400 Years Young: A Tribute to the King James Bible
It inspired the writings of Jefferson and the speeches of Lincoln. The voice of the great narrator Alexander Scourby became synonymous with it. Without this single document, there would have been no Handel’s Messiah, Paradise Lost, or Gettysburg Address. The literary foundation of the English language is based on it, even more than Shakespeare or the Oxford English Dictionary. As the British Empire expanded and, by extension, the English language, it also laid the foundation for great missionary outreach and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The ‘it’ referred to above is nothing less than the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, otherwise known as KJV. This amazing Bible, ‘authorized’ to be read in churches, had its 400th anniversary in May 2011. The King James Bible Trust, with Prince Charles as the patron, spearheaded the celebrations. The Queen also has been involved in the commemoration and it was the first thing she mentioned in her Christmas Speech of 2010.
By all accounts, the KJV continues to be a best seller, despite the proliferation of many other English language Bible versions. Over a billion copies have been printed and it outpaces and outlasts many newer English translations of the Bible.
The amazingly beautiful, accurate and resilient KJV began in a conference at Hampton Court Palace in 1604. James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), son of the ill-fated Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, and himself a Protestant, had been crowned King of England in the place of Elizabeth I just the year before. The Church of England, of which he was now the head, was having troubles with a restive group of Christians called Puritans. How could he bring peace and stability to the realm? The answer came one of the aggrieved Puritan leader’s, John Rainolds, said these words:
‘May Your Majesty be pleased to direct the Bible be now translated, (since) such versions as are extant (are) not answering to the original’
James I loved the idea and ‘authorized’ that the new translation be made. Little did he realize ever that it would become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, published works in history.
Translating the Bible into English was once a dangerous prospect. Englishman William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for doing precisely that. It was deemed irreverent and wrong to translate the holy scriptures into English, which was considered a crude language. French and Latin were preferable. Indeed, Desiderius Erasmus, compiler of the Textus Receptus from which the King James Bible was translated, did not speak a word of English, yet he could freely converse with scholars at Oxford because they all spoke Latin. Yet Tyndale’s enormous sacrifice -- he never married and was never buried -- and his courageous efforts to make the Bible available in English would unleash a force that could not be stopped.
John Wyclif had the first English translation of the Bible in 1382. Tyndale’s was in 1528. King Henry VIII of England broke from Rome and had the Church of England placed under the English crown. He authorized the translation of the ‘Great Bible.’ In 1583, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the ‘Bishop’s Bible’ came on the scene.
Before that, when Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary Tudor (a Catholic), tried to turn back the English reformation and make England submit to the Vatican, English Protestant emigres produced the ‘Geneva Bible.’ This was a honoured translation -- one that the Puritans took with them to the New World -- but its column notes were intensely disliked by James I. He believed in the ‘divine right of kings’ and the Geneva Bible’s notes came across as ‘anti-monarchy’ and even ‘seditious.’ The new monarch, a scholar of Greek and Hebrew, was more than happy to see a new English translation of the Bible come to the scene and to put out of business the Geneva Bible. This is a major part of the reason he so enthusiastically embraced Rainold’s recommendation.
In 1611 the KJV came at the right time; it was still the Renaissance with the blossoming of learning and culture. The Reformation was here to stay. The printing press made the Bible available to more and more people. Like our time, people in the 17th Century believed in technology, but in addition they were also steeped in the Greco-Roman classics. Some of the KJV translators knew Greek and Hebrew like their first language. All these factors, plus the hand of God, coalesced to give the world a version of the Scriptures that is unsurpassed in all important areas.
A group of 54 of the best scholars were assembled for the task. While James I was keen for the project to proceed, he would not be contributing to its research or production -- royal funds were apparently scarce in those days. The project would have to fund itself. In addition, the translators were unpaid volunteers. They translated out of the original languages, using the textus receptus (apparently, so did Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible) while also comparing the earlier translations, of which Tyndale’s would play a major role. According to David Daniels, ‘In all, every single verse of the Bible was carefully examined and decided upon a total of fourteen times, by as many as 50 or more people! This made it impossible for any one translator to impose his personal viewpoint on the passage.’
Rolling off the presses of Robert Barker in May 1611, the King James Bible in time became the single translation of the English-speaking people. It’s preeminence, while challenged by the flood of modern translations, still shines brightly. Amazingly, more modern translations come on the scene, take the spotlight momentarily, and then recede into the background. Even the ‘best-selling’ modern versions go through added revisions and incarnations ... while the King James continues to sell as is.
