What is the story behind the most widely distributed Bible translation?
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
It is found at churches, motels, prisons, courthouses, battlefields, weddings and funerals. Its words have inspired writers from William Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, while its scientific principles about wind and water cycles are understood by meteorologists and oceanographers.
Sailors heed its advice to predict the probability of storms, while musicians from George Frederick Handel to 20th-century pop groups have used its passages to create hits. It has even accompanied astronauts to outer space and Hollywood personalities to the grave.
While some believe it is God’s divinely inspired Word, others assume it is merely a collection of poetry, fables, battle accounts, and platitudes, often employing its sayings without realizing it—telling someone to be “bold as a lion” or “cunning as a serpent,” or that he will “reap what he sows.” Even those who do not believe the Book’s authenticity can recite, “money is the root of all evil” (actually a misquote), “time and chance happen to all,” and there is “nothing new under the sun.”
Undisputedly, the Bible has influenced people across the globe for millennia—whether one is religious- or secular-minded.
One particular translation, however, has withstood the test of time—the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV). Surveys reveal that one third of all Bible versions across the world are King James. In all, more than six billion copies have been published—just over one billion in the United States alone.
The year 2011 marked the 400th anniversary of what has been called a “timeless literary masterpiece.” Celebrations took place around the world, conferences on its creation were held, and numerous movies and books were produced detailing its inception.
“According to Google Insights, a service that compares search volume patterns, the phrase ‘King James Bible’ was searched 9 percent more this year compared to the previous seven-year average…keyword phrases that included either ‘King James Bible’ or ‘King James Version’ were searched more than 2 million times per month,” a press release by kingjamesbibleonline.org stated.
How did this version of the scriptures come into existence—and more important, what significance does it hold today?
The KJV’s origins can be traced to Britain in 1604, where religious strife between Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans caused King James I to order the production of a new Bible translation. He hoped it would settle the groups’ differences and bring peace. He invited scholars, professors and theologians from all sides to participate.
Until that time, the Bible was primarily accessible to clergymen in its original languages (Greek and Hebrew) or Latin. Therefore, lay members who wanted to hear God’s Word had to listen to it being read at churches in Latin, a language most did not understand.
Many Bible translations, such as the Catholic Latin Vulgate and John Calvin’s Geneva Bible, also contained strong theological and political leanings, with opinion-based commentaries. Some who tried to produce their own copies, such as William Tyndale, who created one of the first unofficial English versions, were burned at the stake!
The translation commissioned by King James was intended to make the Bible accessible not only to those who understood Latin, but also to the general English-speaking populace.
On July 22, 1607, work commenced on the KJV. Fifty-seven of the best scholars were chosen for the task. The new work was to be a “literal” word-for-word translation using only the original Hebrew (Masoretic) text and Greek (Byzantine/Revived/Antiochian text) manuscripts.
Scholars were divided into six groups. Three translated the Old Testament, two the New Testament, and another the Apocrypha, which was later discarded.
After each group completed a section, it was submitted to another group of 12 men for review. These individuals added certain words to ensure the text flowed smoothly in the English language. But the words they added were not in the original text, and in some instances, only muddled certain passages. These words remain italicized in print copies today.
Translators worked hard to ensure the KJV could be read in churches, and that those who heard it would understand it. This meant they avoided scholarly language and colloquialisms.
“The translators were instructed to follow strict ‘rules of translation,’…approved by James, designed to minimize the risk of producing a Bible that might give added credibility to Puritanism, Presbyterianism, or Roman Catholicism. The deliberate exclusion of any form of marginal annotations or notes was regarded as a matter of special importance…” author Alister McGrath wrote in his book, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture.
The translation took two years to complete and another nine months to review for accuracy by yet another group of selected scholars. At its completion, it was considered one of mankind’s most amazing mental feats. Its completion signaled the beginning of a chapter in history in which global citizens could, for the first time, live without fear of being killed for simply desiring to read the Bible.
It is believed that a similar effort today could never rival what the more than 50 translators accomplished then—without the help of modern technology. Indeed, in the beginning of the Bible, the translators themselves declared in the preface, “Great and manifold were the blessings…which Almighty God…bestowed upon us the people of England…But among all our joys, there was no one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven.”
But not everyone was happy about King James I’s efforts. During the translation process, he survived an assassination attempt called the Gunpowder Plot.
