1st May 2011

Anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible

“The wordes of the Lord are pure words; as siluer is tried in a furnace of earth purified seuen times.”
Psalm 12:6 (original KJV version of 1611)

The year 2011 year marks the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James Version of the Bible (known as The Authorised Bible in Britain). England’s King James I commissioned nearly 50 scholars and translators to revise an already existing text—the Bishop’s Bible of 1568. In their words, they set out not to make a new translation of the Bible, but “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” This included gleaning the best from such well-known versions as Tyndale’s, Matthews’s, Coverdale’s and the Geneva Bible.

The 1611 King James Version went through an intense, nearly three-year editing process by six translation committees. The six teams met to tackle pre-assigned sections of Scripture and each team eventually had to check on the work of the others. The balance between Anglican bishops and Puritan zealots on the committees was almost a guarantee that no one doctrinal slant would dominate—a rarity in 1611.

The final manuscript has a richness and majesty of style that remains unsurpassed to this day. Few English-speakers are not affected by the rich poetry of the Psalms or the moving tones of “Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” and “Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Such 1611 phrases as “bring hither the fatted calf”, “God forbid”, “eat, drink and be merry” and “my cup runneth over” have travelled around the world. Coming from the age of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh, the King James Version appealed to an audience well used to striking, punchy phrases.

It was destined to be a hit. The literary critic Peter Ackroyd claimed that the 1611 Bible “invigorated the consciousness of the nation” and through the spread of the English language it positively affected many other nations as well. It is not too much to say that the King James Version gave a centrality and a commonality to Protestant Christianity that endured until very recent times.

But the King James Version has weaknesses as well. The translators of 1611 didn’t have access to the wide body of Greek manuscripts discovered since that time. They based almost everything on one so-called “Received” Text from the Greek region of Constantinople. Today we know there are other whole families of manuscripts that would have strengthened the King James Version immensely had they been available at the time.

The men of 1611 knew their work was imperfect. They presented their new translation to the church, as they put it, “with all humility,” never imagining that some misguided descendants would feel they had produced the true infallible text. Their attitude of being open to fresh inputs and insights from the Holy Spirit is an example that can help Christians today as we face our own religious divisions. And if this anniversary year of the King James Version prods us to rededicate ourselves to reading the Bible in any translation, it will have been a great success.

Heavenly Father, thank you for honest men who have sought to bring your words to us. We work today with computers and word processors; they worked with quill pens—and a zeal for you we do well to remember and emulate today. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Study by Joseph Tkach 

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