BF Westcott in 1868 said ‘From the middle of the seventeenth century, the King’s Bible has been the acknowledge Bible of the English-speaking nations throughout the world simply because it is the best. A revision which embodied the ripe fruits of nearly a century of labour, and appealed to the religious instinct of a great Christian people, gained by its own internal character a vital authority which could never have been secured by an edict of sovereign rulers.’ Wherever the British Empire spread, the KJV was never far away. It was especially in the American colonies and then the United States where the King James Bible had as honoured, if not even more honoured, place that it did in England itself. Even until today, it is in the United States where the printing of the KJV is more than anywhere else (even Oxford Press prints their KJV’s in America -- where the demand is).
Like the Homer to the Greeks, the Septuagint to the ancient church, KJV became a cornerstone of the English language and one of the greatest literary pieces in history. One scholar said that God used four languages to present and preserve His Word: Hebrew, Greek, Old Latin, and English. And when we think of ‘English Bible,’ the one that has had the overwhelming influence over our knowledge of the words and works of God is the KJV. Far from being an antiquated, anachronistic relic of our quaint past, the KJV has lasted the distance in a way that has stunned even its most ardent supporters. It has a longevity and vitality that still continues to bring blessing to all those who read from it.
What is the appeal of the KJV? Here are a few points to ponder:
Accuracy: the translators were men of impeccable scholastic ability and unquestioned Christian commitment. Some of them were reading Greek and Hebrew at the age of 5. Instead of translating ‘phrase to phrase,’ they translated ‘word for word.’ This is in accord with Jesus’ own testimony: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4). Jesus’ view of the inspiration of Scripture was so high that he believed that every word, every letter, even ever dot and stroke, was inspired (Matthew 5:18). You will not find any missing words, letters, phrases or even whole verses in the KJV. It’s accuracy means that it is also complete and trustworthy. Alexander Geddes, a Catholic scholar, said in 1786 ‘If accuracy and strictest attention to the letter of the text be supposed to constitute an excellent version, this is of all versions the most excellent.’
Authority: The ‘word for word’ translation by a highly qualified team of pious scholars -- who had no commercial interest in the translation but only the glory of God in mind -- rendered an unmistakable authority upon the text. Some critics say that the Hebrew/Greek manuscripts used for the translation of the KJV dated only to 900 AD, whereas the manuscripts of the modern translations are much earlier. This is correct ... however, the KJV manuscripts are copies of those manuscripts that agree with 5,000 earlier manuscripts, some as old as the older ones used in modern translations and probably more reliable. The fact that this translation has held such a supreme position for four centuries also attests to its undisputed authority. When read aloud, with conviction and anointing, it sounds like God Himself speaking. Phyllis Tickle of Publisher Weekly said, ‘The sheer poetry of the King James Version, not to mention its almost half-millennium of absolute authority, militates against its slipping into obscurity any time soon.’
Beauty: The eloquence and literary beauty of this masterpiece is beyond dispute. Who can replace the wonderful KJV renderings of such beloved passages as the Twenty-Third Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Beatitudes? Alister McGrath, author of an excellent history of the KJV called In the Beginning, said ‘The glory of the King James Bible was that the English language was raised to new heights by being put to the service of this supreme goal--the rendering in English of the words and deeds of God.’
This author at the age of 15 started with a KJV Gideon’s Bible that was sitting on the family bookshelf. At the age of 21, he obtained a Thompson Chain KJV Study Bible; this is the Bible he began to teach and preach from. Eventually, he obtained the ‘Rolls Royce’ -- a leather bound Cambridge KJV Bible. All these Bibles he still has to this day. Though possessing a succession of modern translations, over the last years as a full-time Bible teacher and preacher, he has returned to KJV. Why? For the reasons above: accuracy, authority, and beauty.
Remarkably, well-known British atheists who are virulently anti-theist, sing some of the highest praises to the KJV. Niall Ferguson, a distinguished historian, speaks of the supremacy of the KJV in terms of its central place in the English language. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the book God is Not Great, said, ‘You are not educated if you don’t know the Bible. You can’t read Shakespeare or Milton without it … And with the schools now, they don’t even teach it as a document … So kids can’t quote the King James Bible. That’s terrible.’
