Celebrating the history of the KJV

Happy Birthday to you, King James Bible.

Four hundred years ago this year, the Authorized Version was printed. It was authorized by King James, who had ascended to the English throne in 1603 after the death of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. James I, formerly James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, inaugurated the Jacobean Era (from Jacob, which is the Hebraic form of the name James) by selecting 47 Church of England scholars to work on a new English translation of the Bible. They worked from 1604-1611, producing a translation that has sold 5 billion copies in these four hundred years, and has shaped both the faith and the language of the faith for the faithful for all this time.

Along with Shakespeare’s works, the King James Bible has set the standard for how a language might appeal to commoners and elitists at the same time. The beauty of it, the poetic sound of the words chosen, rings in our heads so clearly we have a hard time accepting more precise, duller translations.

Consider the Shepherd’s Psalm (23). When I perform funerals or memorial services, I often invite those gathered to join me in reciting it. They only know it in the King James Version; and it’s low treason to force- feed them something modern.

I normally prefer the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to the better-selling but wooden New International Version (NIV); but listen to the differences of these to the KJV in just Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (NIV), lacks much compared to “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (KJV). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley” (NRSV and NIV) feels less ominous and therefore also less comforting than “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (KJV). The clincher though is “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV), which may make better sense of the Hebrew but offers little at the graveside compared to “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (KJV).

There are King James complications due to changing word meaning over time. “Let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27, KJV), doesn’t just refer to speech as we might read it today. The NRSV better catches the sense of conduct with “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the King James Bible achievement is that a committee produced it. Little-known divines put themselves to the task, putting the task before their egos. They emerged from cloister with a marvel that endures. Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, and he chafed under every recommended edit by the Congress that set itself to act as a committee of the whole. Not so with the King James Bible. The final concord among the scholars is all we know, as they left no minutes of their meetings.

Any Bible we have today is a translation of translations, including the King James. No original manuscripts of the Bible’s authors have survived the hardships of history.

A few other salient facts: The first 39 books of the Christian Bible were written in Hebrew and are shared with Jews, who arrange the order somewhat differently (Torah, Prophets, Writings versus Torah, Writings, Prophets). The New Testament was written primarily in Greek. St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation aided King James’s translators, along with previous English efforts by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale.

No translation is perfect, and yet people of biblical faith believe that the words of the Bible translations we have may render effectively God’s Word to the world by the power of God’s Spirit. Some translations more than others, though, eloquently carry the sound of the divine to the ear of the human.

The King James Bible still tops that list.