400 Hundred Years of the King James Bible

400 years ago, the best-selling book in history was published – the ‘King James’ or ‘Authorised’ version of the Bible. It wasn’t the first English Bible – in fact there were two officially ‘authorised’ translations published in 1539 and 1568. The 1611 Bible, though it was commissioned by the King, was never actually ‘Authorised’ in any official way – only by the strength of public popularity.

One sign of its popularity and quality is that while from 1534-1611 there were eight published translations of the Bible into English, after the King James Version was published, the next significant English-language Bible didn’t appear until the Revised version was published in 1885 – 274 years later!

Many writers, Christian and atheist, have celebrated this anniversary, as the King James Bible is one of the greatest influences on our language. It’s given us lots of familiar phrases, and when it’s read aloud well it still has tremendous power and dignity. Some very traditional churches still insist on using it as the only ‘proper’ Bible, though most recognise that it’s no longer appropriate for everyday use. That’s not just because the language is old-fashioned; it’s more to do with the fact that some words have changed their meaning in the last 400 years, and also that since 1611 we’ve discovered earlier and better manuscripts of the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, so that we now know there are a few places where the text which was translated in 1611 isn’t what was originally written.

But that leaves us with the question of why this book was and still is so important.

Less than a century earlier it had been dangerous even to own a Bible in English, let alone to print one! The Bible was considered such a dangerous document that only those authorised by the church and educated in Latin were allowed to read it for themselves. Everyone else had to rely on what the local priest told them the Bible said.

Archbishop Cranmer (who wrote that other pillar of English Christianity, the Book of Common Prayer) and the other reformers who led the split of the Church of England from Rome believed it was vital to freedom and healthy Christian faith that people should be able to read God’s word for themselves, and made sure that Bibles in English were available in every church, with the doors open all day so they could be consulted by anyone.

The King James Version was an attempt to revise the work of earlier scholars, checking it for accuracy against the Greek and Hebrew texts then available and making the language as simple as possible. Part of the power of the book is that the editors deliberately used short words in everyday use whenever possible. They described their aim as being “to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they could understand.” That simplicity gives it a lasting beauty, but also makes it ironic that many people prefer it to good modern versions because it’s ‘more dignified’. I suspect that the editors would have been furious!

Today we have more different translations of the Bible than every before. There were none in 274 years after 1611, but I know of 24 from the last 50 years alone. They all try to strike different balances of accuracy, readability and dignity. We’re so used to being able to read the Bible for ourselves that we can easily take it for granted. But imagine being one of the first generation allowed to do so – queuing up to look something up in the Bible chained to a desk in church, or carrying a precious Bible of your own, hot from the press.

Why not take some time this year to read one of the gospels, first in a good modern translation (we use the New Revised Standard Version in Church) and then in the King James version. Appreciate both for what they are, and listen to God in words ancient and modern.

The Rev’d Nick Watson

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