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Happy Birthday, KJV!

Today, May 2, 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the Bible translation known as the King James Version (KJV) or the Authorized Version (AV), which was first published in 1611.  Although I very rarely read or use it because of its outdated language, it has been a great gift to the church over the last four centuries.  I highly regard it and am thankful for it.

Undoubtedly some take their love for the KJV too far.  No, Jesus didn’t use the KJV.  My friend’s grandmother actually used that argument.  No, it’s not the divinely-inspired translation.  The Bible autographs, which are the original documents delivered to us by God through the biblical writers, are divinely inspired, but no translation fits that category.  Nevertheless, the KJV has been a very important blessing to the church.

It is a solid translation.  As for textual basis, it’s based primarily upon the original biblical languages.  So, for the most part, it’s not a translation of a translation as some other Bible versions are.  The New Testament was translated from the Greek manuscript known as the Textus Receptus.  Where the Textus Receptus was incomplete, the Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate was used.  The Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew manuscript known as the Masoretic Text.  However, the Old Testament portion of the Vulgate and the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint influenced the translation of the Hebrew into English.  As for translating philosophy, on the Word-for-Word and Thought-for-Thought continuum, it is very much a Word-for-Word translation.  Therefore, when you read the KJV, you’re getting a precise translation of the original text into 17th-century English.

Of course, keep in mind that the KJV we have today is not exactly the 1611 version.  It’s been updated a few times to reflect changes in spelling and a few instances of word-choice.  These changes are undeniably a good thing because if you think reading the KJV you’re familiar with is hard, you ought to try reading an actual 1611 KJV.  For instance, here’s part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:12-16 in the actual 1611 edition:

  • If I haue tolde you earthly things, and ye beleeue not: how shall ye beleeue if I tell you of heauenly things? And no man hath ascended vp to heauen, but hee that came downe from heauen, euen the Sonne of man which is in heauen. And as Moses lifted vp the serpent in the wildernesse: euen so must the Sonne of man be lifted vp: That whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue eternall life. For God so loued ye world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.

The history leading up to the work of the KJV is very interesting.  It’s hard for us to imagine today, but sometime between the 4th century and the 16th-century Reformation, it became illegal to translate the Bible into the vernacular or common language of the people.  Through those centuries, the primary and official translation was the Vulgate, which again is a Latin translation of the Scripture.  This reality actually made sense since Rome ruled the Western world, and Latin was the official language of the empire.  However, as Rome dissolved, various languages and dialects began to sprout up all over Europe along with new nation-states to the point that Latin became a dead language.  Virtually nobody could speak it or read it except religious officials, leaving the common person unable to read the Bible.  Just imagine your life if you couldn’t read or understand the words of Scripture.

So, why didn’t they just translate the Bible into French, Spanish, German, English, or whatever vernacular?  Remember, it was illegal to do so.  John Wycliffe, a 14th-century English scholar/theologian/preacher, disregarded the law and translated the Latin Bible into English in 1382, an act which the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) decried to the point of burning all the copies Wycliffe’s translation it could get its hands on.  He died of natural causes two years later, but his disciple John Huss suffered a martyr’s death in 1415, being burned at the stake by the hands of the RCC.  The RCC had such contempt for Wycliffe and the type of men he spawned that in 1415 they posthumously charged him with heresy and in 1428 had his bones exhumed and burned in a symbolic act of judgment by order of Pope Martin V.

William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1525, which made him an outlaw.  In 1536, he fled from King Henry VIII of England to the mainland where officials of the Holy Roman Empire (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church) arrested him and by the order of the emperor strangled and then burned him at the stake.  So, translating the Scripture into the common language of the people carried very stiff penalties.  Nevertheless, people continued to do so or utilize the surviving English works of these martyrs.

Fast forward now with me to 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, making him the first king of the United Kingdom.  In 1604, he saw a need for a new English Bible translation.  As one expert said, “He was generally scandalized that there were all these different Bibles going around. And when somebody said, you know, I refer to the Bible, the first response was, well, which Bible? My Bible says this, your Bible says this. So he was trying to create a standard version that everyone could agree on… You know, you’ve got to think of a very different kind of society, very different way of thinking about religion. The idea that we have today of, you know, we choose our own way to God, there are different denominations and different groups. What sounds to us, you know, sensible easygoing tolerance would have to him been just the rankest kind of heresy. As far as he was concerned, he was the king of a country. And if it was to be one country, one church, and it was based on the Bible, then there had to be one Bible,” (Philip Jenkins, professor of Religious Studies, Penn State University, quoted from here).  So, in 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, King James authorized a new translation into English, and on May 2, 1611, it was published.  We know it today as the King James Bible.

The KJV has had a huge impact on the world.  Most importantly for 17th-century English-speakers, it standardized the English Bible and put the Word of God into their contemporary language so that they could easily read and understand Scripture.  Given the influence of Imperial England throughout the world, it has been widely spread as the English Bible and in so doing, has helped regulate and promote the English language globally.  It’s certainly a literary treasure, excelling in capturing the poetry of Scripture, and has been embedded in the subconscious of the American culture.  Even if you don’t regularly use the KJV, quote some Scripture from memory, and I bet the KJV comes out!  That’s because in almost every church setting up until the last few decades, it has been basically the only translation used.  This situation unified the church around one translation, which I believe is a good thing.  Please don’t hear me advocating we all use the KJV, but it would probably be good and helpful if our churches decided on one contemporary translation to do for us what the KJV did for the church in the previous four centuries.  For all these reasons, the KJV is still a beloved translation.

So, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the KJV, may we give thanks to God for the blessing of the King James translation of the Bible!

One Comment

  1. Thanks for laying out the history and importance of the KJV to the history of Christianity, especially in the English-speaking world. Like you, I would love to see a common contemporary translation used today. I’m not sure that would be possible in our day with the manuscript issues, copyrights, and translation-idolaters, but I still believe it could be a worthwhile endeavor.

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