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The King James Version of the Bible was first published in 1611—exactly 400 hundred years ago this year. Historical records are inadequate to determine the exact day or even the month when it was published. Only the year is certain.

The words are pretty much the same as today’s King James Version, but the way the translators back then spelled some of them seems odd to us. Here’s how 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 reads in the original King James Bible: “Though I speake with the tongues of men & of Angels, and haue not charity, I am become as sounding brasse or a tinkling cymbal. And though I haue the gift of prophesie, and vnderstand all mysteries and all knowledge: and though I haue all faith, so that I could remooue mountains, and haue no charitie, I am nothing. And though I bestowe all my goods to feede the poore, and though I guiue my body to bee burned, and haue not charitie, it profiteth me nothing.”

Early English translations

A number of monks translated portions of the Bible into Old English as far back as the late A.D. 600s. All of these were based on a Latin translation called the Vulgate, since most Greek and Hebrew manuscripts did not become available to scholars until the early 1500s.

John Wycliffe, a British theologian and reformist who lived in the 1300s, was the first person to translate the entire Bible into the English language, though a number of scholars besides Wycliffe participated in the translation. However, Wycliffe’s English is so far removed from ours that we today would have a hard time reading his Bible.

In 1516, the first Greek New Testament was published by the Dutch Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus. It became the foundational Greek text used by all Protestant English translators until the late nineteenth century.

William Tyndale(ca. 1490–1536) was the first person to base an English translation of the Bible on the original Greek and Hebrew languages. He translated the entire New Testament into English and portions of the Old Testament. Tyndale’s translation was also the first English Bible to be produced by what was at the time the very modern technology of the printing press. (Gutenberg’s Bible, printed in or about 1455, was the Latin Vulgate.) Tyndale’s Bible played a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across Europe.

Unfortunately, Tyndale was arrested by church authorities in Brussels, tried for heresy, strangled, and burned at the stake. However, Tyndale’s work lived on. In fact, over 80 percent of Tyndale’s translation is found in the King James Version. This devout man, who was branded as a heretic and burned at the stake, gave us a translation that is largely the language of the great literary success, the King James Version.

The Great Bible. King Henry VIII and a number of Anglican churchmen objected to some of the wording and the notes in Tyndale’s Bible. However, Henry did want an official English Bible, and he commissioned a man by the name of Myles Coverdale to prepare one. Coverdale based much of his translation on Tyndale’s work, but he also relied on the Latin Vulgate. The result was what is known as “the Great Bible,” because of its large size. It was published in 1539.

The Great Bible was the first “authorized” English version— that is, it was approved by the king and the Anglican Church (Church of England) for reading in churches.

The Geneva Bible. The Catholic Queen Mary I came to the British throne in 1553. In her effort to restore Roman Catholicism to England, she had almost 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake. As a result, a number of Protestant scholars fled England and took refuge in Geneva, the home of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Several of these British scholars made a diligent effort to produce a new version of the English Bible, which was published in 1560. For obvious reasons, it was called the “Geneva Bible.”

This was the first version of the Bible to divide chapters into verses, and it was the first version to be mass produced for distribution to the general public. It became extremely popular among British Puritans, because the accompanying commentary tended to favor their version of Protestantism. However, for that very reason the Anglican Church and the crown quite disliked it.

The American Pilgrims brought the Geneva Bible with them to America, and it continued to be used by Americans for 100 years after the King James Version was published.

The Bishop’s Bible. Anglican scholars recognized the Geneva Bible to be an excellent translation, but they objected to its marginal notes, which favored a Presbyterian form of church governance by laypersons instead of the Anglican governance by bishops. However, at the time, the only version that was authorized for reading in churches was the Great Bible, which was overly dependent on the Latin Vulgate, especially in the Old Testament.

The Geneva Bible exposed these deficiencies, so the Church of England commissioned several bishops to prepare a new English version of the Bible. Hence the name “Bishop’s Bible.” Each bishop was assigned a different part to work on. Unfortunately, no one was placed in charge of the entire operation, with the result that there were inconsistencies in translation. For example, in most of the Old Testament the Hebrew letters YHWH were translated “Lord,” and Elohim was translated “God,” but in the Psalms these words were reversed.

The Bishop’s Bible was published in 1568, and it replaced the Great Bible as the authorized version for reading in churches. Revisions were published in 1569 and 1572 to correct some of the deficiencies in the original printing, but the Geneva Bible continued to be the most popular version in England and later in America.

