• Jul 6, 2015

Close up on the King James Bible

By Maddie Gaw

The King James Bible was first published more than 400 years ago, and while numerous other English translations have been published since its debut, hardly any other version has eclipsed it in popularity. According to recent studies, more than half of Americans who read the Bible read the King James Version. Even non-religious or non-Christian members of the English-speaking world frequently quote the King James Version—even if they don’t know it! Let's take a look at how the seminal translation came to be, and why it continues to endure.


A personal Bible that people could own and read was a relatively modern concept in the history of the Christian faith. Prior to the invention of the printing press around the mid-1400s, there was no existing way to mass-produce individual copies of scripture. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church did not ban English translations of the Bible outright, but they were naturally suspicious of translators who criticized Church doctrine. Many who advocated for English translations were also advocates for reform to the Roman Catholic Church, and were tried and punished as heretics.

The most influential English translation in this mold was the William Tyndale Bible, first published around 1526. William Tyndale was a great scholar who was fluent in at least six languages and translated his Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew texts, rather than the official Latin translation used by the Roman Catholic Church. The Tyndale Bible was noted for its clear and lucid language, but it was banned in England for what were considered heretical and anti-Church views.  Nevertheless, Tyndale’s translation was the basis for several official English Bibles that followed—including the King James Bible.


In January, 1604, King James I of England called for the Hampton Court Conference in response to the Millenary Petition, which was petition signed by 1,000 Puritans that requested certain changes be made to the Church of England. The conference addressed many of the grievances expressed in the petition. A Puritan scholar in attendance, Doctor John Reynolds, made another suggestion: that there needed to be a new, official English translation of the Bible for all English Christians to share.

King James supported the idea—mostly to give the Puritans a win, since he’d ignored many of their other demands—and soon commissioned a new translation of the entire Bible, which would be the only version authorized to be read in the Church of England. 47 of the best biblical scholars from the Puritan and Anglican schools of thought were selected to complete the translation. Officially, the base text for the Authorized Version was the Bishop’s Bible, which had been commissioned under Queen Elizabeth I, but modern scholars have suggested that over 90% of the Authorized Version came directly from the Tyndale Bible.

First published in 1611, the Authorized Version, or the King James Version as it would come to be known, didn’t achieve full recognition until many years later. Initial reception was mild to disinterested, and many people didn’t see the point of a new translation. In 1769, a slightly revised version, with updated spelling and punctuation, was released, and public opinion suddenly shifted, and the King James Version was recognized as a major literary and religious achievement. 


The original translators who worked on the King James Version were not very concerned with the Bible’s literary reputation—which is ironic, since many consider the King James Version’s literary style its greatest aspect. One writer estimates that it coined more than 250 idioms that have slipped into everyday speech. Those include: sour grapes; drop in a bucket; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry; and my brother’s keeper. That’s about twice the number of phrases that William Shakespeare introduced to the English language. 

In the 20th century, several new translations of the Bible followed—The Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, and others—and with them there have been some changes; the eliminating of archaic ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and the inclusion of more gender-neutral language. But with all the changes, some argue that newer Bibles feel…well, less godly than the King James Version. There is even a modern King James Only movement, who supports the KJV as the only true version of the Bible—truer even than the Bibles it was based on.