Happy Birthday KJV

“Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou?  whom seekest thou?  She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” Did you read the resurrection story yesterday from John’s gospel? Did it sound like this? 

When was the last time you read the King James Version of the Bible? It may have been a while, yet every day we unknowingly use phrases from the KJV that have become a natural part of the English language. Did you know that the official 400th birthday of the King James Version is a week from today, May 2? Coupled with the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on Friday, this next week will be an historic time, as citizens of the United Kingdom and Commonweath realms eat, drink, and be merry.

The King James Version of the Bible is the best selling book in history and has had more influence over the English language than any other book. Can you imagine a 400 year old book selling millions of copies a year in hundreds of different versions, not to mention the 75 million KJV Bibles donated by the Gideons every year (it is better to give than receive). Even though many of those Bibles are not read every day, the KJV is not a drop in the bucket buthas been the center of the religious culture of English speaking people for 4 centuries. If you google “King James Version,” you will find over 7 million results to the ends of the earth. 

I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by Gordon Campbell on the King James Version a few weeks ago at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester in England, was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write The Bible; The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011.

King James was actually James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Queen Mary as King of England in 1603. As the first king over both Scotland and England, knowing that a house divided against itself cannot stand and needing to solidify his rule as a Scottish outsider, James I convened a 3 day conference of Bishops and Puritans in 1604 at Hampton Court Palace. The root of the matter for the Puritans was their concern about vestiges of Catholic ceremony in the Church of England. James I did not bow to the Puritans and change any liturgical practices but decided instead to commission a new Bible. At the time there were 2 standard Bibles, the Geneva Bible, which was used in Scotland, and the Bishop’s Bible, which was used in England. The intent of the king was not to produce an entirely new translation but to make the Bishop’s Bible better.

James set up 6 committees of scholars (all men) at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey. 3 committees worked on the Old Testament, 2 on the New Testament, and 1 on the Apocrypha. These 47 scholars and theologians (many are called but few are chosen) spent 7 years going through the Bishop’s Bible line by line, by the sweat of their brow, making use of their Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, and Ethiopian language skills to produce the highest standards of translation. All 6 drafts eventually went to a revision committee of 12 men, who met in London for 20 months to finalize the King James Bible. Never again in human history would there be such a scholarly process and labour of love. Some interesting facts emerged.

  • James decided that there would be no commentary included in the King James Bible because the annotations in the Geneva Bible were perceived to be disrespectful of kings, and James would have none of that in his translation.
  • All the translation meetings were held in Latin to produce an English Bible!
  • The translators drew heavily on the previous work of William Tyndale. Almost 80% of the KJV originated with Tyndale.
  • The King James Bible was primarily meant to be read in worship and at home and for memorizing. Not until the 18th century did people begin to read the Bible silently.
  • There was an emphasis on the use of monosyllables, which gave rhythm to the Bible and enabled listeners to better understand the text. 
  • Anyone who reads the KJV will immediately note the use of the archaic “thee” and “thou.” Oddly, at the time the KJV was written, “thee” was the familiar form for God and for people, and “you” was the deferential form. The translators decided not to use formal language for God, and on the street, using “thee” for God would have seemed overly familiar. After the KJV was produced, however, “you” gradually became the more familiar form of addressing people in England and “thou” was more respectful.

The first edition of the King James Bible was published by the king’s printer in 1611, but the May 2 date is an urban myth with no evidence to back it up.  Unfortunately, many of the early editions had numerous misprints, flies in the ointment which gave rise to nicknames for these Bibles. There were both “He” and “She” Bibles published in 1611. In the “He” Bible Ruth 3:15 reads, “he went into the city,” (referring to Boaz), whereas the “She” Bible reads “she went into the city” (referring to Ruth).

In the “Judas” Bible, a misprint has Judas asking the disciples to come with him to Gethsemane instead of Jesus (Matthew 26:36). One edition misprinted “and” as “aud” 350 times because an apprentice likely held the type upside down. Some editions refer to “Chkist our Lord” instead of Christ. In the Vinegar Bible, the heading of Luke 20 was “the parable of the vinegar” instead of “the vineyard.”

Unfortunately, some of the misprints were deliberate and embarrassing, a result of sour grapes competition between publishers. In the so-called Wicked Bible, the “not” was removed from the 7th commandment in Exodus, thus requiring adultery. Also, the last word in Deuteronomy 5:24, “the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatnesse,” was changed to “and his great asse (pride goeth before a fall).” 

John and Charles Wesley were steeped in the King James Bible although John did produce his own translation of the New Testament. Charles Wesley’s hymns are based on the KJV and were a primary vehicle for teaching the faith to new converts. The KJV also traveled with the Methodist circuit riders to America as they turned the world upside down.

As part of the 400th anniversary of the KJV, British Methodists are in the process of transcribing all 66 books of the Bible by hand to be presented to the 2011 British Methodist Conference in June. Each district (our equivalent of an annual conference) has been assigned certain chapters to transcribe, and many have set up “scriptoriums” in public places such as schools, nursing homes, and shopping centers. What a marvelous John Wesleyan way of witnessing, reaching out, and fighting the good fight, to leave the church and invite non-Methodists to participate in the transcription!  

It could be said today that those who advocate for the King James Bible are like a voice crying in the wilderness. Not only is the language highly outdated, but the discovery of many older biblical texts in the past 400 years renders the accuracy of the KJV a moot point. In addition, most people who seriously study the Bible today are more interested in a translation that is readable and understandable than eloquent and pleasing to the ear. Can a leopard change its spots?

Is the King James Version eventually going to bite the dust?  I suspect not. Even though most English speaking people no longer read the KJV, we hear it in musical works like Händel’s Messiah (Comfort ye, comfort ye my people) and still use it for funerals, inaugurations, and the memorization of favorite passages like the 23rd Psalm and John 3:16.

The KJV is most likely to be read today in African American churches and theologically conservative churches. There is a loosely organized King James Only Movement, and many churches that believe that the KJV is verbally inspired; that is, unlike other translations of the Bible, every single word in the King James Version was dictated by God.

Will William and Kate use the KJV when scripture is read at their wedding? It’s a sign of the times that Kate and William may use a more modern translation in order to appeal to young people. Yet the KJV is not ready to give up the ghost. Perhaps the KJV is revered more than read. When we hear aloud the exquisite poetry and prose of the KJV, however, it engages our heart’s desire. Memorizing Psalm 23 and reciting it with families at the bedside of a loved one who is dying imprints God’s promises deep within our spirits and fortifies us against a harsh world.  

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. 

Happy birthday KJV! It continues to be an amazing life.

What has been your experience with the King James Version? I invite you to share your thoughts. 


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