The King James Bible, translated from ancient Greek and Hebrew in 1611, is, by virtually all accounts, the most awe-inspiring work of English prose ever written.
Over the past four centuries, the KJV has sold more than 5 billion copies. Its exquisite English text has circulated the globe in the hands of missionaries and graced the homes of kings, pastors and peasants. Its lofty language has been repeated over pulpits and podiums, in prayers and poetry, by teachers and travelers.
The words are so familiar that some believers may think that’s how God actually talks. Here, then, is an overview of how this world-changing work came to be.
Why did King James commission a Bible?
In 1604, English-speaking Christians were using several versions of the text, including Tyndale’s New Testament, Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Rheims New Testament. Each translation represented a slightly different theological turn and was embraced by diverse groups of believers.
Upon ascending to the English throne, James ordered a new version, said Norman L. Jones, chairman of Utah State University’s history department, because he felt there were too “many arguments over what the text meant.”
James wanted a Bible that would appeal to everyone, author Adam Nicolson wrote in his 2003 book, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible”: “And as God’s lieutenant on Earth, he would use it to unify his kingdom.”
But the book went far beyond any earthly propaganda.
“Its subject is majesty, not tyranny, and its political purpose was unifying and enfolding,” Nicolson wrote. “To elide the kingliness of God with the godliness of kings.”
Who did the translating and how did they do it?
Nicolson described the team of translators as “a gaggle of 50 or so black-gowned divines whose names are almost unknown but whose words continue to resonate with us.”
Six groups of scholars working at various universities were assigned parts of the book. Ten met at Westminster to translate Genesis through 2 Kings; seven others had the New Testament epistles. At Cambridge, eight worked on 1 Chronicles through Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, while seven others handled the Apocrypha.
At Oxford, seven scholars tackled Isaiah through Malachi, and eight more took up the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and Revelation.
Ultimately, their version relied heavily on the language used in the Geneva and Tyndale Bibles, Nicolson wrote, “winnowing the best from the past.”
They didn’t view themselves as writers and their anonymity may have been the key to the book’s grandeur.
“It is not the poetry of a single mind, nor the effusion of a singular vision, nor even the product of a single moment,” he wrote, “but the child of an entire culture stretching back to the great Jewish poets and storytellers of the Near Eastern Bronze Age.”
What was the contemporary response to it?
Though it was immediately embraced by most Anglican clergy, not everyone was favorably impressed, Philip Barlow, the chairman of religious studies at Utah State University, wrote in a recent article in “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.”
Some thought its English was “barbarous” and its scholarship lacking, he wrote.
Barlow cited a prominent churchman of the time, Hugh Broughton, who said he would rather “be rent in pieces by wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches.”
Gradually, though, the language of the King James Bible became so entwined with the popular mind, Barlow wrote, that “by the 18th century many Protestants felt it blasphemous to change it or even to point out the inadequacies of its scholarship.”
The text became the basis for some of the most lyrical English poetry ever written and the subject of endless Bible-as-literature classes on college campuses throughout the English-speaking world. And, though its wording has been challenged by subsequent translators, the language of King James continues to inspire and attract students and readers of all kinds.
“There are lots of way to understand ‘accuracy,’” said Jacqueline Osherow, an English professor who can read the original Hebrew text and teaches a Bible literature class at the University of Utah. “The Hebrew Bible is so poetic and beautiful. If you are rending it in a prosaic manner, you are losing out on a certain essential accuracy — the poetic.”
Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune. Kristen Moulton contributed to this story.