On Whose Authority? The King James Bible Part 2: The Birth of a Legend

King James VI
Portrait of King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland)

When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England he faced a slew of problems, from war with Spain and Ireland which had led to a national debt of £400,000, to periodic outbreaks of plague and a growing fear of witchcraft. Religiously England and, to a lesser extent, Scotland were split between the mainstream Protestant Churches of the two countries, the Catholics who continued to look to Rome, and the Puritans who were agitating for radical Protestant reform.

James was a man of literary leaning (he authored several books over the course of his reign), and in 1604 he convened the Hampton Court Conference with representatives of the Church of England, including leading Puritans, to discuss a solution. As well as addressing such topics as baptism by laypeople, and excommunication, the Conference agreed to authorise a new English translation of the Bible. Thus was the Authorised Version, the King James Version, conceived.

It was to be the work of 47 scholars, all but one a Church of England clergyman but some with Puritan leanings, working in six committees. They would take the Bishop’s Bible of 1602 as their starting point, but also revisit the Hebrew Old Testament, Greek New Testament, and Latin and Greek Apocrypha. In addition they were permitted to refer to the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible, and it appears that they may also have used the Douay-Rheims New Testament and Taverner’s Bible.

There were certain conditions. King James was a firm believer in the divine right of kings, which set the monarch above all other mortals, and wanted no texts which would contradict this. In deference to the Church of England there would be none of the anti-Ecclesiastical side-notes of the Geneva Bible – in fact, there would be no commentary at all – and in deference to the Puritans certain passages which they believed had been inaccurately translated in the past would be revised. Hence the introduction to most copies of the KJV, even today, includes the note that it was “translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty’s special commandment.”

Moreover the language used was to reflect, as far as possible, the everyday tongue of the common people: the ‘Thee’s’ and ‘Thou’s’ which today are regarded as some form of special code of religious respect is in reality no more than the everyday language of people like William Shakespeare and John Donne, both of whom were active at the time. However, a desire for accuracy and clarity meant that in many cases slightly archaic language was used, in order to avoid confusion.

It took seven years to prepare the first edition for publication, but in 1611 the King James Bible was born.

No record of the authorisation of the Authorised Version exists. It is thought that this was destroyed in a fire in 1618 which claimed all the Privy Council records for 1600 to 1613. It took decades for the new version to fully supplant its predecessors, helped by a ban on printing and importing other versions. However, by the mid-18th century it had become the standard version throughout the British Isles. In 1769 it was revised and standardised, primarily to remove variations in spelling and punctuation introduced by various printers more concerned with appearances than accuracy. Although some changes have been made to reflect more recent scholarship, it is substantively the 1769 revision which remains in use today.

KJV only poster
Poster supporting the King James Only movement. The verses cited appear as footnotes in the New International Version, as they do not appear in many of the oldest surviving manuscripts from which the NIV was translated. No current Christian doctrine is dependent on the inclusion or otherwise of any of these verses.

The support of King and Church accounts for much of the initial success of the KJV. Its continued success rested on the fact that it was a good, readable translation (although linguistic evolution means that this is no longer the case for many people), and that advances in printing technology ensured that it became widely available. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that a plethora of more modern versions, all intended to take advantage of the additional light shed by two centuries of biblical scholarship and produce a Bible in language that would be easier for the modern reader to understand, would progressively undermine the dominance of the King James Version. Even today, groups like the King James Only Movement argue for a return to the Authorised Version on the basis that these later translations are corrupt mistranslations of dubious scholarly merit, which risk leading their readers into heresy. In other words, the desire for a true and accurate translation of the scriptures is as strong among believers today as it ever has been.

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3 thoughts on “On Whose Authority? The King James Bible Part 2: The Birth of a Legend

  1. Interesting post, really. I am just readingvan exraordinary well written biography of Martin Luther (Schilling, Heinz: Martin Luther. Munichk 2013) with many references to his German translation if the Bible – which was not the first translation in German as I learned today from media reports.

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    1. Yes, I know what you mean about the story being more complex when you start reading up on it! This wasn’t supposed to be a two-part post, but I may end up with a third part to cover more recent versions as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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