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, had this to say about the KJV: ‘You can't appreciate English literature unless you are to some extent steeped in the King James Bible. There are phrases that come from it — people don't realize they come from it — proverbial phrases, phrases that make echoes in people's minds ... Not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian.’
For believers, reading the King James Bible gives a double portion: we are enjoying the fruit of our rich heritage in the English language and culture while, more importantly, imbibing the life-giving, anointed Word of the Lord that is a ‘lamp to our feet, a light to our path, sincere milk, and strong meat.’
People may not realize it but many well-known English idioms come straight out of the KJV. You can turn to just about any page and find phrases that have become part of our common speech. Here are some examples:
• A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush;
• A drop in the bucket;
• A fly in the ointment
• A house divided against itself cannot stand
• A leopard cannot change its spots
• A man after his own heart;
• A multitude of sins;
• A sign of the times
• A two-edged sword;
• A voice crying in the wilderness;
• A wolf in sheep’s clothing;
• All things must pass;
• All things to all men
• Am I my brother’s keeper?
• An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth;
• As old as Methuselah;
• As old as the hills;
• As white as snow;
• As you sow so shall you reap;
• Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
• At his wits end;
• Baptism of fire;
• Beat swords into ploughshares;
• Bite the dust;
• Blessed are the peacemakers;
• Born again;
• Breath of Life;
• By the skin of your teeth;
• Can a leopard change his spots;
• Cast the first stone;
• Coat of many colours;
• Don’t cast your pearls before swine;
• Dust to dust;
• Faith will move mountains;
• Fall from grace;
• Fat of the land;
• Fight the good fight;
• Fire and brimstone;
• Flesh and blood;
• For everything there is a season;
• Forbidden fruit;
• Forgive them for they know not what they do;
• From strength to strength;
• Get thee behind me Satan;
• Gird your loins;
• Give up the ghost;
• Go the extra mile;
• Good Samaritan;
• Harden your heart
• He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword;
• Heart’s desire;
• How are the mighty fallen;
• In the beginning was the word;
• In the twinkling of an eye;
• It’s better to give than to receive;
• Labour of love;
• Lamb to the slaughter;
• Land of Nod,
• Law unto themselves;
• Let he who is without sin cast the first stone;
• Let not the sun go down on your wrath;
• Let there be light;
• Letter of the law;
• Living off the fat of the land;
• Love of money is the root of all evil;
• Love thy neighbour as thyself;
• Man does not live by bread alone;
• Many are called but few are chosen;
• My cup runneth over;
• My heart’s desire;
• No rest for the wicked;
• Nothing new under the sun;
• O ye, of little faith;
• Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings;
• Patience of Job;
• Pearls before swine;
• Physician heal thyself;
• Pride goes before a fall;
• Put your house in order;
• Reap the whirlwind;
• Skin of your teeth;
• A soft answer turns away wrath;
• Spare the rod and spoil the child;
• Strait and narrow;
• Sufficient unto the day;
• The apple of his eye;
• The blind leading the blind;
• The bread of life;
• The breath of life;
• The fat of the land;
• The fruits of your loins;
• The powers that be;
• The root of the matter;
• The salt of the earth;
• The wages of sin is death;
• The way of all flesh;
• The writing is on the wall;
• Thorn in the flesh;
• Thou shalt not kill;
• Three score and ten;
• To everything there is a season;
• What God has joined together let no man put asunder;
• Weighed in the balance;
• White as snow;
• Wheels within wheels;
• Wisdom of Solomon;
• Woe is me;
• Wolf in sheep’s clothing;
• Reap what you sow.
Being so central to English speech, we are immeasurably enriched by the KJV and, in contrast, undeniably impoverished by neglecting so great a treasure. As the Bible of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, wonderful theological and literary values have been passed on to us. We need to be faithful stewards of the immeasurable treasure. And the resonance and literary power of the KJV makes it the ideal translation from which to memorize Scripture.
Think about it: which would you rather memorize?
Matthew 6:11 (KJV): ‘Give us this day our daily bread’
Matthew 6:11 (The Message): ‘Keep us alive with three square meals’
With so much change and challenge in our world today, the exhortation to ‘prove all things, hold fast to what is good’ (I Thessalonians 5:21) rings as true today as ever.
The KJV has stood the test of time: it’s accuracy, authority, and beauty -- indeed, the anointing upon it -- means that even in the twenty-first century, you can’t go wrong reading and studying from it.
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