Hilmarton, England (CNN) - A little English village church has just made a remarkable discovery. The ornate old Bible that had been sitting in plain view on a table near the last row of pews for longer than anyone could remember is an original King James Bible - one of perhaps 200 surviving 400-year-old original editions of arguably the most important book ever printed in English. In fact, the Bible at St. Laurence Church in Hilmarton, England, was sitting right under a hand-lettered sign saying it was an original.
The sign said it had been found in "the parish chest" in 1857, that the cover had been added, and that it was the second of the two impressions published in 1611 - the year of first publication. But no one knew whether to believe it, parish council member Geoff Procter said. As the anniversary of publication in 1611 approached, they decided it was worth investigating. "We had no way of knowing whether it really was a 1611 Bible so we had to get it verified somehow," he said. He and two other church members took it to a specialist, the Rev. David Smith at the Museum of the Book in London.
Smith knew immediately what he was looking at, Procter said. "We put it on his table and he opened it and immediately he said, 'Yes, this is a 1611 Bible,'" Procter remembered. Smith identified it thanks to a printing error - a place in the Gospel of Matthew that should say Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane and spoke to his disciples instead says that Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, entered the garden.
That the St. Laurence Bible had that error, but not another one in the Book of Ruth, enabled Smith to pinpoint exactly when the book had been printed, Procter explained. "We realized that this is quite an important find," he said, and last month the church quietly announced the discovery in the diocese newsletter. They hesitated before going public, Procter said. "It was one of those discoveries that we wondered if we should tell everybody or tell nobody," he said. "And we thought that as it was the 400th anniversary, we should talk about it."
St. Laurence Church is far from the only one talking about the King James Bible this year - the Globe Theatre in London is planning a reading of the whole thing in the days before Easter, and a literary festival has already done one. Cambridge University has an exhibition, and the King James Bible Trust lists dozens of special events planned this year to mark the anniversary. The reason is simple, said Moira Goff of the British Library.
The King James Bible is "so embedded in us that we can't overstate the significance of it," she said. It's the source of dozens of phrases and concepts that have become part of the English language - "an eye for an eye," "born again," "eat, drink and be merry," "God forbid." Experts point out that the King James is based on at least two earlier major English translations, so its creators were editors as much as originators of these phrases, but it is the King James Bible that the great English writers knew, Goff said. "It's passed entirely into the English language, into the thinking of English speakers around the world," she said. Its influence has been greater than that of Shakespeare, she argued. "I think it's permeated the language in ways that we can't count as we can count Shakespeare, influencing people's religious thinking, influencing people's social thinking in a way that Shakespeare probably does now - but that's a more recent development," she said. "It's the Bible that was read to people in church every week," she explained. "The great literary figures from the early 17th century onwards, this was their daily reading. It passed into their works," she said, citing John Milton and John Bunyan among others. But the King James Bible shouldn't be reduced to merely its influence on writers, she said. "I think we have to be very careful in looking at the Bible only as a work of literature.
It is also Holy Scripture and I think that makes it a different sort of book than the great works of literature," she said. "It will be read by people who will possibly never read Shakespeare or Milton." The St. Laurence discovery is very unusual, she said. Perhaps 200 copies of the 1611 printings of King James Bibles are known to exist, she estimated. No one knows how many were printed, she added, but she guessed that the number was probably around 1,000. Most of the surviving copies are in institutions, such as major libraries at universities, colleges and cathedrals in the United Kingdom and United States, she said. "Some of them may be in private collections," she added, saying there is no way to know how many such copies there might be.
The St. Laurence discovery is technically a fragment, not a Bible, since it is missing a few pages (including most of the first pages of Genesis, up to chapter 4, verse 17) and has been trimmed at the top to fit the wooden cover added in Victorian times. But it fits a pattern, she said. As King James Bibles got old and needed to be replaced, many were tucked away as church treasures, as seems to have happened with the St. Laurence Bible.
The people of St. Laurence Church are now trying to raise money to build a special case so they can keep their Bible in use and on regular display. That would make the church more or less unique so far as Goff knows, although she speculated that there just might be a few village churches still using their 400-year-old Bibles. "It's possible there are one or two churches that have gone on doing it and they just haven't thought to say," she said. "People are now beginning to realize the value of this particular edition. This is the 400th anniversary and there is a lot more emphasis on it," she said. "They value it. They want to keep it and they want to use it."