Christian Living

Spiritual Life

The Story Behind the King James Version

The King James Version (KJV) is a word-for-word (formal equivalence) translation that was first published in A.D. 1611. The translation was "authorized" by King James I in England, and is thus known as the Authorized Version (The Apocrypha refers to fourteen or fifteen books of doubtful authenticity and authority that the Roman Catholics decided belonged in the Bible sometime following the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) canonized these books). The overall goal was to produce a better translation than any other then in existence, a translation that could be understood by common people. Contrary to many modern translations, the KJV does not utilize gender-inclusive language. It has an approximate reading grade level of 12.

The KJV is unquestionably the most widely printed and distributed Bible in human history. It was "appointed to be read in churches." Given the support and endorsement of King James I, this version of the Bible was virtually destined for success and wide dissemination. It has been a classic and a standard for some three centuries now.

The Story Behind the Translation

James VI of Scotland took over the English throne from the Tudors in A.D. 1603. He was promptly crowned King James I of England. At that time, the number of English translations of the Bible caused disunity in the kingdom.

In January of 1604, James I called a conference of theologians and churchmen at Hampton Court in order to hear and then resolve things that were amiss in the church. He sought to deal with ecclesiastical grievances of all sorts. A number of those present pressed the new king for a new translation—one that would take the place of both the Geneva Bible and the Bishops' Bible (so named because a group of Anglican bishops revised it), as well as thwart the Catholic challenge symbolized by the Douai-Rheims Bible. The actual proposal for a new translation came from a Puritan, Dr. John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. King James I was agreeable to the proposal.

Not everyone was initially open to the new translation, however. There were some from more conservative expressions of the Christian faith who initially resisted publication of the KJV. These were unwilling to accept anything rooted in the official Church of England, or produced under the auspices of the king (1).

Translation Philosophy and Procedure

The KJV is a word-for-word translation—though, many would say, not unbendingly so. In producing this translation, there were six panels of translators appointed by King James I, two meeting at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. A total of 54 translators were involved in the project, and began their work in 1604. Of these six panels, two oversaw the translation of the New Testament, three oversaw the translation of the Old Testament, and one oversaw the translation of the Apocrypha. The six groups worked separately, and once their work was complete, it was sent to the other panels for comment and revision. The chief members of the six panels then met to make final decisions on all suggested revisions (2).

The translation procedure was based upon fifteen rules that were given to the team of 54 translators. For instance, the first rule states: "The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops' Bible, [was] to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit." The sixth rule stipulates that no marginal notes be affixed "but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be express'd in the text." All 54 translators adhered to all fifteen rules.

The original Preface of the KJV tells us that the goal of the translation team was not to make "a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one." So, dependence on the work of previous translators is acknowledged. The original title page of the KJV even states that it was made "with the former translations diligently compared and revised." (3)

Even though various preexisting translations contributed to the King James Version, it is primarily William Tyndale's work that is most pervasive. A 1998 scholarly analysis concluded that Tyndale's words account for 84 percent of the New Testament and 75 percent of the Old Testament books he translated. As one scholar put it, "His genius as a translator shines through in page after page and phrase after phrase (4)." Scholars agree that the KJV is at its very best when it keeps its wording close to that of Tyndale. It is at its worst when it does not. One linguistic critic lamented that in the KJV, "portions of those parts of the Old Testament that Tyndale did not translate, particularly in the prophetic books, are close to unintelligible (5)." (Job and parts of Isaiah are poorly translated.)

The King James translators avoided including interpretive marginal notes, but did include marginal notes with alternative translations of Greek words that have a range of possible meanings. Some today find this significant, especially in regard to the debate with KJV-only proponents (some people believe the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible), some of whom believe the precise wording of the King James Version was directed by the very hand of God. The fact that the KJV translators acknowledged possible alternative translations would seem to undermine this position.

The KJV generally renders God's Old Testament name, YHWH (or Yahweh), as LORD, using small capital letters. Interestingly, however, the KJV uses the term "Jehovah" for YHWH four times: Exodus 6:3, Psalm 83:18, Isaiah 12:2, and Isaiah 26:4. When the term Adonai Yahweh occurs in the Old Testament, it is rendered as LORD God.

The KJV translators began each verse on a new line. The beginning of each paragraph was marked with a pilcrow—¶ in the 1611 publication. Interestingly, however, these pilcrow marks disappeared after Acts 20:36. (One wonders of the printer just ran out of pilcrows.)

Since its initial publication, the King James Version has undergone three revisions, incorporating more than 100,000 changes. The most careful and comprehensive revision was published in 1769. The KJV is well known for its archaic language, using such terms as Thee, Thou, and ye, and verbs often ending in "-eth" and "-est" (loveth and doest). This is one reason some love the KJV. The language seems so elegant.

Unsurpassed in Beauty

A notable benefit of the King James Version is that it is virtually unsurpassed in poetic beauty. In fact, no other version comes near the literary beauty and elegance of the KJV. Yet, despite such modern sentiments, the truth is that the KJV was written in the everyday language of 1611 and was engineered to be understood by the common people. Of course, back in those days, the majority of people could not read or write, and hence most people came to love the KJV through its public readings.

Many of the translational phrases in the KJV are highly recognizable and highly memorable. Consider this representative selection:

  • "And God said, Let there be light, and there was light" (Genesis 1:3).
  • "Ye are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13).
  • "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7).
  • "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20).
  • "God shall wipe away all tears from there eyes" (Revelation 7:17).

It is also interesting to observe that a number of current English idioms are actually rooted in the King James Version. For example, in the KJV we find reference to the following:

  • "fall flat on your face" (Numbers 22:31).
  • "escape by the skin of my teeth" (Job 19:20).
  • "a fly in the ointment" (Ecclesiastes 10:1).
  • "pride goes before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).
  • "sour grapes" (Ezekiel 18:2).
  • "pour out your heart" (Psalm 62:8). (6)

It has well been said that the combination of the King James Version and Shakespeare's writings together are responsible for over half of all our language's clichés and stock phrases. (7)

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