Celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible

This year will mark a special anniversary: the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible.  This Bible, so beloved by Christians worldwide, has become a staple in all of human history.  It represents one of the most enduring icons of Christianity as a whole.

The King James Version of the Bible got that name because of its historical roots.  Around the sixteenth century in England, King James (originally king of Scotland) ascended the British throne and found himself in one of the most chaotic eras in the empire’s history.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, was shifting dramatically because of the Protestant Reformation.  When King James took the throne, Puritans and Separatists–Christian groups on the margins–were wreaking havoc with the Church of England.

The middle class was gaining wealth; the literacy rate rose dramatically; Bible translations, such as the Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva Bibles were being published on the Gutenberg printing press at an astonishing rate.

King James saw the fractured empire and sought to increase his authority throughout Christendom.  He had a two-pronged strategy:  He sought political power (nothing new in Europe), and he sought religious power.

Part of this religious power came in competing with the variety of Bible translations that existed at the time. In 1604, King James decreed that a new, authoritative translation would be issued.  Thus, the idea for the King James version was born.

James’ committee of translators consisted of some fifty scholars separated into six panels.  Three panels worked on the Old Testament; two panels on the New Testament; and one panel on the Apocrypha.   After the translations were completed, the panels met and revised eachother’s work.

Upon the Bible’s completion in 1611, it adopted a very authoritative name:  The Authorized Version.

Despite its popularity at the time, the original King James Bible actually had several thousand errors and mistranslations.  Once it went public, many of these errors were marked and corrected.

For instance, a 1631 edition failed to put the word, “not”, in Exodus 20:14, thus reading, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  The edition was coined the “Adultery Bible.”

Eventually, by the late 1700s, most of the kinks were ironed out, and we got what many Christians today consider the greatest translation in the English language.

The translation has seen the rise and fall of many nations and churches, the shifting dynamics of imperialism, and the evolving nature of missions, congregational leadership, and evangelism for nearly four centuries.  It is even popular enough for a bumper sticker or two: “If it ain’t King James, It ain’t the Bible.”

There are many reasons why the version has endured over time.  For one, the Shakespearean language is absolutely gorgeous.  Can you imagine reading Psalm 23 from, say, the Good News Bible, at a funeral?  I would never!  How about opening a night-stand drawer in a hotel and finding a New Living Translation?  Perish the thought.

Or what about all of those King James-inspired Christmas stories we read in church, in which the old-fashioned word for donkey still makes children in the pews snicker?

Also, many of our hymns are based on the translation.  In the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” no one really knows what “raise thine Ebenezer” means, but–by golly!–it’s from the King James and that’s good ‘nough for me.

For many people, it is enduring because it escaped the issues that recent translations have raised.  The King James defies contemporary English, so there is no need for tough editorial decisions on the part of modern translators.  It is not gender inclusive, so we know for a fact that it’s not “liberal.”  And it’s what Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa used, and we know that the Bible helped make them more faithful than anyone living today.

Let’s wish the KJV BIble a happy 400th birthday, with blessings for many more centuries to come.

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2 thoughts on “Celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible

    • There were many Bibles around before the King James: A translation by Martin Luther in German; Melancthon’s Great Bible, and a translation by Wycliff and John Huss(?). The King James Bible wasn’t the first English translation; it was an “authoritative version” because there were so many other translations available. I don’t know who “u people” are, but those are the facts.

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