London, UK - It had a modest print run, sold loose-leaf for 10 shillings or bound for 12, and was riddled with errors, misplaced words and typos. But when published in London in 1611, a new English Bible, stamped with the royal imprimatur of King James, would change history.
With its classical style and the majestic cadences of its poetry and prose, echoing Shakespeare and Milton, the King James Version remains the gold standard among Bibles, 400 years after its first appearance.
Though supplanted by dozens of other versions that employ less archaic language, the King James Bible has burrowed into the English-speaking consciousness.
It’s “barely possible” to overstate its significance, penned writer Verlyn Klinkenborg recently to mark its publishing anniversary.
It’s been a staple of Protestant churches (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians use other Bibles that contain the Apocrypha, or additional books of the Old Testament). Hundreds of millions have been sold. By the end of the 17th century, probably until the mid-20th, it was simply the Bible, or as it’s also called, the Authorized Version.
“It certainly has taught us how to read and write beautifully,” said Pearce Carefoote of the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, which will exhibit some 90 historic English Bibles in a show marking the KJV’s anniversary.
Running from Feb. 7 to June 3, and six years in the planning, the exhibit will showcase a very rare 1611 King James Version and a host of other important English Bibles through history. The last time an original KJV was exhibited in Canada was 100 years ago.
A news release from the library notes that “within a generation, the KJV’s mellifluous prose and poetry became synonymous with scripture itself, so much so that, down to the present day, there are still some who would assert, without the least sense of irony, that God’s word is revealed in neither Hebrew nor Greek, but in late Elizabethan English.”
While it’s important not to view the KJV in isolation because it drew from earlier Bibles, Carefoote acknowledges that it and Shakespeare have had “the greatest effect” on English prose.
Known as “the Peacemaker King,” James I, who had been King James VI of Scotland, was eager to calm religious strife between Puritans who strove for a plain faith stripped of ornaments and frills, and the Church of England, which still closely resembled the Roman Catholic Church. James pined for “a society in which all conflicting demands were reconciled and all factions felt at home.”
One of the conflict’s roots was that the warring camps used different scriptures — the Geneva Bible for the Puritans and the Bishops’ Bible for the Church of England — with each proclaiming the superiority of their text. So, in 1604, the king announced a conference at Hampton Court Palace, and the idea of a new translation of the Bible.
James assembled 47 of the day’s top religious scholars, all members of the Church of England. Their purpose, they wrote, was not to write a new translation of the Bible, but “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” They had plenty from which to work.
St. Jerome, a monk, translated the Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek around 400 CE. Known as the Vulgate, it served the church for about 1,000 years.
Working from the Vulgate, Oxford theologian John Wycliffe began a Bible translation into English, a task completed by his students around 1388. Another reformer, William Tyndale, scored the first printed English translation of the New Testament in 1526. Working directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts, his was a plain and vigorous English, designed to make the work accessible to “the boy that driveth the plough.”
Some 3,000 of Tyndale’s translations were printed in Germany. Many were smuggled into England, where most were seized and burned as heretical, and Tyndale himself was burned at the stake in Belgium. But the scholars who laboured for seven years under James’s royal mandate must have found his words inspiring: It’s estimated that 80 per cent of Tyndale’s translation was incorporated into the KJV.
It wasn’t universally popular: Puritans disliked it, scholars delighted in pointing out its errors, and the public had a prior loyalty to the more highbrow Geneva version of 50 years earlier.
But the new KJV opened the eyes of many ordinary folks because it was published in straightforward English — for its day. By 1700, it was effectively unchallenged as the English translation used in Anglican and other Protestant churches. It would go on to supplant the Latin Vulgate as the standard version of scripture for English-speaking scholars and the literate masses.
The King James Version is still in use today, although it has been overtaken by more modern, easier-to-understand versions.
“There is a desire on part of churches, understandably, that language not be frozen in terms of how people pray because the individual’s language has not been frozen,” said Carefoote. “Shakespeare can be appreciated for his poetry and beauty of prose, but it’s not the language you use when you speak to God.”
Adam Nicolson, author of God’s Secretaries: The Making Of The King James Bible, laments the decline. “It is impossible now to experience in an English church the enveloping amalgam of tradition, intelligence, beauty and clarity of purpose, intensity of conviction and plangent, heart-gripping godliness which is the experience of page after page of the King James Bible,” he wrote.
Although it is now less popular than the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, there is still “a fairly good demand” for the KJV, said Joel Coppieters, director of production and distribution for the Canadian Bible Society.
Between 10 and 15 per cent of the society’s English business consists of the King James, said Coppieters, whose Bible society is working with its British counterpart to publish a 400th anniversary edition.
The special issue will highlight many of the KJV’s phrases, traced back to Tyndale, that have crept into the English language: “giving up the ghost,” “my brother’s keeper,” “salt of the earth,” “scapegoat,” “filthy lucre,” “sign of the times,” and many others.
The Bible pioneers Wycliffe and Tyndale were banished as heretics for daring to “change” God’s words so commoners could understand them. So why did the KJV succeed?
“There were enough scholars and clergy who had become convinced of the need to get the Bible into the hands of the commoners,” explained Coppieters. “When the king sent his edict out, there was a feeling he was jabbing a stick in the eye of the Pope. He knew the Pope didn’t want this done, and [the KJV] emphasized yet another difference between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.
“A lot of scholars and clergy in the Church [of England] saw this as a great spiritual opportunity, and they didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”