translated as ‘church,’ rather than ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’ in order to give the impression that the Bible proposes a top-down form of ecclesiastical authority,” wrote Barrow. “We also ended up with the pious and individualistic-sounding ‘righteousness,’ where the Hebrew text would have suggested ‘justice.'”

He said the KJV became “a deeply political document.”

A list of 2011 KJBT events, including some in the United States, is available on the organization’s website.

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