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The King James Bible

1 September 2011 | by Philip Eveson

The King James Bible

For the 350th anniversary of the Authorised Version (AV), the Evangelical Alliance organised a National Bible Rally at the Albert Hall in London on 24 October 1961. A scientist, a school teacher and an archaeologist took part and it included tableaux of the Bible in History and items by the London Emmanuel Choir. The highlight of the evening for many in the packed auditorium was the message given by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the AV or King James Version (KJV) as it is known in the USA the initiative has come mainly from sources not particularly Christian. At the beginning of the year a special exhibition opened at Cambridge University Library that referred to this Bible as ‘a masterpiece of biblical proportions’! On display were rare early printed English versions including the notorious ‘Wicked Bible’ of 1631 which features the misprint ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.

There is almost universal agreement that the KJV has had an enormous effect on English language, literature, culture and national life. It has also had a profound influence on the English-speaking world. For Wales too it is important in that the first Welsh Bible of 1588 was revised in 1620 in the light of it.

James Stuart

The Tudor dynasty came to an end with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March 1603. No sooner had James VI of Scotland been crowned James I of England than he summoned a conference of churchmen and theologians to iron out grievances in the church south of the border. It met at Hampton Court in January 1604. The Puritans were hoping it would result in a more reformed church in England as was the case in Scotland, but it turned out to be a triumph for the bishops and the status quo. Wanting to see peace between the rival parties the king looked for some way to appease the Puritans. An opportunity came when John Reynolds, the leader of the Puritan delegation, spoke as if he were proposing a new Bible translation.

In England at the time, there was no great interest in a new translation. The Puritans were well satisfied with the popular family study version known as the Geneva Bible, used by Shakespeare and later by Cromwell and his men. As for the rest of the Anglicans they were happy with the Bishops’ Bible. James himself did not like the Geneva Bible, regarding it as the ‘worst of all’ the versions mainly because of its marginal notes that seemed to undermine his great belief in the divine right of kings to rule. He had already proposed a new translation at a meeting of the Kirk in Fife so, never mind what Reynolds really had in mind, the king enthusiastically took up the idea. He no doubt felt that here was something both parties could unite on and thus it was resolved that a new translation be made of the whole Bible for use in all church services.

Bible translation

The Bible is recognised to be the oldest book in the world. It also has the unique position of being the first substantial work to be translated into other languages. While portions were translated into Anglo-Saxon around the eighth-century AD, it was through the encouragement of John Wycliffe that the whole Bible was first translated from the Latin into English in the fourteenth-century. Although banned by the Roman Church with heavy penalties for possessing a copy, it circulated widely until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth-century. Some 250 copies still survive.

We owe it to William Tyndale (1494-1536), killed and burnt for his work, that the New Testament (NT) was translated into English for the first time from the original Greek and half of the Old Testament (OT) from the Hebrew. It has been calculated that 83% of the words in the KJV of the NT are from Tyndale and 76% of what he completed of the OT. We can thank him for ‘Passover’, ‘scapegoat’, ‘mercy seat’, ‘the skin of my teeth’, ‘a law unto themselves’ and many more.

Translation team

The very best linguists and theologians of the day were summoned. Forty-seven men have been identified, most of them establishment men, but there were two notable Puritans: John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi, Oxford and Laurence Chadderton, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. James decreed that their work should be ‘reviewed by the bishops and the chief learned of the church; from there to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by royal authority.’

They were formed into six companies, with two meeting at Westminster, two at Cambridge and two at Oxford. The Bible was divided up between them. Westminster company one was assigned Genesis to 2 Kings; Cambridge company one, 1 Chronicles to Song of Songs; Oxford company one, Isaiah to Malachi. The second Oxford company was assigned the gospels, Acts and Revelation, the second Westminster company, the New Testament Epistles while the second Cambridge company was given the Apocryphal books.

When each company had completed its task, twelve delegates, two from each group, were chosen to meet together at Stationers’ Hall in London to review and revise the entire translation. The draft translations were read out loud to the delegates who then suggested alterations where necessary. The bishops of Winchester and Gloucester were appointed to look over the whole work and make final adjustments.

Translation rules

Bancroft the newly appointed Archbishop, with the approval of James, drew up strict rules for the guidance of the translators. One of the most significant was the first. They were not allowed to produce a fresh translation. It was to be a revision of what already existed. They were to use the Bishops’ Bible as their basis and only to depart from it when the original languages demanded it. Old ecclesiastical words were to be retained. For instance, ‘church’ was not to be translated ‘congregation’ as in Tyndale and the Geneva. Marginal notes were only allowed to explain difficulties in the original and to add cross-references. Permission was granted to consult other experts when needed and for other translations to be used like Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s and Geneva when they agreed better with the original.


Its acceptance was not immediate or universal. One Hebrew expert not appointed on account of his lack of team spirit, Hugh Broughton, denounced it. But gradually, the new translation gained in popularity so that for nearly 300 years it has been the accepted version, dear to Christians throughout the English-speaking world.

At her coronation in 1953 the Queen was presented with a copy of the Bible with these words:

To keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.

The film The King’s Speech has attracted much attention this year but in the Bible we have the speech of the King of kings. Here we have authoritative truth about God, about ourselves, our world and of salvation through Jesus Christ. Pray that God would use the exhibitions and media interest to call people back to His word and that the Holy Spirit would use it that many in our land might turn from their idols to serve the living and true God.

Philip H. Eveson lectures on the EMW’s Theological Training Course and part-time for LTS.

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