The King James Bible
The intention of the King James Bible was to provide a ‘middle way’ version that was more completely grounded in the original languages than the Church of England’s Bishops’ Bible was, and that was less controversially annotated in the sometimes radically Protestant sense of the Geneva Bible. Thereby it was hoped that a genuinely common Bible would be made available, to be used both in church services and for private study, so that more ‘uniformity’ would be engendered.
While the idea was not his, the catalyst was James VI & I (1566-1625). His Scottish experience allegedly caused him to be uncomfortable with the Geneva Bible – Presbyterians had used its notes against his preference for bishops and his frustrated desire to impose royal authority in the Church of Scotland.
The project took seven years to complete. Forty-seven linguists were involved, coordinated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft (1544-1610). Preliminary drafts took three years, then the remainder was spent refereeing and reaching consensus before publication in May of 1611.
The Bible’s prestige was already announced in its title: The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New: Newly Translated … by his Majesties special commandement. Appointed to be read in Churches. The new Bible contained a flattering dedication to the King, as well as an address to readers justifying and explaining the translation as building on the noble work of pioneers and predecessors. The modest aim was to ‘make out of many good ones one principal good one’, using all resources currently available.
The revision was comprehensive – compared to the Bishops’ Bible there are 6,361 textual differences, while in the margins, a further 8,500 alternatives and variants are offered. Its translation was based on previous English versions (mostly Tyndale), better original language texts, commentaries of Jewish rabbis, recent new Latin translations, and other modern language versions.
The new version imposes on the Bible a uniform style of language – in part because it was explicitly designed for reading aloud at church services. Literary beauty and ‘niceness in words’ was shunned. Also avoided was the plain, straightforward, spoken English of the Geneva Bible. Instead, the English was old-fashioned, using ‘which’ instead of ‘who’, ‘speaketh’ instead of ‘speaks’, ‘thereof’, and so on. It was conservative and solemn to enhance authority and obedience. Yet it did also create new words, such as ‘amazement’, and mediated over 200 new idioms to English, such as ‘the skin of my teeth’, ‘fall flat on your face’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘filthy lucre’ etc.
On publication, the King James Bible was generally welcomed, although denounced by some; it did not immediately receive the acclaim or exclusive status that came its way later. While King James had envisaged a Bible sanctioned by the universities, the bishops, the Privy Council, and royal authority, the ‘Authorized Version’ was in fact never formally authorized by any Church or state authority. Not even parish churches were instructed to procure it.
The King James Bible’s modern reputation as ‘the authorized version’ derives from the period after 1769, when a standardized edition, with modernized spelling and punctuation, was produced. All future editions up to the present day replicate this 1769 text and it is only from that time that its iconic, sacrosanct and immutable status as the eternal Word of God in English and as a cultural treasure of ‘superb literature’ derives.