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King James Bible turns 400

July 7, 2011 4 Comments

by James Chliboyko 
The year was 1611. Shakespeare premiered The Tempest, the British were investing in their Virginia colony, Galileo was keeping busy sketching lunar craters and war raged between Denmark and Sweden.

That year also saw the release of the King James Bible, in May, at the end of a seven-year gestation period (though, realistically, it was the tail end of an effort lasting several hundred years). 

An English-language version of the Bible was a relatively new thing. One hundred years earlier, such a book had been unthinkable to imagine, though the unauthorized Wycliffe’s Bible had appeared in the 14th century.

Today we say knowledge is power, but it was also true back then: with largely Latin versions of the Bible, the educated clergy laid claim to God’s Word, a tome most of the uneducated laity couldn’t understand. For most of the people it was intended to instruct, what was within its covers was a complete mystery. And they knew this cut them off from God’s Word. The pressure was on.

As the Canadian Bible Society website says, “It all started with the controversial idea that everybody, even the working boy behind the plough, should be able to read the Bible in a language they could understand.”

In the end, King James ended up with something that would affect the language of his country, its literature and its culture. “Without the King James Bible,” writes Alister McGrath author of In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, “there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address.”


Luther was, indirectly, one of the participants


For many people today, the creation of the King James Bible is a bit of a mystery (if it receives any particular attention at all).

The creation, and ultimate release, of the King James Bible was the end of 100 years of dogged effort, a century of public pressure and the culmination of the life’s work of some of the best minds of the 16th century, who often risked their lives to do what they did. During those years the people involved contended with politics and wrestled powerful lobbies. At various points along the way, timing was a major—and, in the case of William Tyndale, tragic—factor in the ultimate creation of the King James Bible. 

And Martin Luther was, indirectly, one of the participants.

After the Diet of Worms, where the “powers that be” (a phrase credited to the Bible translator William Tyndale) attempted to make Luther answer for his Ninety-Five Theses, the reformer escaped with the help of the Saxon prince Frederick the Wise, and hid at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. While there, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German. (The room in which Luther worked at the castle is preserved, complete with a first edition copy of Luther’s translation.)

Dr. Luther’s decision to start writing in German instead of Latin evidently dated from about 1520, three years after his famous delivery of the Ninety-Five Theses.

“Latin was a language of exclusion, which ensured that common people could not share in the political and religious discussions of the elite,” writes McGrath in In the Beginning. “The laity should have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Why should they depend on the Pope to interpret the Bible for them?… And why did the Bible have to be locked away from the people, imprisoned in the fetters of a dead language that only a charmed circle could read?”

“Luther’s translation of the Bible really was foundational for the modern German language,” said Dr. Catherine Eddy, who teaches the history of biblical translations at Concordia University College of Alberta in Edmonton. “It was just the core. And that created a wave of translations.”


Tyndale eventually printed what might today be called an “underground” translation of the New Testament in 1526


Among those inspired by Luther’s work was William Tyndale, a hunted Englishman who eventually fled to Belgium, and the vigorous printing scene of 16th century Antwerp, to work on his own translation. (He was eventually strangled by people who didn’t care for his efforts and his corpse burnt at the stake.)

Tyndale eventually printed what might today be called an “underground” translation of the New Testament in 1526, and had copies smuggled into England. This (very slowly) worked to force the hand of the English authorities, to the point where they commissioned their own Bible. But Tyndale made enemies with his work.

“Tyndale used Luther’s translation into German very heavily,” said Dr. Eddy.

And, this, generally, is how Bibles are put together; an earlier version influences a later one. Erasmus, who translated from the original Greek to Latin, influenced Luther, who influenced Tyndale, who influenced Myles Coverdale, who put out the first complete English Bible that King Henry VIII, via Anne Boleyn, took a shine to (however temporarily), which then inspired Matthew’s Bible, which led to the Great Bible of 1539, and onwards to the Geneva Bible (the one with which Shakespeare would have been familiar).

But Luther’s influence extended in other ways, too.

“The pressures that led Luther to translate the Bible into German were being felt throughout Europe,” writes McGrath. “…the seeds of the King James Bible were sown in the 1520s, as the pressure for a Bible in the English language gradually became irresistible.”

King James

When James I came to England’s throne in 1603, he had a few main items in his docket, among them a closer unification of England and Scotland, and dealing with discord in his own country, which would shortly manifest itself in the Gunpowder Plot. After the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, between King James and the representatives of the Church of England, the Puritans insisted on the commissioning of a new Bible, one for the common person.

Adam Nicolson, in God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible, writes, “it is easy to see (the King James Bible) as England’s equivalent of the great baroque cathedral it never built, an enormous and magnificent verbal artifice, its huge structures embracing all 4 million Englishmen, its orderliness and richness a kind of national shrine built only of words.”

But its reputation wasn’t built overnight.


Since the Bible was inspired by God, they decided the word order and phrasing was divinely inspired


“In England, it’s called the Authorized Version,” said Dr. Eddy. “It met a good deal of resistance to begin with; people clung to their Geneva Bibles. It took 50 years to establish itself.”

