The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. No other translation of the Bible has sold as many copies nor has been read by as many people as the KJV. In many ways it is the most influential translation of the Bible ever made. However, it began in conflict and controversy and its future is not as bright as its past.
The KJV received its name from King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England in 1603. At that time, England was divided religiously between Catholics and Protestants. King James was a committed Protestant. However, English Protestants were divided between supporters of the Church of England and the Puritans. Both groups hoped the new king would favor their version of Protestantism. King James wisely wanted to bring the two groups closer to each other rather than making the division worse by favoring one group over the other.
Part of the division between the Church of England and the Puritans was that each had their own translation of the Bible. The 'official' Bible of the Church of England was the Bishops' Bible, first translated in 1568, while the Puritans were committed to the Geneva Bible, first translated in 1560. The Geneva Bible was a good translation, but contained extensive notes supporting Puritan interpretations of biblical and theological matters. Early in 1604, King James convened a conference of English religious leaders at Hampton Court to deal with issues of conflict between the Puritans and the Church of England.
A new translation of the Bible was not on the agenda, but early in the conference a leading Puritan representative proposed just that. None of the items on the agenda were solved in the conference, but King James jumped at the proposal for a new translation. He saw it as an opportunity to resolve one of the major divisions between his Puritan and Church of England subjects. He ordered work on the new translation to begin with the conditions that it be a revision of the Bishops' Bible and that no notes interpreting theology be included.
The plan by which the new translation would be made contained several innovations that became standard procedures in many of the translations done in the 20th century. Instead of the translation being the work of one or a few translators, King James organized six translation committees, called 'companies,' of nine persons to work on assigned sections of the Bible. Three committees were assigned to the Old Testament, two were assigned to the New Testament, and one was assigned the Apocrypha. None of the lists of the translators contains 54 names, so apparently some committees worked with less than their full membership.
The translators included the most outstanding Hebrew and Greek scholars from English universities, leaders of the Church of England, and leading Puritan ministers. Two committees met at Westminster, two at Oxford University, and two at Cambridge University. Richard Bancroft, who was promoted from Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury following the Hampton Court Conference, was given the responsibility of supervising the translation. He developed 15 rules for the translators causing all the committees to work from the same guidelines.
Bancroft's rules for the translation provided a system of checks and balances so that no one could unduly influence the translation. Each committee would check together the work of each individual translator, and a general committee consisting of two members from each of the six committees would check the work of the committees. Following King James' wishes, Bancroft's rules forbid marginal notes reflecting the theological biases of the differing religious groups in England. However, Bancroft did permit (and appears to have encouraged) marginal notes describing possible alternative meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words.
The careful system of checking the work of the six committees meant that the project could not be completed quickly. Though the translation work had begun by the end of 1604, the new translation was not ready for publication until 1611. Unfortunately the care given to the work of translation was not also given to the process of printing the new version. Many printing errors were found in the first print run so a second print run was ordered in 1611, resulting in even more printing errors.
Printing errors plagued the new translation, eventually called the King James Version, for more than a century. Perhaps the worst of these was the omission of the word 'not' in the seventh of the Ten Commandments. This 1631 edition came to be called 'The Wicked Bible' because Exodus 20:14 read, 'Thou shalt commit adultery.'
Printing errors were only one of several reasons the KJV was not well received in the early years following its publication. Many ministers were not happy with the marginal notes showing alternative meanings of the unclear Hebrew and Greek words. They argued that such notes diminished the lay people's confidence in the Word of God. (Later editions began to omit these marginal notes on Hebrew and Greek word meanings.) The Bishop of London was so opposed to the new translation that he declared he would rather be tied to wild horses and torn into pieces than permit the KJV to be read in his churches.
However, by 1662 the KJV had become the translation of choice in England. It was not long before all previous translations were forgotten. Eventually, many English-speaking people even came to regard to KJV as the original word of God that the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles to write! Many individuals (including John Wesley) and some groups produced new translations in the following centuries, but it was not until the mid-20th century that any new translation threatened the preeminence of the KJV.
Though the KJV enjoyed unprecedented popularity and impact for more than three centuries, three factors led to its now declining influence. First, the English language has changed radically since 1611. A recent scholarly (and appreciative) history of the KJV lists more than 500 words in the KJV that have changed meaning since 1611. In some cases, words mean virtually the opposite than they did in 1611.
Though constant new editions, and even the New King James Bible, have attempted to deal with this problem, they have not kept pace with the ever changing English language.
A second reason the KJV could no longer hold its preeminent position among English versions of the Bible is the great advance in scholarly understanding of Greek and Hebrew over the past 400 years. Thousands of manuscripts written in Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) were discovered in Egypt in the 19th century. The Dead Sea Scrolls provided vast resources for understanding the Hebrew language used in the Old Testament. These discoveries have opened new windows of understanding for translators of the Bible, windows not available to the translators of the KJV.
The third and perhaps most significant reason the KJV is no longer sufficient to serve the needs of English-speaking Christians is the fact that our knowledge of the actual words used in the original texts of the books of the Bible has increased significantly in the past 200 years. The copies of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible available to the translators of the KJV were copied well over 1,000 years after the biblical books were written. Today we have copies of the New Testament written no more than 100 to 150 years after those books were written. Verses and words that were added to the Bible by medieval copyists can now be identified and omitted.
The KJV has had a marvelous ministry across 400 years. Many English-speaking Christians first read the Bible and memorized its precious verses from the KJV. That will not be true 100 years in the future. That does not diminish the impact and incredible good accomplished by the KJV. We salute the KJV for its powerful history, though we know with some sadness that its future will not be as great as its past.
Roger Hahn is dean of the faculty and the Willard H. Taylor Chair of Biblical Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
Holiness Today, September/October 2011