In the Beginning Was the Word

The History of the King James Bible

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the most enduring English translation of the Bible, the King James Version. Here’s a look at the story behind this still highly respected translation of the Book of books.

Even if you have never read the King James Version of the Bible, you have felt its influence. Published for the first time 400 years ago in 1611, the KJV has shaped the language, history, religion and politics of Western civilization more than any other book.

The idea of a new translation was conceived for political reasons in a time when religion played a much bigger role in society than it does today. The 16th and 17th centuries were an age of religious politics: religious stability meant political stability. Thus religious strife wasn’t just an internal issue; it could even invite invasion, as it did in 1588 when the Spanish Armada sailed to England to overthrow the tolerant regime of Queen Elizabeth I and turn her nation back to Catholicism.

It was a chaotic time of competing interests and ideas. Religious stability was an economic and political necessity because, as the Quaker William Penn later noted, “it is the union of interests, and not of opinions, that gives peace to kingdoms.” A union of interests is what 17th-century England, among others, lacked. An English diplomat to the Netherlands, Sir William Temple, famously observed regarding that nation: “Religion may possibly do more good in other places, but it does less hurt here.” He suggested it as a lesson for his own nation: To do “less hurt” was a good strategy for those who wished to stay in power and strengthen their country.

In 1603, when King James IV of Scotland became king of England as well (reigning as James I), Europe was in the midst of a religious reformation. The world was changing, and Christianity was changing with it. Just as the world sought new perspectives and emphases, so did religion. The universal church was fragmenting into individual churches organized around varying interpretations and perspectives. In the minds of the common man, even the role of the church itself was changing. Religion was to be brought down to the common man, with the Bible as a sufficient guide to belief. Therefore the first priority of reformed churches was to put a good translation of the Bible into the hands of every man in his own language. For the English-speaking peoples, the KJV would be the culmination of that effort.

A Church in Crisis

Religion, in the mind of most individuals today, takes on different forms depending on circumstances. And so it did in the time of King James. In 1604 the church in England was anything but united. Creating a “union of interests” was no easy task. James sought above all to create a united Britain. Taming the fluid religious situation would have to be the first order of business with, ideally, the church, the bishops and the priests under him upholding his authority—a blending of church and state. However, a growing movement within the church did not share that view. It was a question of where authority should reside.

The Puritans were comparatively austere in their interpretation of doctrine and impatient with the slow transition away from the practices of their Catholic past. Puritan reformists within the Church of England saw the new monarch as their opportunity to be taken seriously at last. Adam Nicolson’s engaging history, When God Spoke English, captures well the flavor of the times. He writes, “The existence of a Protestant state church made the Puritans’ task extremely tender. Precisely because the head of the church was also the head of state, it was critical for their cause to separate theological questions from political.”

With the bishops of the church on one side and the reformers on the other, James was caught in the middle—perhaps just where he wanted to be politically. Open to an examination of “corruptions which may deserve a review and amendment,” James agreed to a conference between the religious rivals at Hampton Court beginning January 12, 1604.

As the conference wore on, it became more heated. On the second day, John Reynolds, a moderate Oxford Puritan, suggested that they would like “one only translation of ye byble to be authenticall and read in ye churche.” Implicit in the request, writes Nicolson, “was a criticism of the official Elizabethan Bible, known as the Bishops’ Bible after the bishops who had translated it in 1568. It was a royalist and anti-Puritan document, larded with a frontispiece showing Queen Elizabeth and her ministers presiding over a bishop-dominated church. It was a Bible of the hierarchy, not of the people, and no Puritan liked it. Puritans preferred the translation of the Bible made by Calvinist Englishmen in the 1550s in Geneva, the headquarters of Calvinism. The Geneva Bible came interleaved with a large number of explanatory notes, many of them explicitly anti-royalist. The word ‘tyrant,’ for example, which is not to be found in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva text.”

It is against this background that the new English-language Bible was commissioned. It was part of a compromise with the Puritans—the only concession they were given at the Hampton Court Conference. No doubt James also hoped it would help reinforce his own view of what the church should be.

Mixing Religion and Politics

The Authorized Version or King James Bible was without a doubt a major milestone in the history of the English Bible, yet it was not a new translation so much as an improved one. To be sure, the commission to produce a new Bible was momentous; it even came with royal rules—15 in all—including instructions as to how the process was to work. Surprisingly, none of these rules was spiritual in nature. Nicolson writes: “There is no hint of inspiration, or even of prayerfulness, no idea that the Translators are to be in the right frame of mind. These are exact directions, state orders, not literary or theological suggestions.”

Unlike the Geneva Bible, it was to have no commentary in its margins, especially comments denying the divine right of kings. Important, too, is the fact that the official English Bible of the time—the Bishops’ Bible—was to be the translators’ starting point. But when previous translations (Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, Whitchurch, Geneva) agreed better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible, they were to be used. To not do so might imply that previous English translations were falsely translated—a poor tactical move for the Reformation.

The translators stated in their preface to the 1611 edition that they “never thought from the beginning, that [they] should need to make a new Translation,” but merely “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

About 48 Greek and Hebrew scholars were appointed to undertake the task. They were divided into six groups or companies, as they were called, two working at Westminster, two at Oxford and two at Cambridge. The work of each group was to be reviewed by the other groups so that the final result would not be the work of any one person but of the translators as a whole.

In an essay in The King James Bible After 400 Years, Stephen Prickett adds that it “was to be a deeply conservative text.” But conservative with an agenda. For instance, to William Tyndale, neither ecclesiastical authorities nor, emphatically, a king make a church; the people do. Prickett writes: “Tyndale’s perfectly scholarly translation of the Latin ecclesia as ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’ was political dynamite in that it implicitly handed over organizational control from the clergy to the rank-and-file in the pew—which, of course, was precisely what Tyndale had intended with his direct and forceful contemporary vernacular.” So from the directions given the King James translators, they clearly understood that they were to overturn Tyndale’s verbiage and retain the word church.

