Thursday, April 28, 2011

A History of the King James Bible

May 1 marks the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. In honor of the occasion, I will be posting some articles on the Bible, Bible Translation, and the authority of the Bible. This is the first in the series.

The Old Testament has 39 books which were written in primarily in Hebrew, although some portions of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic. By the 3rd century BC, many Jewish people were no longer living in Israel. As a result, for many of them, Hebrew was not their native tongue. A work was begun to translate the Old Testament into the common language, which at that time was Greek. This Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint. We do not know a lot about the history behind this translation. However, we do know that it became very popular. When the New Testament writers quote from the Old Testament, they often use the Septuagint.

All 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek because Greek was the common language of the day.

The Latin Vulgate

By the 4th century AD, few people spoke Greek any more. In order to make the Bible accessible to the people, the church authorized Jerome to translate the whole Bible into Latin. There were some Latin versions already available, but none of them were complete and may not have been the most accurate. Jerome was uniquely qualified for this task because he was one of the few Christians who not only could read Greek (the New Testament) but also Hebrew (the Old Testament. His translation of the Bible was called the Vulgate. The word “Vulgate” comes from the same Latin word from which we get the word vulgar. This does not mean the translation is crude. Rather, it means common. The Latin Vulgate was a translation of the Bible into the common tongue.

Just as the Greek language passed away, so did Latin. However, instead of translating the Bible into modern languages, as the church had done with the Vulgate, the church insisted that the Latin Vulgate (itself a translation) was the official version. The church was concerned that, if the Bible was translated into the common language, people would come up with interpretations that were contrary to the official position of the church. So, in order to protect the teaching authority of the church, the church refused to translate the Bible into the common language and even banned modern translations. Even though nobody spoke Latin, church services were still conducted in Latin and the Bible was still read in Latin. Sadly, the Vulgate, which was meant to be a translation to make the Bible accessible to the people, became a tool to keep the Bible from the people.

Back to the Originals

The Renaissance (14th – 17th centuries) brought a revival of learning to Europe. With this, there was a renewed interest in studying the classical writings in Greek and Latin. This also created a renewed interest in reading the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) rather than in the Latin translation. This was one of the factors that led to the great revival of the church we now call the Protestant Reformation.

One of the scholars who developed a keen interest in reading the New Testament in the original Greek was named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). However, Erasmus and other scholars were facing a challenge. As with all ancient documents, the original copies of the New Testament books no longer existed. Instead, there were various ancient copies, or manuscripts, scattered around the world. At this time, no one had a complete New Testament in the original Greek. So, Erasmus decided that he would gather the evidence and put together a New Testament in the Greek based on the best available copies.

At the same time Erasmus was putting together his edition of the Greek text, Cardinal Ximenes in Spain was working on one as well. According to some historians, there was some pressure on Erasmus to get his work to the publisher first. Consequently, he rushed the project, resulting in numerous typographical errors in the original printing. Also, there were some places where Erasmus did not have any copies of Greek manuscripts. In order to complete his Greek New Testament, he translated from the Latin back into the Greek. In the process, he created some Greek words that do not exist anywhere else. Some of these stayed in the Greek text (later called the Textus Receptus) and were used as the foundation for parts of subsequent translations of the Bible, including the King James Version.

Despite its flaws, Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was a tremendous advance in helping the church return to the Bible. Over time, others edited and improved Erasmus’ text. In 1633, the publishers marketed the Greek text by claiming, “you hold the text, now received by all, in which nothing corrupt.” This is how Erasmus Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text. It then served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and even served as the foundation for the King James Version in English.

Early English Versions

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English. While there is some evidence that other parts of the Bible had been translated into English before Wycliffe, he was the first to translate the whole Bible. The English of the 1300’s was very different from the English of today or even the 17th century when the King James Version was translated. Here is how Wycliffe translated John 3:16: “For God louede so the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.”