Finally, in 1611, the KJV was completed. It was designated 95 percent accurate.
Since that time, only minor modifications have been made, many which involved spelling. In the New King James version, “thou,” “thee,” “thine” and “thy” have been replaced with “you,” “your,” “their” and “they.”
In most instances, however, these versions are not as popular: “Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor,” a New York Times editorial stated.
“The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind. And that all 54 of them were able to agree on every phrase, every comma…is little short of amazing…”
Originally, the newly translated Bible was very large—approximately 17 inches tall by 30 inches wide when opened and weighed 30 pounds. Churches that could afford one kept it chained to the front of the pulpit to prevent it from being stolen. According to kingjamesbibleonline.org, about 169 of the original 1611 versions of what is often called “the greatest English Bible ever produced” are still in existence.
As years passed, the KJV became more popular. Exploration led colonizing English-speaking countries to expose other nations to the scriptures.
“Refugees from England, fleeing religious persecution in the seventeenth century, brought copies with them,” author Alister McGrath wrote. “It would be their encouragement on the long and dangerous voyage to the Americas, and their guide as they settled in the New World. Prisoners in English jails found solace in reciting biblical verses they had learned by heart, in the words chosen by the translators assembled by King James. The King James Bible became part of the everyday world of generations of English-speaking peoples, spread across the world. It can be argued that, until the end of the First World War, the King James Bible was seen, not simply as the most important English translation of the Bible, but as one of the finest literary works in the English language.”
Not only is the King James Version regarded as the most accurate translation from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts, it also helped propel the British Empire and the English language to global dominance.
“…the triumph of the King James Bible was not limited to Great Britain…The expansion of British economic and military influence in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was preceded and accompanied by missionary work, based on the King James Bible.”
By the early 1700s and 1800s, nearly every household in America and Great Britain possessed one. British naval explorers, including those who worked for the East India Company, took it with them on voyages to Africa, Australia and New Zealand and introduced it to the natives. The 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, used it to learn to read. It influenced him so much that author A. E. Elmore determined in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer that all but three words of his 10-sentence, 272-word message could be traced in some form to the KJV.
Yet the King James Bible did more for society than simply spread God’s Word—it shaped all English-speaking peoples and those who learned English from it, providing individuals from all walks of life a way to understand the world around them. It defied race, class and religion as never before. Today, it is estimated that the KJV has been translated from English into 2,454 of the world’s 6,500 languages.
Given the intricate methodology and potential miracles that may have occurred to ensure the KJV could be produced, the question is often asked: is it an infallible translation? This is often followed by, “Was it divinely inspired in the first place or is it, (as some say), only ‘platitudes of the ancients’?”
While the theologians and scholars of this undertaking were not inspired in the same way it is believed those who recorded the Bible were, the translators were highly dedicated and educated individuals who did the best they could with what they were given.
No translation from one language to another is 100 percent accurate. The KJV, however, is the most reliable and therefore recommended as one’s main study Bible. Other more modern translations may be somewhat helpful in clarifying certain verses, but they often contain doctrinal errors because they are based on personal interpretations.
A few translation errors that can be found in the KJV are worth noting. One is use of the term “Holy Ghost,” also translated “Holy Spirit.”
During the King James era, both renderings meant the same thing. Inconsistency with using both terms, however, has led many to believe they are two different spirits. “Ghost” is an archaic translation of the Greek word pneuma which means “breath” and is properly translated “spirit” in Luke 11:13, Ephesians 1:13, and Ephesians 4:30.
In Acts 12:4, the word “Easter” was used in a subtle attempt to sanction the ancient pagan festival: “And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
The Greek word translated Easter is pascha, and is derived from the Hebrew word for “Passover.” Pascha always means Passover—never Easter. Some translations, such as the Revised Standard Version translate this correctly as Passover. (For a more detailed explanation, read The True Origin of Easter.)
Another error is found in I John 5:7-8: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”
The Critical and Experimental Commentary states that this verse was not found in the Latin Vulgate until the eighth century. Adam Clarke’s Commentary concludes, “…it is likely that this verse is not genuine.” (To learn why, read The Trinity – Is God Three-in-One?)
Although these and a few other minor discrepancies are found in the KJV, it is still useful for study since many Bible tools such as Strong’s Concordance, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, and others are based on the KJV, and can help uncover such errors.