The task of translating lasted several years; the work was finally turned over to the king’s printer, Robert Barker, in 1611. Preparing the translation for print was a tedious task, and the book was full of typographical errors. Most errors were minor, but a mistake in the 1631 edition, later called “the Wicked Bible,” stood out: a typesetter failed to include the word not in Exodus 20:14, so that it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The error was quickly corrected and the printer severely fined.

If we go back to the first two hundred years of the KJB the evidence suggests both that the new version was not at first seen as in any way distinctive, nor was it greatly admired stylistically.”

Stephen Prickett, “Language Within Language: The King James Steamroller” in The King James Bible After 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic and Cultural Influences (2010)

Given the political undercurrent that steered the translation, perhaps it is no surprise that King James’s Authorized Bible didn’t succeed in uniting the two sides of the religious divide. In fact, upon its publication it was largely criticized and failed to gain widespread support. Then, in 1642, the English Civil War erupted, culminating in a Puritan victory of sorts as Oliver Cromwell embarked on the short-lived political experiment known as the Commonwealth of England.

It wasn’t until the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II in 1660 that the King James Bible was accepted as England’s official translation.

A Matchless Work

To say that the KJV was built on previous English translations, all of which are indebted to William Tyndale’s translation, is not to say that the translators did not consult the original texts of the Bible. They did. Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, notes in The Legacy of the King James Bible that “there can be little doubt that when the King James Bible was released in 1611, it was the most accurate English translation in existence. It was the product of the combined expertise of the four dozen best biblical scholars of their day, something that cannot be said of any previous English translation.” In fact, he adds, if “the standard of accuracy is a translation’s giving us the words of the original text in equivalent English words, then the KJV shows its superior accuracy over modern dynamic equivalent translations on virtually every page of the Bible (and probably multiple times on every page).”

Robert Alter’s lively essay “The Glories and the Glitches of the King James Bible” (also in The King James Bible after 400 Years) declares that after four centuries the King James Bible “still stands as one of the towering achievements of style in the English language”; the “translators made many sound choices of stylistic policy, which by and large have been jettisoned by the sundry modern English versions to their palpable detriment.” Still, says Alter, “the justified admiration for the KJB ought not to entail an idolatrous attitude toward it.”

If we consult the figures of Bible sales today, the KJV appears as either the second or third on the list. The publishers of most modern translations would love to be in the position of the KJV.”

Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (2011)

Ryken examines closely the literary merits of the Bible, and while he finds much to praise, he does not believe that the KJV is the best Bible for the modern reader; nevertheless it is, “on balance, more accurate as a rendition of what the original authors wrote.” He notes that “modern colloquializing translators lament that Bible translations run the risk of being further and further removed from the everyday language of people. This of course needs to be taken seriously. But an even worse problem is possible: many modern translations have moved further and further from the biblical text.”

However, it is not just in the overall accuracy of the translation that the King James Bible still endures after 400 years. Its effect on the English language itself is remarkable. The question is how did they get it right? How were they able at that time to produce such an outstanding translation?

On the whole it was a product of its times. The rigorous scholarship encouraged by King James, the philosophical tension between the bishops and the Puritans, and the focus on the language both in terms of sound and meaning, all came together to produce the vitality of the King James Bible.

At the time, the English language was full of possibilities. Ryken notes that it “was at a moment of great energy and expansiveness.” There was an intense focus on the language itself. Ironically, Prickett states that “while our knowledge of the Biblical languages has increased substantially in the last 400 years, sensitivity to language seems to have decreased.” Ryken explains that this was the age of the Renaissance in England, and it “produced a distinctive educational program. While the ultimate goal was godliness, the curriculum consisted of day-long language study in which the mastery of written and spoken Latin and Greek dominated everything. From another point of view the students were busy reading the great books from the past. Education was built around words and language, and facility with language was the natural result. The King James translators were the product of this culture, so it is not surprising that they produced an English Bible noteworthy for its style.”

Nicolson observes, “One of the King James Bible’s most consistent driving forces is the idea of majesty.” Ryken notes that the translators “were surrounded by images of greatness as they went about their work. Their surroundings were not courtly, but they were the great buildings at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Westminster Abbey—buildings that are among the greatest architectural feats of history. One is not likely to produce a cheap and tawdry Bible translation when walking to committee meetings amid such sublimity.”

The title page of the KJV states that it was appointed to be read in churches. Indeed, the cadence or rhythm of this Bible is matchless. Ryken observes that one may not understand the vocabulary but “they emphatically do know the difference between smooth rhythm and staccato effect when they hear passages read aloud.”

Even if we use a modern translation most of the time, there are good reasons to read the King James Bible some of the time. Its qualities are unique.”

Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (2011)

He cites 1 Corinthians 13:3–4, 7: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . . ; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

Ryken says: “The passage flows in a wave-like cadence built out of the rise and fall of sound. The passage also shows how the accented eth verb endings keep the rhythm flowing smoothly. Robbed of these unaccented endings, modern translations often bump along in staccato fashion: ‘Always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’”

Nicolson speculates that another reason the KJV succeeds is that the translators were not cloistered clergymen but were fully engaged with the whole width and depth of their world. These were learned but otherwise average men with the same failings found in all humans. Perhaps it was their familiarity with the human condition that bred the understanding required to produce such an enduring work.

Taken together, all of these factors have meant one thing: subsequent translators could only aspire to match the impact and success of the King James Bible.