In 1526, William Tyndale, inspired by what Luther had done in translating the Bible into German, published his translation of the New Testament in English based on Erasmus’ text. Because the Roman Catholic Church was still in control of England, Tyndale’s Bible was not authorized and, like Wycliffe’s Bible before it, was banned. Tyndale was martyred in 1536 for his work in bringing the Bible to the people.

Tyndale never finished translating the Old Testament. One his disciples, Myles Coverdale, together with John Rogers, completed the work. In 1535, the Coverdale Bible, as it became known, was the first complete English version of the Bible ever published. It is safe to say that no man has had more influence on the English Bible and the English language than William Tyndale. His work became the foundation for all future English translations, including the King James Bible.

By 1539, Henry VIII was on the throne. He had broken with the Catholic Church. As a result, the people were now free to read the Bible in their own language. Coverdale was then hired by Thomas Cramner to publish an English Bible for public use. This was the first authorized English version. It became known as The Great Bible, primarily because of its large size—it measured over 15 inches tall.

In 1553, Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, ascended to the throne in England. Under her reign, the Protestants once again suffered great persecution. During this time, John Rogers and Thomas Cramner were both burned at the stake. Myles Coverdale fled to Geneva, the home of the great Reformer, John Calvin. In 1560, they published a new English Bible, known as the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible had notes in the margins, much like today’s modern study Bibles. It also was the first English version to add chapter and verse numbers. The chapter and verse divisions that it used are now the standard for Bibles today. The Geneva Bible retained most of Tyndale’s original translation.

After the death of Queen Mary, the Protestants were able to return to England and the English Bible was allowed to be read openly. However, some of the English clergy did not like the distinctly Calvinistic and anti-establishment notes of the Geneva Bible. So, in 1568, they published a revised version of The Great Bible, which became known as The Bishop’s Bible. However, this Bible never became very popular. It seemed that people preferred the Geneva Bible.

The King James Version

In 1604, the Puritan clergy approached King James about producing a new English translation to replace the authorized Bishop’s Bible. The king accepted their proposal, but rejected their involvement. He did not like the Calvinistic spirit of the Geneva Bible (the very thing the Puritans liked). There is some evidence that his primary concern was that the Geneva Bible was undermining his authority as well as the teachings of the Anglican Church.

Even though this became the official translation of the Church of England, it was not warmly received by the people. There was just as much controversy surrounding it as today’s modern translations. The Puritans, including those who came to America, as well as other non-conformists, continued to use the Geneva Bible. Even when the English stopped printing the Geneva Bible, people continued to smuggle new copies in from Amsterdam. However, in the 18th century, The King James Bible became the exclusive Bible for most churches in the English speaking world.

Over the years, the King James Bible has undergone revisions. In fact, there were so many revisions by different printers that in 1769, a new Standard Text was released. In fact, even though there are printings of King James Versions that claim to be the 1611 edition most likely are the Standard Text of 1769. While the text of 1769 differs from the 1611 version in about 24,000 places, most of these are changes in spelling.

The King James Bible was, and still is, a masterful translation. It is not as literal as some of our modern versions, like the New American Standard (NASB) or the English Standard Version (ESV), but might be considered more literal than the New International Version (NIV). Yet, it captures the beauty and the original text in ways that no other English translation has done to date. It has shaped our language and our religious practices. For many in the English speaking world, passages like the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer do not sound right unless one uses the form of the King James Version. Just like the Latin Vulgate and other translations that had gone before, some people—even to this day—believed that the King James Bible is the only inspired and proper Bible.

Since the English language has changed a great deal since 1611 (and even 1769), the King James Bible is not the best translation for most modern readers. However, we can all be thankful for the remarkable impact it has had on the church and the English speaking world.


Some of the material in this article comes from notes dating back to my college and seminary days. As a result, I no longer know the original source of the information. However, much of this data can be gathered from the following sources:

Bruce, F. F., History of the Bible in English

The King James Bible Trust,

Metzger, Bruce and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament.

Ryken, Leland, The Legacy of the King James Bible

Silva, Moises, Introduction to the New Testament, lectures given at Westminster Theological Seminary, available on ITunesU or

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