The King James Version

King James I became ruler over all of Great Britain in 1603. Less than a year later, in January 1604, he convened the Hampton Court Conference to try to iron out some of the differences between the official church and the Puritans. Without a doubt, the most significant accomplishment of the conference was the authorization of a new translation of the Bible. Forty-seven scholars were assigned the task, all of them Anglicans.

James put in place rules for work on the project that would avoid the mistakes of previous official translations. These rules also ensured that the translation conformed to the doctrines of the Church of England, though some of the scholars had Puritan sympathies.

The scholars were divided into six committees, two each from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and two from Westminster. As work progressed, the committees shared their work with each other to ensure a consistency that was missing in the Bishop’s Bible. The committees completed their work in 1608, and a General Committee of Review was appointed to review the overall work.

The entire Bible—called the King James Version because it was authorized by King James I—was published by the King’s Printer, Robert Barker, in 1611. Oddly, the King James Version was never officially authorized, even though it is sometimes referred to as “the authorized version,” especially in Britain.

The King James Version did not immediately catch on with the general public, who still preferred the Geneva Bible. However, few if any Geneva Bibles were printed in England after 1616, so large numbers were imported from Amsterdam. In 1637 the archbishop of Canterbury put a stop to that by prohibiting the printing or importation of the Geneva Bible in England. By the middle of the 1700s, the King James Version was the only English translation used in Protestant churches. This ensured its eventual supremacy.

Following the first printing of the King James Version by Robert Barker, disputes arose as to who was the authorized printer. The result was significant differences among various printers in capitalization and punctuation and some major blunders in typesetting. One of the most notorious problems was the omission of the word not in the seventh commandment, so that it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” For obvious reasons, this printing came to be known as “the Wicked Bible.”

A number of revisions to the 1611 version were incorporated in reprints of the King James Version in 1629 and again in 1638. By the time 100 years had elapsed, changes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar were being introduced piecemeal by a variety of printers. In 1769 the Oxford University Press published what came to be known as the Oxford Standard Edition because it was adopted by most commentators and other publishers. The King James Version that we use today is largely based on the Oxford Standard Edition.

Words change in meaning over time, and some of the wording in the original King James Version that were preserved to the present time do not mean the same thing as they did in 1611. For example, in Mark 6:25, Herod’s daughter asks him to “give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.” To us, the words by and by mean sometime off in the future, but back then they meant “immediately.” The word charger is also meaningless to us. Thus, the New King James Version says, “Give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (emphasis added).

Another example is 1 Thessalonians 4:15, where the King James Version has Paul saying that “we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (emphasis added). In the early 1600s, the word prevent meant “to precede,” and that’s how the New King James and other modern versions translate it.

The language of the King James Version is archaic, making it difficult for today’s reader to understand its meaning. Also, we today have access to thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, both Greek and Hebrew, that were not available to the King James translators. The multiple new translations and versions of the Bible that were produced during the second half of the twentieth century—and that are still being produced today—address these issues.

Yet the doctrinal differences between these versions and the King James Version are negligible. While we may not use the King James Version as widely as previous generations, we can recognize that during the past 400 years it has contributed to the spiritual life of millions of people; it has had a profound influence on the English language; and its beauty of expression has yet to be matched by any modern translation.

Finding Understanding

Often, when talking about the Bible, you will hear terms such as Old Testament, New Testament, and even Torah. What does it all mean?

Also known as the Pentateuch, they are the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) written by Moses. Its teachings form the foundations of Judaism and modern Christianity. Jesus quoted extensively from it in His ministry.

Old Testament
The Old Testament, or OT, consists of 39 books spanning from Genesis to Malachi. Largely about the history of ancient Israel and God’s instructions to the nation, its overarching theme points to the coming of Jesus to save the world from sin.

Refers to the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that details the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.

New Testament
The New Testament, or NT, is located in the second half of the Bible. It consists of 27 books, beginning with Matthew and ending with Revelation. It is a collection of works, written in the first century A.D. by various authors. It revolves around the life, teachings, and death of Christ and is the basis of today’s Christian theology and practices

These are books that are considered useful but not divinely inspired. They are not included in the Protestant Bible.

The Story of the King James Version

by Marvin Moore
From the May 2011 Signs