The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy calls The King James Bible “the only literary masterpiece produced by a committee.”

The Committee consisted of six sub-committees, called companies, each one consisting of eight translators and headed by a director. Fifteen cautious commandments guided the process.

Rule Number Eight is perhaps one of the most insightful, describing the process of the translators working on their own, then showing their finished product to the group: “Every particuler [sic] man of each company to take ye same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself where he thinks good, all to meete together, confer what they have done, and agree for their Parts what shall stand.”

“King James did not create this committee and ask them to translate from scratch,” said Dr. Eddy. “He asked them to compare the translations, and come up with the best possible version. I think they did a wonderful job.”

“Since the Bible was inspired by God, they decided that the word order and phrasing was divinely inspired. They tried to capture, as much as they could, the order of the ideas and pictures.”

Different translations have different flavours, explains Dr. Eddy. Even God comes across differently in different Bibles.

“In Genesis, when God creates the light, the King James Bible translates ‘and God saw the light that it was good,’ which pretty thoroughly replicates it from the Hebrew, ‘that God looked into the light and saw that it was good.’ Whereas a more modern translation would say that God saw that the light was good. ‘God saw’ is more like ‘He recognized and perceived,’ and there’s no notion that God is actually doing the looking.”

Eddy also appreciates the translators for what they didn’t do.

“There’s another thing that the translators did that was marvellous,” she noted. “When the language was in the Hebrew or the Greek, and something seemed to them to be open or ambiguous, they tried to translate in a way that kept that ambiguity or possibility of a range of meanings, instead of trying to decide what they thought it meant.”

As for its legacy to the language, Dr. Eddy says that the King James Bible may have had more of an effect on literature than anything.


But the King James Bible didn’t just replicate older versions successfully


“I think the legacy of the King James Bible, as a translation, now really comes through English literature rather than from directly from the Bible, because it was the Bible of the English-speaking people for a long time. People heard that translation read aloud in church, read it at home. Its rhythms and images just permeated the language. I think that nowadays people read silently, to themselves. We don’t have the same kind of common text that we all have heard and that permeates our mental structures the way the KJV did. There have been big changes in reading habits and cultural frame of reference.”

“Its major importance now is probably through English literature: Bunyan, Milton, Donne, DH Lawrence, an enormous amount of writers, up into the 20th century.”

But the King James Bible didn’t just replicate older versions successfully, it kept alive some of its own memorable turns of phrase and created (or kept alive) neologisms, many of them from an earlier, under-appreciated source.

First page of the St. Matthew's Gospel

“The striking thing to me is how much of the King James Bible came from Tyndale,” says Coppieters. “It’s amazing the number of expressions came from him. He coined things like “the twinkling of an eye.”

McGrath writes that Tyndale also coined “my brother’s keeper,” “the salt of the earth,” “a law unto themselves,” among a great many others. It’s not an endless list, but it is a long one. It’s also supplied us with endless lines of dialogue appropriated by movies, plays and books over the years, as well as given us a difficult-to-exhaust supply of titles.

“He constructed the term ‘Jehovah’ from the Hebrew construction known as the ‘tetragrammaton’ in the Old Testament,” writes McGrath. The author also credits him for coining ‘Passover,’ ‘scapegoat’ and ‘atonement,’ among others.


Unless you’ve read Shakespeare and the Bible, you don’t have the basics of English culture


Many of the Bibles available today are the New International Version. It’s an infant, in Bible-publishing terms, first published in the 1970s by the New York Bible Society. It figures to have sold more than 210 million copies in the past 33 years and an updated version came along this year.

That’s not to say that the King James is forgotten.

“There’s always a pretty strong ongoing request for the King James,” said the Bible Society’s Coppieters. “With the anniversary … there’s been a bit of a spike in demand. Some of those are new people. In the general population, we’ve basically said unless you’ve read Shakespeare and the Bible, you don’t have the basics of English culture.”

But the ultimate flourishing of the King James Bible was never inevitable or guaranteed. Coppieters says that when he’s asked to defend his own faith, he says, “One of the things I point to is the survival of the Bible.”

He hopes that the 400th anniversary is a good reason for people to re-acquaint themselves with the King James Bible, or to acquaint themselves if they’ve never read it before.

“At least, that’s what we’re hoping will happen.”

But for what was to be a violent century in England, the 1611 release of the King James Bible was important for another reason. Says the author Nicolson (God’s Secretaries), the Bible is a poignant reflection of the hoped-for optimism of the early days of King James.

“Its great and majestic beauties, a conscious heightening of the word of God… is a window on that moment of optimism, in which the light of understanding and the majesty of God could be united in a text to which the nation as a whole, Puritan and prelate, court and country, simple and educated, could subscribe.”


James Chliboyko is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.

Images from the King James Bible used by permission of University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.


  • Lapsedlutheran said:

    kinda surprised you would glorify the work of a …..HOMOSEXUAL!!!!

  • canluth (author) said:

    As you know from reading the article the King James Bible was not the work of King James, but a team of scholars. That God can use anyone to achieve His purposes is one of the wonders of His grace.

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