Given these facts, then, is the Bible, including the KJV, really the word of God—and if so, how can one be sure?
This most important question is tied to the equally relevant question, “Is there a Creator God?”
Clearly, the scriptures cannot be valid unless a Divine Being inspired them. The booklet Does God Exist? explains this in detail and leaves no doubt that there is indeed a Creator.
Equally verifiable is the Bible. But how can one know for sure that books recorded by men are inspired by God? One of the greatest proofs revolves around the production of the most popular version of the Book itself.
Stop and consider the impact the King James Version has had over the centuries. It has influenced great civilizations in aspects of art, culture, literature, politics and religion. It has taught about “the powers that be,” “the blind leading the blind,” the “eye of a needle” and the “salt of the earth,” among many other concepts.
Without the assistance of the KJV, Martin Luther King could not have given such a powerful speech, Abraham Lincoln may not have been able to unite a country as successfully, and many schoolchildren might not have as many literary classics, including Robinson Crusoe and Jane Eyre, to read today.
In fact, without the production of the King James Bible, there may never have been a way for the public at large to read God’s Word. The influence of state-sanctioned religion over politics may have maintained such a tight grip on the original biblical text that people would not have been able to experience the religious freedom they do now.
Before King James I ordered a new translation, printing the Bible in any other tongue than Latin was punishable by death. Yet, following the Book’s printing, the Bible became accessible to clergy and lay members.
Because people could read for themselves—instead of relying on established religion—they yearned to worship as they pleased. This led to the founding principle in the first amendment of the United States constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The New World’s religious freedom was no accident. It paved the way to fulfill Scripture itself, as evidenced by Christ’s own words. In Matthew 24:14, He stated that God’s Word would go to the whole world: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
Many who read the Bible consider the stories contained within it, starting with the Creation account, to be helpful fables. Others see it as a book about the life and death of Jesus, whom, if they believe on, will allow them to go to heaven. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, are considered to be full of practical wisdom and morals, which if adhered to and applied, can greatly assist a reader’s life.
While God’s Word is a historical record of ancient times and contains wisdom about how one should conduct himself, it also holds the greatest message of hope for humanity—that Christ is coming to establish a kingdom on Earth to be ruled by those who learn His ways and obey Him now. This is the gospel that He preached. (See Matthew 4:23 and 9:35, and Mark 1:15.)
While people had bibles they could read for themselves, controversy over the exact definition of the gospel resulted in much confusion. Why?
In Which Is the True Gospel? David C. Pack writes, “Jesus commanded, ‘Repent you, and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). But exactly what is it that we—YOU—are supposed to believe? Just what is the true gospel? Do you know? Are you certain? Be careful of assumptions.”
“The vast majority of professing Christians do not know the vital—all-important—answers to these most basic questions, and many others related to the true gospel of the Bible! This is because the knowledge of what the gospel really is has been hidden from the world for centuries!
“Christ, at His First Coming, came as a first-century newscaster, bringing advance good news of staggering events to occur just beyond the horizon, and all the bad news occurring throughout today’s world. This climactic news involves you—and eventually every human being on Earth!”
Did you realize this?
The production of the King James translation first made the ability for all English-speaking people to read the Bible possible. Since that time, God’s servants throughout the years have been using it to preach the same good news that He did.
Yet most people do not believe what His inspired Book says. Another publication by Mr. Pack Bible Authority…Can It Be Proven? speaks to this misconception.
“Everyone wants to know what the future holds. In ever-increasing numbers, people are seeking psychics, ‘channelers,’ tarot card and palm readers, fortunetellers, crystal ball gazers and every other medium to tell them what is going to happen. And they pay for this ‘service.’ Yet, few go to the one infallible source, which foretells all the important events that will soon come upon the entire world.
“Few understand that nearly one-third of the Bible is prophecy—that it is a history book written in advance of the history that it records.”
Mr. Pack further states, “Fulfilled prophecy proves the divine authority of the Bible. No human can foretell events, let alone in great detail, to occur hundreds or thousands of years beyond his own lifetime. No person can affect the course of cities, states or kingdoms for centuries to come. For this reason, it has been said that prophecy is the challenge that the skeptics dare not accept!”
Do you dare take God’s challenge to prove the Bible—now available to you in your own language through the King James Version—and live what you learn?
To more fully confirm the validity of the Bible for yourself, read Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?