This year, 2011, marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, officially known as the Authorized Version. It took seven years to translate (work began on it in 1604 and was completed in 1611) and, contrary to popular opinion, it was not the first English translation of the Bible. That honor belongs to John Wycliffe in the 14th century, who did the first full translation of the Bible into English. But partial English translations of the Bible predated even Wycliffe.
So what makes the King James Version (KJV) special and unique, then? Is it because "if it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!" as I've heard some people say? (and I'm not quite sure if they're actually being serious or not!) But clearly English is not an original Biblical language like Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, nor is any English translation inspired or inerrant (only the original autographs are). And though English is the lingua franca of our 21st-century world, it was not so at the time that the KJV was written.
Perhaps the best way to explain the KJV's significance is via an anecdote. Last year I went to a fabulous temporary Bible exhibit at Azusa Pacific University (and yes, although APU is Biola University's rival, I have to give credit where credit is due!) called "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Beyond." Though the "star" of the show was a few original fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the DSS are the oldest extant Biblical fragments, predating the next-oldest by about 1000 years, which makes it the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century), it was the "and Beyond" part of the exhibit that ultimately enthralled me. Yes, APU actually now owns the third-largest collection of DSS in the world, but after gazing at these nearly illegible fragments of papyri, what grabbed my attention for the remainder of the exhibit was a stunning collection of Bibles, a veritable "who's who" of Biblical manuscripts. It included:
Another effect the KJV had was on the church. John Wycliffe was called the "Morning Star of the Reformation" because he translated the Bible into English without the sanction of the Catholic Church. It seems unbelievable to us today that translating the Bible would be considered a crime—after all, don't we want the Bible to get into the hands of as many people as possible? Bible translation is such a crucial part of mission! And, for Catholics to insist on the Bible in Latin is eerily similar to Muslims insisting on the Koran in Arabic (which is itself further ironic since the Bible was not written in Latin, so the Vulgate cannot even claim linguistic originality and purity). But Wycliffe's attempt at an English translation went against papal decree and after his death his remains were exhumed and burned for it! This shows the potential of the Bible to empower the priesthood of all believers: when people get the Bible into their own hands, and in the vernacular language which they are accustomed to speaking (keep in mind the original New Testament was written in "koine"—common—Greek, and the Latin version of the Bible was called the Vulgate—"vulgar" means popular, or belonging to the masses), it may spark Reformation (which is not rebellion but rather a correction of errors). If people are allowed to check accumulated human tradition against the Biblical witness, they will be able to discern what is actually valid vs. what has been artificially constructed and extrapolated over the centuries.
Chronologically sandwiched between John Wycliffe and the KJV was William Tyndale in the 16th century who updated the English Bible. The main reason for the increased accuracy was because he used original Greek and Hebrew sources rather than the Vulgate (which is what Wycliffe relied on), leading to a more accurate translation. Though the King James Version was translation-by-committee, scholars estimate that over 90% of the KJV was based on Tyndale's original work! Remember that Tyndale was martyred for his phenomenal translation, but the man rarely gets acknowledged for the debt we owe him. Just for clarification, the KJV was not translated by King James I of England (aka King James VI of Scotland, who united England and Scotland into the United Kingdom) but rather commissioned by James. But, historically speaking, you might think of the KJV Bible being birthed out of the same womb as bore the UK. (Incidentally, it was a Puritan named John Reynolds, no relation to the founder of the Torrey Honors Institute, who was the catalyst for the KJV when he implored King James for a new English translation of the Bible!)
In addition to all of the historical and ecclesial significances above, the KJV also has linguistic significance. The KJV Bible and Shakespeare are the two most significant individual shapers of modern English. You may be surprised to hear that Shakespeare invented the following phrases which still remain intact in our English today: "Parting is such sweet sorrow"; "A heart of gold"; "In my mind's eye"; "One fell swoop"; "Set my teeth on edge"; "Wear my heart upon my sleeve"; "Laughing stock"; and, unbelievably, "Knock, knock! Who's there?"
The King James Bible came up with these familiar phrases: "My brother's keeper"; "Give up the ghost"; "Swaddling clothes"; "Flesh and blood"; "The powers that be"; "The blind leading the blind"; "The ends of the earth"; "Stiff-necked"; "Twinkling of an eye"; "Lamb to the slaughter"; "Holier-than-thou"; "A moment in time"; "Apple of his eye"; "A labor of love"; "The fruit of your loins"; "Fall from grace"; "The signs of the times"; "Pearls before swine"; "It came to pass"; "By the skin of your teeth"; "Bite the dust"; and "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"!
Nevertheless, the KJV must also be taken to task for some translation mistakes. Much of this was due to the fact that the KJV was based on an inferior manuscript, the Textus Receptus. Later versions of the Bible were based on more accurate and more ancient sources. Some of the mistakes that the KJV made were as follows: translating pascha in Acts 12:4 as "Easter" rather than "Passover" (an anachronism if I ever heard of one!); translating agape as "charity" rather than "love" (the former is too narrow of a definition); translating both "Hades" and "Gehenna" as "hell" (though they are different); translating Yeshua in Hebrews 4:8 as "Jesus" instead of "Joshua"; and famously, calling the titular character in Ruth 3:15 "he" instead of a "she"! (that mistake was later corrected the same year) Still, it was much more accurate than any English translation up to that point in time.
Today, the KJV seems passé because we have an embarrassment of riches of English translations of the Bible. Keep in mind that there are 6000 languages in the world which lack even a single full translation of the Bible in their tongue, while in English alone we have over fifty full versions and almost 500 partial versions. So before we start bickering about the merits of the NIV vs. the ESV (both, in my opinion, are great, so stop the elitist nitpicking!), let us give thanks for the buffet of translation options before us when there are people Biblically starving around the world.
Why, then, is the KJV is still around? Simply put, it has stood the test of time because people still like it! While some of those reasons may be silly (using the words "Thee" and "Thou" while praying to God does not make one any holier or more reverent, despite what some people might think), a good reason is that the KJV is simply beautiful. For example, "The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing" (NIV) just does not compare to "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." And "Give us this day our daily bread" is just so much lovelier than "Keep us alive with three square meals" (The Message)!
For its sheer beauty of language, it will never be replaced as the flagship English translation of the Bible. And, to boot, the KJV is the best-selling book in history—over 1 billion copies sold!
P.S. Though APU now has the third-largest DSS collection in the world, Biola was not to be outdone—last year we purchased an exact replica of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the largest intact scroll of the DSS, and had it displayed in our Calvary Chapel for the entire Fall 2010 semester, with accompanying academic lectures. In addition, well worth a visit is the Museum of Biblical and Sacred Writings in Irvine, California, if you want to see any of the above for yourself (most of the APU exhibit was borrowed from this museum). A similar collection of rare Biblical manuscripts is on display at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, in their Scriptorium exhibit. If you are ever in London, you must visit the British Library to see the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Bible in the world ("a jewel beyond price"). And if you are really keen, see the largest collection of original DSS at the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.
Allen Yeh is a missiologist who specializes in Latin America and China. He also has other academic interests in history, classical music, homiletics, social justice, and Jonathan Edwards. He earned his B.A. from Yale, M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell, M.Th. from Edinburgh, and D.Phil. from Oxford. Despite this alphabet soup, he believes that experience is the greatest teacher of all (besides the Bible). He can be found blogging at Scriptorium Daily, where this article originated. Used with permission.
Publication date: January 24, 2011